For years, we’ve complained about the press’s power to filter and prioritize news. But now that it’s gone, we’ll miss it.
At best, it’s never easy to discern the real strategies behind publicly discernible moves and the language used in corporate announcements. I know, because I write corporate announcements, and I’d be lying if I denied that there are times when obfuscation is a primary objective.
All the same, the Orwellian language used by Advance Publications (aka Newhouse) makes one thing clear: The newspapers are giving up their all-important role as a filter to help us get the stuff that matters while leaving out the trivial and unconfirmed.
To be sure, this filtering role has been a favorite whipping boy in the industry for more than two centuries. Those who feel that their priorities aren’t reflected in the mainstream media point out that newspapers have always exerted influence in the stories they choose to cover, what goes on page 1, what photos are used, and even what goes “below the fold” (on the bottom half of the page). Such criticism has always had some validity. At the same time, assuming our journalists acted with integrity and used good judgment, they saved us a great deal of time. And in many cases, they forced us to look at matters that we, as citizens, needed to focus on. Things we wouldn’t necessarily seek out on our own.
Now, much of that function is disappearing. Reporters won’t be expected to use their judgment as to what matters, who’s lying, or what’s unconfirmed. They’re asked to snatch up stuff as it floats by, package it for the web site, tweet it, and move on to something else. Increasingly, all over the country, we have reporters “live tweeting” meetings, press conferences, trials and other news events rather than listening, thinking and understanding.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t tweet and listen at the same time. I can pretend to, but I can’t really. And if you don’t believe me, ask my wife, who reminds me of this daily.
The announcements over the past few days in Louisiana and Alabama may be dominating the conversation at the moment, but these trends began long before Newhouse dropped the bombshells on the Times Picayune, Birmingham News, Huntsville Times and Mobile Press-Register.
In the Gambit, a New Orleans web site, Kevin Allman describes staff meetings in which editor Jim Amoss said that “ the reporters/content providers have been told to gather information and post it online as it comes in, rather than filing traditional long-form stories. They will be providing updates throughout the day on NOLA.com and other platforms such as Twitter, and expected to take photos and video as circumstances warrant to augment the content they file online.”
The Gambit notes that under a new policy implemented several week ago, Times-Picayune reporters “had to post something for NOLA.com as part of their early morning duties…. These postings could take the form of a brief story, a short blog item or even a bit of listings news.”
By multiple accounts, reporters are now getting and being evaluated by “hit counts” on their stories. In The Atlantic, former longtime Times-Picayune reporter John McQuaid says, “Advance’s Internet strategy has never been about journalism or news. It’s about clicks.”
For quite a while, I’ve been criticizing the endless flow of trivia and misinformation on the cable networks. But through all that, the newspapers have remained a critical place where we could have confidence that the facts have been properly verified and some perspective has been applied through the process in which editors read the copy, ask top questions and decide “how much play” to give a story. In the future, the pressure to keep “new content” going up constantly on the web sites will guarantee that we value the immediate over the important.