Blog Post

Why newspapers need to lose the ‘view from nowhere’

Billionaire investor Warren Buffett may be buying newspapers — a move that is probably as much about cash flow and real estate as it is a long-term investment thesis — but he can’t possibly buy them all, and that leaves the rest of the industry struggling to try and confront the issues that are causing their decline. One of those issues is the ongoing disruption in the advertising world, but another is that the product newspapers offer is arguably increasingly out of touch with what readers want. The monolithic, ruthlessly objective, single-voiced editorial style that newspapers have grown so accustomed to doesn’t work in a world where anyone and everyone can be a publisher, a reporter, a columnist or an editorial writer.

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has written often about this problem, which he calls the “View From Nowhere,” and how the attachment not just to objectivity but to a kind of inhuman, artificially-balanced viewpoint is damaging newspapers and their credibility. What’s more, Rosen argues that it is bad for society as well, since it deprives people of the information they need to make important judgments about issues that affect their lives. And what is the “View From Nowhere?” As he put it:

It’s Bill Keller insisting that “torture” is the wrong word for the New York Times to use in describing torture because it involves taking sides in a dispute between the United States Government and its critics. It’s Howard Kurtz suggesting that Anderson Cooper was “taking sides” when he called the lies of the Egyptian government lies… And it’s that lame formula known as he said, she said journalism.

USA Today’s new publisher says more voices are needed

There are signs that at least some newspaper industry insiders are coming to realize this problem: Larry Kramer, a longtime newspaper editor and founder of CBS Marketwatch who was just named publisher of USA Today, has said in interviews that he wants to make the newspaper into much more of a “compendium of multiple voices” rather than one that has a single monolithic voice. As he described it in one interview:

I think both USA Today and CNN for a long time concentrated on the news being the voice. Now I think with Twitter and with all the different ways news is disseminated, people are looking for a little bit more of an interesting take on a story.

In many ways, the “View From Nowhere” developed over time as the newspaper business stopped being about independent voices and became more of a professional phenomenon — in other words, an industry made up of a few large chains owned by corporate conglomerates. Among other things, the practice of objectivity was designed to make these businesses appear less politically controversial and therefore more appealing to advertisers, who were trying to reach a mass market. But just as advertisers seem to be deserting that model, readers are also gravitating towards outlets with strong voices, regardless of whether they happen to be traditional or mainstream sources.

Buzz Bissinger, the reporter and author of Friday Night Lights, put his finger on part of the problem in a recent interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab, when he described how the process of editing that most newspapers still engage in — where a story is read and edited by as many as half a dozen sub-editors — often kills whatever unique voice might have appeared in a story originally:

Newspaper editors are very cautious — too cautious. One of the things that I don’t miss about papers is the constant — as it goes up the food chain, one editor after another, after another, after another, and what happens is it loses its voice. Everyone takes a shot at it. It’s like making a bad movie.

Safe, homogenized, commodity news is not enough

As Kramer and others have noted, the “View From Nowhere” is also connected to another long-held staple of mainstream media, namely the commodity news that makes up much of a newspaper’s stock-in-trade — the story from yesterday, with all the same facts that a dozen other outlets have, with no point of view or added value. This also has to go, says Kramer. “We really can’t survive if all we do is commodity journalism,” he says. “We have to… say things differently [and] help people understand things.”

This is something that others have also argued for some time. Dan Froomkin, a former Washington Post editor and columnist who is now with the Huffington Post, wrote in 2009 that he believed “playing it safe is killing the American newspaper.” With the profusion of sources of information that the internet has created, he said, the last thing anyone needs is another source of voiceless, middle-of-the-road, commodity journalism. Instead of trying to smother or root out personal viewpoints, Froomkin said newspapers should be emphasizing them as much as possible, in order to cut through the noise coming from a thousand other outlets. As he put it:

We’re hiding much of our newsrooms’ value behind a terribly anachronistic format: voiceless, incremental news stories that neither get much traffic nor make our sites compelling destinations. While the dispassionate, what-happened-yesterday, inverted-pyramid daily news story still has some marginal utility, it is mostly a throwback at this point — a relic of a daily product delivered on paper to a geographically limited community.

