Free Markets, Free People

Where are those 3 layers of editors?

David Cay Johnson seems to think today’s journalism has a huge problem.  And he confirms the “if it bleeds it leads” tendency of the media.  This anecdote illustrates the point:

To understand how badly we’re doing the most basic work of journalism in covering the law enforcement beat, try sitting in a barbershop. When I was getting my last haircut, the noon news on the television—positioned to be impossible to avoid watching—began with a grisly murder. The well-educated man in the chair next to me started ranting about how crime is out of control.

But it isn’t. I told Frank, a regular, that crime isn’t running wild and chance of being burglarized today is less than one quarter what it was in 1980.

The shop turned so quiet you could have heard a hair fall to the floor had the scissors not stopped. The barbers and clients listened intently as I next told them about how the number of murders in America peaked back in the early 1990’s at a bit south of 25,000 and fell to fewer than 16,000 in 2009. When we take population growth into account, this means your chance of being murdered has almost been cut in half.

“So why is there so much crime on the news every day?” Diane, who was cutting Frank’s hair, asked.

“Because it’s cheap,” I replied. “And with crime news you only have to get the cops’ side of the story. There is no ethical duty to ask the arrested for their side of the story.”

Cheap news is a major reason that every day we are failing in our core mission of providing people with the knowledge they need for our democracy to function.

That’s reason one.  Reason two?  Something I’ve been critical of for some time:

I ran upstairs and bought The Philadelphia Inquirer, where I worked for seven years. Buried inside I found a half column about the new budget for Montgomery County, the wealthiest and most important county for the newspaper’s financial success. The story was mostly about the three commissioners yelling at each other. The total budget was mentioned, almost in passing, with no hint of whether it meant property taxes would go up or down, more money would be spent on roads or less, or any of the other basics that readers want to know.

For this I paid money? I could only imagine the reaction of the residents of Montgomery County.


Far too much of journalism consists of quoting what police, prosecutors, politicians and publicists say—and this is especially the case with beat reporters. It’s news on the cheap and most of it isn’t worth the time it takes to read, hear or watch. Don’t take my word for it. Instead look at declining circulation figures. People know value and they know when what they’re getting is worth their time or worth the steadily rising cost of a subscription.

I’m convinced one of the reasons for the rise of blogs is the decline of journalism into what Johnson calls “cheap journalism”.  During elections we get the horserace coverage – the sensational, the quotes, etc. – but we rarely get even basic coverage of the issues.

My guess is editors would claim that no one is interested in the “in depth” coverage of issues, but I’d counter by saying that the popularity of blogs who do exactly that would seem to contradict the claim.

Johnson’s revelation about what is going on in the media comes from his own specific experience:

During the past 15 years as I focused my reporting on how the American economy works and the role of government in shaping how the benefits and burdens of the economy are distributed, I’ve grown increasingly dismayed at the superficial and often dead wrong assumptions permeating the news. Every day in highly respected newspapers I read well-crafted stories with information that in years past I would have embraced but now know is nonsense, displaying a lack of understanding of economic theory and the regulation of business. The stories even lack readily available official data on the economy and knowledge of the language and principles in the law, including the Constitution.

What these stories have in common is a reliance on what sources say rather than what the official record shows. If covering a beat means finding sources and sniffing out news, then a firm foundation of knowledge about the topic is essential, though not sufficient. Combine this with a curiosity to dig deeply into the myriad of documents that are in the public record—and then ask sources about what the documents show.

Note his point – lack of research, lack of knowledge, reliance on “what sources say” and the acceptance of what they say as gospel.

That’s not journalism, that’s the journalistic equivalent of re-printing press releases.  And, given all the grousing about bloggers by many in the media, I have to ask, “where are the editors”?  How did what Johnson reports become the norm that editors okay for publication?  Who’s establishing and enforcing the standards of journalism if not the editors?

These are the folks that used to control what was fed to the news hungry population in the past – a control they exercised because of the cost of entry into the market.  Now, with the internet and the democratization of publishing, they have competition from an unanticipated direction and it is indeed showing their weaknesses (and biases).  In any market, if a need goes unfulfilled, someone will fill it.  It just took the internet to remove that high bar to entry to prove the point.   If they wonder why circulation and viewership numbers are down, Johnson’s criticism is one of the major reasons for their decline.



