McGuire on Media

Colorful hyperbole and newspapering in 1982 and 2010

All my friends know I can be given to colorful hyperbole. A few months ago I was making a guest appearance in a  media law course talking about the Cohen v. Cowles Media case which resulted from an editorial decision made in 1982.  In response to a question about thenews environment I said this: “Look you need to understand, newspapering in 1982 is to 2010 newspapering, what you are to a gerbil!”

As it escaped my lips I knew it was pretty darned outrageous, even for me. As I reflected on that I got more intrigued by the comparison and the silly fun of it. I decided it would be fun to engage some other journalists, past and present, in the discussion. I asked each person to give the proposition some thought and write me three to six paragraphs on whether they agreed with the statement and the strength of the metaphor, or if they found it outlandish to think newspapers have changed that much.

Despite the fact, or perhaps because of the fact that my contributors believe my analogy goes too far I  present the seven views to you without further editorial intervention

Len Downie

Well, you asked for it.
        Your intent is correct and your meaning understandable, but your metaphor is outlandish and your hyperbole beyond colorful.
        Newspapering — all news — has changed profoundly since 1982. But it has not become a different species — and saying so greatly confuses understanding of what is going on and how to respond to it. 
        Rather than a species change, it has been — and continues to be — a sudden and rapid evolution of a species struggling to adapt to sudden and rapid technological and societal change (as are many other institutional species in our fast-moving times).  News organizations continue to perform the same fundamental functions — gathering, shaping and sharing news — but in increasingly and radically different ways. With hindsight, we may judge the evolution of news in the roughly two decades from 1982 to 2010 and immediately beyond to be roughly equivalent to the evolution of news in the two centuries from 1782 to 1982. 
        Digital research, social networking, audience involvement, news organization collaboration, multi-media distribution, mutated job descriptions, and transformed economic models and news organization missions are only some of the characteristics of this evolution — for good and ill, as in the evolution of man in his environment. Similarly, how the impacts of this evolution are managed — by news organizations and by citizens — will determine the fate of news and its role in our society. Avoidance, fatalism, panic or demagoguery — all of which are much too prevalent in the media and academia today — are irresponsible and unproductive responses.

Pam Fine

Provocative, aren’t we?

I’m sure I’ve mentioned to you that one of my favorite books is a small tome called “The Victorian Internet” about the advent of the telegraph and how it revolutionized everything about news: the concept of what news was (instant; provided by non journalists as well as journalists), it’s shape (short, to the point), the economics (correspondents/the rise of AP and the stock market ticker) and, of course, the platform of delivery. I’d suggest that much the same as the telegraph is to the internet, 1980s newspapering is to the work being done today more like a zebra and a horse —distant cousins but still of the same genus. Markedly different animals but recognizably linked.

I started my career just a couple of years before the Cohen case so back then I was close to the age of your students and mine. As everybody knows, and as your human/gerbil analogy tried to convey, the changes have been GINORMOUS, described by phrases no one could have imagined: “monetization,” “driving traffic,” “beat blogs,” “CAR” and so on. One big change, for sure, is that no newspaper editor could say as you did to me in the mid 1990’s, “The truth is, it’s not really news until we (the big, major newspaper) print it.” That, of course, was before the blogosphere.

But I’d argue that with all the change, there is tremendous continuity between then and now. As a whole, newspapering is still about finding stuff out and telling everybody else, and doing it ethically and in ways that are engaging and meaningful. At its heart, the decisions made in Cohen were about holding leaders accountable. Newspapering is, and let’s hope will always be, about bringing the truth to light.

Arnie Robbins

Yes, Mr. McGuire is prone to colorful hyperbole, isn’t he? I do wish he had selected an animal with a brain larger than a gerbil, but…

If Tim’s  suggesting that newspapering is vastly different in 2010 from 1982, he is, of course, one correct little hamster! But I also believe that statement generally is true in industry today, not just newspapering–from department stories to big box stores to auto dealers to universities teaching journalism. The Internet has changed ALL industries dramatically. And created many industries that our high school guidance counselors never mentioned to us when we were preparing for college!

Tim is correct in that we are on a treadmill perhaps like never before. The Post-Dispatch produces a print edition as we did in 1982 (That 1982 print edition, by the way, was not nearly as robust as many of us recall with small A sections, small sports sections and smaller business sections). In 2011 we also produce a website, a free mobile news app, three paid sports apps, and a number of niche products. Oh, and an iPad news app coming soon. Amazingly different than 1982, Tim is correct. In some ways, we have the sort of competition and pressure that news organizations faced in the early 1900s.