Larry Kramer’s comments make it sound as though he is considering an end to the “View From Nowhere,” for USA Today at least. Whether any other newspapers choose to take those kinds of steps remains to be seen. But as Jay Rosen points out, changing that kind of decades-old approach to the news “isn’t as simple as hiring a few bloggers or loosening the rules for writers. We’re talking about ideological change within an occupation that sees itself as having no ideology.” And that isn’t something you can fix by putting up a paywall.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Olaf Gradin

Larry Kramer will be moderating a panel featuring Jim Bankoff, chairman & CEO of Vox Media and
John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media at our paidContent 2012 conference on May 23 in NYC

36 Responses to “Why newspapers need to lose the ‘view from nowhere’”

  1. Jeff Mignon

    How much of the content of a local newspaper in America is, on average, original reporting produce by the newsroom? 25% ? 30% ? How much of this content is really local? 10% ? 20%? With so little original local content how newspapers can even imagine 5 minutes that they are going to be a voice in their community?

  2. jensauer

    While the word “journalism” derives from the word “journal”–which suggests personality and intimacy– I still believe that the “objective voice” lends credibility to a newspaper, as does fact-checking–two qualities that are sadly missing in tweets, facebook posts, and “look-at-me” personality journalism found on Fox and CNN. My guess is that what audiences seek is intimacy and community. If you can combine that with objectivity, then you’ve got the magic in your publication. Think local, issue-oriented stories with real voices speaking for themselves and the journalist as narrator.

  3. Muhammad Abd Al-Hameed

    The people the article quotes have ignored the basic fact: most readers do not like shrill voices. They just want to be told what happened, without bias, distortion and personal views. The “voices” will scare him away.

  4. Grace Tenkay

    Mathew, can you provide some links illustrating news from nowhere. You talking about straight news reporting or first person opinion pieces. Not sure I get it.

  5. Mike Donatello

    I think that there are far fewer “ruthlessly objective” publications than you imply. Disconnection from audience wants is manifest in many ways. One of those is perceived editorial bias.

  6. Stan DeVaughn

    Must be careful here. Seems to me that in a world where anybody with a keyboard and delusions of expertise can “report”, the need for authoritative, experienced editing and/or curating is greater than ever. Millions of rants from ax-grinders and bloviating bloggers, each with their own agenda of various wackiness, doesn’t necessarily add up to a good perspective on anything. And any news outlet trying to be all things to all people will end up what you say failed newspapers are today: nothing useful to anyone.

  7. mike siroky

    I used to ask other editors why they thought they had to change things. An editor must edit. Many of these editors came and went. The writers remained and some of their stories were made worse by the interim editors in the chain. Headlines, of course, can also improve or dumb down a story. The writers I worked with sometimes grew weary and stopped trying as they knew the work would be altered. when writing, I often did not read the work published under my byeline (once to a great disaster) because I did not want to read the changes. I knew the blogs got popular beause they are true voices, unedited. They have to be accepted as opinioons. One local newspaper which mostly uses correspondents nowadays, nonetheless ends every sptry (correspondent or otherwise) with a disclaimer that the views expressed are thse of the writer and not of the publishing agent. Writers ought to be allowed to refer to a blog somewhere of the original writing. Even as the car careens off the edge time and again, most editors fall back on “well, that’s the way we do it here” even if the way we do it here has been failing for decades.

    • Sylvia Moore

      You know, this shouldn’t be that complicated. A journalist’s job should be to find out who is telling the truth and who is lying and tell the readers so. A politician or government official or talking head should not be able to get away with spouting talking points, untruths and half-truths without being called out on their BS in a story. The mainstream media have been doing false “objectivity” far too long, and it is a disservice to the public. Not only is it a disservice – it’s dangerous. Since when did we as a country accept the term “torture” be relabeled as “enhanced interrogation techniques?” Torture is torture. As a result of false “objectivity,” the public can no longer make properly informed decisions about government policy or political candidates because they are confused. “Objectivity” is just an excuse the media giants use so as not to invest resources into reporting news. It’s cheaper to rehash a press release, throw in a few opposing quotes from the two sides and pass it off as “journalism.” Not every side is equal, nor should be treated as such. The major reason for newspapers’ decline and the rise of false “objectivity” is media consolidation. A handful of companies control the vast majority of what we read and hear. There is little diversity anymore. Other developed countries invest far more in their news sources than we do in America. And newspapers in other countries receive government subsidies to help them stay afloat – something that we would find anathema in America.

      • I see a very broad brush here. I, too, sometimes like to rail at the news media when I have to let off steam. But it’s far too simple to blame the mainstream media — whatever that is — for what we perceive to be poor decisions made by voters and our leaders.