20 Responses to Where are those 3 layers of editors?

  • This is the same reason I hate election coverage.  Rarely are any vote tallies mentioned.  Instead, we get phrases like “large margin,” “too close to call,” or “unsuccessful bid.”
    With this kind of slock, why even vote ?  The actual vote tallies are meaningless .. apparently.
    Sometimes I think that they are embarrassed by the actual numbers.  When you get an election with a tally of 327 to 97, you have to ask yourself … all this effort for 424 total votes ?  Or an election with 3197149 to 318693, here voting may have actually meant something … but you virtually never know these numbers.

  • Yep.
    Blogs are a WONDERFUL example of a market response, coupled with a new technology.
    There has been an UNMET demand in America for something besides the MSM (or Collective information organs) for DECADES.  (How many geezers here besides me recall ranting at the TV in the face of Cronkite/Rather???)
    Now, all of us are commentators and many are journalists in the truest sense.
    Consider the dissemination of the Reid budget boondoggle news.  Would we even have heard of it in truthful terms even a decade or two ago?

  • Same problem as Wall Street, we’re not in it for the long haul, we’re in it for the short quick headline that flashes across the screen or can lead the front page print.
    We don’t want to wait for details, we want the quick fix, now.   (Miracle Weight Loss!  Take this Pill!  30 lbs in 30 minutes or your money back!) .
    Quick info is  useful if you’re being rushed by 40 zombies I suppose, you don’t take time to count, it’s okay to yell “it’s a bunch of zombies!”.  Not so useful if someone is about to commit you to a long range spending spree over the next 10 years and they would like it a lot if you’d just ‘sign here’ without reading any of the details.
    But think about it – anyone who’s done any kind of business with banks, mortgage lenders, car dealers – SOFTWARE…..they give you an epic document, give you the 2 second blurb (“This one says we told you about the gremlin that might appear in your trunk, and you understand that we’re not responsible for damages it may cause if it gets loose…) and ask you to initial and sign HERE.   Show of hands…how many people say “no, I want to read this thing…ALL OF IT”.  Not many (which is why, on paragraph 7, subsection 3, subparagraph 5 of Section 8 of the Microsoft agreement everyone agrees to when they crank Windows up for the first time, there’s a section that commits you to being Bill Gate’s House Boy for 6 weeks at no compensation if he so desires…).
    It’s our life style, in a hurry…and our news, how they gather it, and how they hand it to us, is a reflection of that…too quick to be done properly.

  • I think he misses an important point. In the old days there was reporting on “news”. A pretty bland recitation of facts about events that happened that should be of interest to the readers. Tabloids focused more on “if it leads it bleeds” because that was what appealed to their audience. (think NY Post) Traditional newspapers focused on general events. (think NY Times) The primary focus of the daily paper was 1. reporting on events and 2. features. (sports, Heloise, comics, stock market, culture etc). Readership was large and general. Newspapers are a mass media like television. Something for everyone.
    Newspapers do long form expository writing about “issues”, generally these pieces take a longish time to research and write. They typically have a point of view but in theory they are even handed. They are designed to provide a much fuller picture and include lots of background information. While newspapers with large readerships did this, the primary source of this type of writing used to be general interest magazines like Time, Newsweek, and US News. Because of their cycle time (production, publication, distribution by mail) they could not do current events. It’s a medium much more suited to writing about more substantive issues.
    It’s pretty clear that people today read much less. It’s been a long time since people got the bulk of their news from daily papers. When you lose customers, you lose advertisers and this becomes a self reinforcing cycle of destruction.
    What he’s bemoaning is a type of writing more traditionally the providence of magazines. What he’s seeing is a version of Gresham’s Law. It’s the type of writing not done by general assignment reporters, it’s the type done by subject matter experts. Most newspapers don’t have the time or patience to do these things to pick up slack. My own prediction is that we are in a transition to a future where “newspapers” will be electronic. If you can eliminate physical production and delivery you can reduce the cost by 50% or more. It’s not going to happen in the next 10 years, but maybe in 25. In the interim newspapers are going to struggle.

    • Years ago, I was amazed to find out that, at least with local newspapers, reporters rarely leave the newsroom, only the photographers actually go to a scene of news. … and that was before cellphones.

      • That wasn’t my experience at small locals. In addition to writing the stories we had to take the photos, develop them and hand off the final prints to production for them to shoot the halftones.

    • Where are those 3 layers of editors?