Which means that our decision making and transparency in most all ways is vastly different than in 1982.  We have a far shorter time period to deliberate. Quite frankly, we sometimes are rendered moot by twitter and blogs that move at hyperspeed written by reporters that might or might not be accurate. There is also a lot of stuff out there on blogs that we ignore, not out of arrogance but because of our standards and fairness.

No doubt  that 1982 decision to disclose the source of the story was a political operative from the other party probably  would have been posted online while editors in 1982 were still debating the issue!  But I would still like to believe–perhaps, naively– that on local stories we would make our decision to publish accurate, fair and ethical information based on our reporting and our judgment and not merely because others were reporting it in the blogosphere or on television.  By and large, our track record is good. We go with information on controversial stories when we are ready and only when we are ready. Truthfully, we also have many, many, many  more possibilities at failure because of the Internet and the speed with which  information makes its way around the world from any number of sources.

I preach mobile first, online second, print third. That is not to say that print is the least important, but, increasingly, we break stories on mobile first, then online.  Increasingly, print is for context, depth, perspective, analysis and investigative journalism. So, in my opinion, our journalists routinely use (and need)  far more brain cells than ever before. Our journalists need more skills and sophistication than ever before. It’s a more demanding profession than ever.  So Tim absolutely is correct that news organizations are far more complex in 2011 than 1982.

I do wonder if Editors would have made that same statement in 1982 about how different newspapering was from 1952. Despite, what we read in the blogosphere, I believe firmly there is far more innovation than ever. In the quaint 70s, with only moderate competition, innovation was creating an agate page in a sports section! Or writing a narrative tale. Or expanding local business coverage. Maybe adding color presses,  then (gasp!) color graphics. All pretty big deals at the time, but they sort of pale in comparison to what we all  are creating today.   In the still-quaint 80s, innovation was often a result of newspaper monopolies becoming stronger and growing, and adding new reporting beats and sophistication to our reporting and to our story telling and to our presentation.

But all in all, the foundation remains the same in many respects and I’m not sure if Tim’s statement captures that.  It’s still about having a strong public service mission. And strong investigative reporting (which I would argue wasn’t done often enough in 1982 by any of us), and strong writing, and reporting, and accuracy, and story-telling, and caring about our community, and ethics.  All are still hugely important to our credibility and integrity and future. It’s still, ultimately, about the journalism.

Peter Bhatia

I don’t know about evolutionary theory as it pertains to humans vs. gerbils, but I think your point has merit. The world of newspapers has changed dramatically in the last decade and a half in ways no one could have imagined or even fantasized.

The meteoric growth of the Internet and of subsequent technologies such as smart phones and tablets has changed the requirements of what a newspaper journalist must be and of the skills they must possess.

Consider: In 1995, it was all about a pad and pencil. Today, the pad and pencil still matter. If newspapers didn’t do the kind of deep, watchdog, enterprise reporting that is still its most important work, they would be in an even deeper fix, in my opinion.

But reporters today must be able to file quickly from the field using their smart phones, make pictures of video using their low-res cameras and still come back and pull it all together for the next morning’s paper. That’s a whole lot of complexity that is all relatively recent.

And that doesn’t even begin to touch the inside work in newsrooms. We now have home page managers, social media coordinators, video editors and online producers. We’re developing Ipad apps and tweeting like crazy and doing all we can to get our news and information into diverse audiences. And we still strive to keep print strong because the baby boomers still want it.

We are on the teacups at Disneyland and they are out of control. But wow … it is a great and fun ride. 

 Caesar Andrews

I would not base an entire manifesto on the gerbil symbolism.  But I can see the benefit of collar-grabbling rhetoric.  That’s one way to dramatize how much the media game has changed.

By example, think about who controls the flow of information then vs. now.

The ability to communicate at will to the masses, once commandeered by the mighty media, is a function now shared with the masses.  Almost any willing soul, or any group or organization, can take a shot at connecting with audiences without the blessings of traditional news processes. 

This repositioning of control and access alters how news professionals see themselves, and how they shape their jobs. 

Credibility, fairness, community-driven purpose and quality are the kinds of fundamentals of the past that are never out of favor. Yet in a world where Everyman can traffic in words and images, journalists have to more sharply define what’s so distinct and special about what they offer. They have to think through what else and what’s next in ways gerbils never dreamed of.