        That broad brush also ignores the excellent work done by many journalists today. Some of that excellent work is done by journalists working for what you refer to as media giants.

        The notion that objectivity or “false objectivity” is at the heart of the news media’s problems seems to be overly broad, as well. Some news outlets should be criticized for the way they use phrases like “torture” or “lies.” But do you want the news media to abandon attempts at being unbiased — which is what journalists try to do when they seek the unattainable goal of objectivity? If so, we may find ourselves in an even more polarized culture, where media companies will tend to lean to the side that offers the greatest economic reward. For now, at least, the most rewarding side of the political spectrum seems to be where Fox News calls home.

  8. mike siroky

    I used to ask other editors why they had the mindset “an editor must edit.” Cannot we accept, I would say, that a writer may actually do a good job and only needs tweaking, not rewrites. The practice dumbs down the writers as well as the stories. I adopted a practice of not reading my own stuff in print unless I was challenged on something and had to read the story to find what was published under my byeline that I had to defend. I often reminded the other editors the “we don;t care we don’t have to, we’re the newspaper” attitude was killing us as much as “well, that’s the way we do it” as the car careened off the cliff time and again. Sometimes, I think, the undedited blogs caught on because they are real voices and not edited voices. A great post.

  9. Point One. How do you know “that the product newspapers offer is arguably increasingly out of touch with what readers want”? Many small dailies and weeklies are flourishing, and online readership at many papers — even those that are struggling financially — is as high as its ever been.
    Point Two. Your argument suggests that readers are a monolithic group whose members all want the same thing from their newspapers. My guess is that different readers want different things.

    • Mike Donatello

      How about this edit: “… the product offered by major metro papers — which account for a lopsided majority of daily readership in the U.S. — is arguably out of touch…”?

  10. As a seasoned journalist and having been a teacher of Journ 101, I find telling reporters that they can express their views in articles a very dangerous proposition. Sure, in theory it may sound good. Maybe reporters who have covered a beat for 10 years have a well-rounded view of their subject, but most reporters working on a daily or hourly deadline don’t. If you give them license to espouse their opinions most likely they will seek out sources that reflect their own opinions. In essence, you end up with an editorial. Striving for objectivity, however elusive it may be, forces reporters to get and give opposing views and hopefully they and their readers will consider them with an open mind. The world isn’t black and white; it’s Technicolor. Readers (and reporters) need to see those colors and opinionated articles only give the former.
    As a news consumer I find it harder and harder to get more objective news due to shrinking newsrooms and, I might add, because so many traditional news organizations are chasing the tails of sensational opinionated outlets. I find the statement that news organizations gravitated toward objective journalism for profit reasons rather ironic because that is exactly what enacting this proposal would do – embrace opinionated pieces in attempt to capture ad dollars being lost to biased news sources. I feel this is not only shortsighted but also dangerous to our society. We are in an intensively polarized period. People need a place to get facts and various sides of an issue in order to come together for solutions.
    As for neutrality being a reason for newspapers decline, well, I don’t buy it. Traditional written news outlets, newspapers, are suffering in large part because of the paradigm shift brought about by technology and their failure to embrace it sooner. Newspapers basically gave away web ads and content for far too long and are now paying the price. Sure, something needs to change in order for traditional news outlets to thrive and it requires, to use a cliché, thinking outside the box, which going back to opinionated articles clearly isn’t.

  11. Morgan

    Well, I am certainly in a minority here. I read the NYT, Reuters, WP, USA Today, Houston Chronicle and the Texas Tribune. The Chronicle uses wire service and articles from other papers, and it’s local articles in the business section express a point of view (i.e. Steffy). But the NYT and WP do do what is being criticized. I think their reporters give a point of view in their articles.
    I am satisfied with the coverage and varied insights by reporters.

  12. Don Armstrong

    It’s not just editors who instill institutional voice into copy, and in my view this isn’t necessarily a problem of industry trends.

    When I was an editor at a national sports magazine with a large contingent of newspaper sportswriter contributors, we pulled our hair out trying to get them to write in the own voice, but their work almost invariably came out in newspeak. When I was an editor at Entertainment Weekly, a job I had been reluctant to accept, I was pleasantly surprised by how insightful the editing and writing was, how idiosyncratic the stories were–a tribute, I think, to the managing editor and, of course, Time Inc.’s resources and prestige.