      … 2 of them have been laided off

  • @ Steve C.,
    I used to joke when I was at the LATimes that we were a magazine masquerading as a daily newspaper. But for decades the better papers (LAT. NYT,WashPost, Phila Inquirer., BGlobe, ChiTrib, Seattle Times, Sacramento Bee) ran long form and thorough coverage of many issues. Places like Time and Newsweek and US News mostly rewrote what newspaper reporters did, just as most TV coverage was and is derived from newspapers, especially for the networks the NYTimes. Life, Sat Evening Post, etc., did long form, but often it was not groundbreaking, but more textured.
    There is still a great deal of very well done reporting at some newspapers. Pick up The New York Times every day and you will see an amazing variety of coverage from around the world, including Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan. But pick up your average local paper and the results are very troubling, however, with too much fluff by reporters who do not understand how government works — which was the point I focused on in my piece. Many reporters and editors seem not to know whether juries hand up or hand down and other basics, as my essay explained.
    Some here obviously commented without reading my piece at Nieman Reports, which was in good part about the lack of basic knowledge and the failure to cover staples like city council and school board meetings and how this encourages both crooked politicians and poor quality services.  The piece is linked above and not that long so I hope some people here go read the actual essay in full.
    And Neo you are  misinformed. Reporters go out every day at papers large and small. Rewrite men or women, and most papers have at least one, stay in the office.

    • There’s also the accountability issue – Aside from the market, which takes a while to punish them, there is rarely any in the short term,  so there’s no particular incentive for them to take the time to familiarize themselves with their subject matter.   I’m assuming you found it to be different earlier in your career when your superiors probably knew, and cared, when facts weren’t accurate.

  • I cannot disagree with you about the decline of journalism or the theories on the rise of blogs.
    However, if you look at the most popular blogs today, they are still one-sided, partisan, shallow, and nuance-free publications.  People tend to seek information and opinion that supports their foregone conclusions.
    It is better though.  I can go to a blog with an admitted slant, read what they offer, then go to many other sites to read theirs and see who makes the better case.
    Same is true for television and talk-radio.

  • However, if you look at the most popular blogs  newspapers today, they are still one-sided, partisan, shallow, and nuance-free publications. 


  • Arrg, strike “blogs’ insert newspapers

  • A good example of poor journalism is the coverage of the Gulf oil spill as described in the article:

    Rather than research the issues involved and interview marine biologists and oil spill experts,  the media relied upon press releases of the “Gulf of Mexico/eastern Seaboard is doomed for years” environmental crowd who did not want to waste a crisis in pursuit of their agenda to shut down additional drilling in the Gulf.

    I do not recall any of the media offering a mea culpa for their exceedingly poor coverage of the event or any articles on how well the Gulf has recovered, just a few months after the massive spill.

  • I get a sense that there is a widespread belief in our country that there was some halcyon period in the midsts of history when newspapers were a reliable, unbiased source of real news, and that reporters were honest, hardworking chaps who wore out acres of shoe leather in often boring but nevertheless relentless pursuit of the Truth.  This was and remains a popular theme in entertainment media.

    It is rubbish.

    Newspapers are owned and operated by people who have agendas.  Sometimes, as when government corruption is uncovered, the agenda serves a real public good, but we should remember that it is an agenda.  Often, though, the agenda is not in the public interest.  This sort of thing has been going on for decades; I suspect the first printing press showed up in our country.

    Our current problem is NOT that journalism has declined so much as it has become too lopsided.  The libs figured out that controlling the press is vital to their political success (witnes Van Jones’ recent remarks about “coming for the press”), and they’ve done a good job making it an overall reflexively liberal institution.  When all the reporters and editiors and publishers have the same basic biases and worldviews such that they never question each other, is it any wonder that laziness is the order of the day?  A viscious cycle is set up:

    Poor quality news —> lower readership —> lower ad revenues —> consolidation —> evern lower quality news as competition is eliminated

    TV, radio and the internet also have played a role in the decline of newspapers, but broadcast news organizations have showed the same problems of agenda, bias, and intellectual sloppiness as a result of no competition.

    • What!  You’re claiming the myth of the valiant and honest press  to be equivalent to the Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, Leave it to Beaver myths of the nuclear family?
      Or the fond reminiscences we have for the ‘good old days’ of our fore fathers?
      Say it’s not so man! – this is the day for yet another opportunity to say “I’m shocked!” eh?

    • Very true, in the good ol days there was horrible bias, and yellow journalism.
      Like you said, even when they did uncover corruption, it was because of an agenda.  I recently saw a special on ESPN about the big recruiting scandal at SMU in the 1980’s.  The story was only broke because two Dallas newspapers fought with each other tooth and nail to be the ones to break open the story.