Why newspapers need to lose the ‘view from nowhere’

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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
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