    Writing is a skill that must be developed over time with arduous practice. It’s not simply a natural impulse. Distinctive writing doesn’t happen just because you set a writer free. Whatever its flaws may be, one advantage of the large, institutional news source is that it creates an environment in which young writers can learn and practice and grow under the tutelage of experienced, and hopefully skilled, elder statesmen. The problem with the new model of media is that there isn’t enough talent or money to go around when “everybody” is writing and reporting. I have reason to believe, for example, that one of the Patch sites got the address and the photograph wrong in a recent report about President Obama having once lived in a nearby neighborhood. It also said that an old man who lived around the corner was, coincidentally, also named Barack Obama.

    There are, I believe, two keys to producing valuable journalism: having writers and editors who know the subject matter well and avoiding formulas, including the idea that giving writers freedom is the key to saving newspapers.

  13. Steven Brill

    Why does anyone, let alone someone as smart at Mathew Ingram, quote anything that Jay Rosen says, let alone glom on to one of his catch-phrases as if it is wisdom?

    Steve Brill

  14. Mark Herman Simon

    It may shock most Americans to know, but by and large outside the US most newspapers are doing just fine in terms of remaining profitable and more importantly being the dominant content players in their markets.

    I would argue that even today in the US it is newspapers that remain the dominant source of news and the internet largely pings off them. (I happen to know the seniors at the Guardian share that opinion).

    As for letting writers run wild. I always think of the advice Dad gave me in my summer jobs about every construction worker thinking the foreman was a moron,,,as Dad said, always consider with caution the wisdom of a guy who works for a moron..

  15. Roland

    US newspapers used to be considered the 4th branch of the US Govt., existing to keep the other 3 branches in line. Now MSM kowtows to the US Govt. for fear of losing access or loss of ’embed’. It’s regulatory capture of a different kind (reverse?). Foreign news sources (Economist) are now the best because they haven’t been co-opted.

  16. Brian Killen

    ‘To try to confront’, not ‘to try and confront’. So I stopped reading. If you missed something so simple what would you have to say about the problems confronting journalism today?

    “Billionaire investor Warren Buffett may be buying newspapers — a move that is probably as much about cash flow and real estate as it is a long-term investment thesis — but he can’t possibly buy them all, and that leaves the rest of the industry struggling to try and confront the issues that are causing their decline. One of those issues is the ongoing disruption in the….”

  17. Chris

    I have to strongly disagree. When I pick up a paper I want to get “the news” fast and factual, not have to wade through a dozen partisan editorials and then try to piece together what actually happened.

    • Anna Tarkov

      Partisan editorials are one thing. Well-researched and well-sourced news stories are another. There is a lot of light between the two. The latter can still give an impression of which view is more truthful or has more evidence backing it up without being a partisan screed. As one of the earlier commenters said, look at The Economist. They give their viewpoint very clearly, but also present everything the reader needs to make up his or her own mind.

  18. Simon

    This is spot-on – the idea of reading a single news publication in the order some editor decided it should be presented is weird to me. It’s also the reason I generally hate Apple’s Newstand and Publisher’s dedicated Apps – I subscribed to a few and found them painful to use so removed them. If I find a publication consistently has good content, I’ll follow them on Twitter or pick up their RSS feed. New discovery generally from Reddit or Twitter users.

  19. I agree. The writer of that front-page article in the NY Times or Washington Post has probably been on his beat for 10 years. He (or she) knows the people involved in the story, their colleagues, the issues at hand.

    He knows that sometimes one persons’ version of the story is far more accurate than someone else’s, but he must pretend that all sides should get equal weight, even while his choice of quotes, and even the decision to run the story in the first place, all come out of some editorial bias or opinion. It’s all a waste of time, and it renders us less effective as voters.

    Let the writers tell us the truth as they see it. Let’s have the benefit of their brains and experience.

    • Mark Rogers

      A problem with writers giving their interpretations is that some of their sources might feel burned and be less inclined to co-operate on future stories. This is why many reporters prefer to leave it to columnists and editorialists to do this sort of thing.

  20. gsatell

    Good post Mathew.

    Alnong the same lines, The Economist has an interesting format, where they give both sides but also provide a clear editorial point of view (usually in the last paragraph).

    I don’t know how this idea of complete objectivity arose, but it’s fairly recent. Newspapers historically had been very political (i.e. Benjamin Franklin Bache). While I don’t think we should go back to the days of hack journalism, I do think that opinion is important and, in fact, probably more honest than faux neutrality.

    – Greg