Gregory Favre

As I thought  about your comment to the students my first (humorous) thought was that given your previous fascination for rodents (see your collection of rat sculptures, including one I gave you) you were just expressing your affection for them. 

Obviously, I have been out of a newsroom environment for a good many years now, which means that I have not been personally privy and up close and personal to the enormous changes and how they are affecting the newsrooms and the journalists in them. Your rhetorical reference is probably a little overblown, but not by a whole lot. 

I was thinking back to 1982 that you referenced. How many newspapers today could devote about two years of two reporters’ time for one story as was done in Chicago during that time period? How many newspapers today would venture out and buy a bar as was done in Chicago a few years before then? How many newspapers, as I heard Len Downie ask, will be devoting the time and resources to tell readers stories such as the highly-impactful and effective Walter Reed story? 

I look at the sizes of the staffs at the papers where I worked and in some newsrooms, maybe the majority, you can hear the echoes of what used to be coming from the empty desks where journalists used to sit. And you simply cannot do more with less, and the push to do so only diminishes the quality of what gets done. 

(An aside: As I listened to hours and hours of TV commentary and reporting on the horrible  and tragic Tucson shootings I  was struck by what Tom Brokaw said after President Obama’s speech. He talked about the great healing speeches by presidents: President Roosevelt’s “day of infamy”, Reagan after the Challenger explosion, Clinton after Oklahoma City, Bush after 9/11 and, as he said, the most memorable of all , President Lincoln during the civil war. But he quickly added the media landscape has changed so drastically. It would be an excellent exercise to go back and examine the coverage that surrounded Reagan’s speech, for example, and compare it to Obama’s speech and the reaction to both. Of course, there weren’t tens of thousands of bloggers in Reagan’s day, nor 24 hour cable, the proliferation of talk radio shows, the ever-expanding talking heads on TV, etc. Wonder what polls showed a week after Reagan, as far as the nation pulling together,  and what the polls would show a week after Obama? Anyway, I ramble.)

Even though we faced ups and downs in the economy, in the constant push for larger profits, we were editors at a time when we could go to work without knowing that today or tomorrow we would be downsizing more, slicing additional space on a regular basis, spending even more time than we did on holding  hands and reinsuring staffers that their jobs were safe. I once jokingly said that an editor’s job was being 50 percent priest and 50 percent psychologist. That is no longer a joke. And then add in a larger percentage of time as a meeting goer and budget balancer. Yes, much more than 100 percent. 

Throw in the enormous competition out there today for all mainstream media and perhaps your seemingly over-the-top comparison isn’t just shock therapy in the classroom after all. But couldn’t you have imagined something or someone more attractive than a gerbil? How about newsrooms today are as different as the students are to Zenyatta? 


Rick Rodriguez

Gerbils? Ah, yes, the McGuire hyperbole that we all have come to love.

But change? Oh, baby. In 1982, some papers were still transitioning from hot type to cold type. There were still newspaper boys and girls who delivered papers by tossing from their bicycles. Advertisers had very few options. Readers didn’t have many either.

There are some things that haven’t changed: the dedication of journalists to do good work, tell good stories and to try to be fair and accurate. Those are ideals that we have long held true, even though a good portion of the public is skeptical if not totally unconvinced of our commitment. The methods for gathering news have expanded with the technology: computer assisted reporting, audio and video feeds on web sites; slide shows for the frames of fine photos that in 1982 were left on the cutting room floor but now can be transmitted digitally with the push of a button. The ability to transmit news immediately has revolutionized newsrooms and transformed consumer expectations. We still have wonderful journalism being practiced today, we still have journalists dedicated to filling our role as community watchdogs.

On the other hand, there have been some downsides. In some cases, the technology has overtaken the shoe leather work that is so important to communicating stories about real people. Increasingly, reporters rely too much on digital communication instead of one-on-one interviews and in the process miss the opportunities for follow-up or the emotional response that can be drawn from personal contact. Sources, especially the powerful ones who are advised by public relations consultants, have figured this out, along with the fact that shrinking staffs have left some reporters time-constrained. That’s allowed those sources more opportunities to try to shape the message. I’ve even spoken with some folks who have said their newspapers publish their press releases verbatim with no calls, no checking for accuracy.

The push to be first online  hasn’t been totally a good thing; too many errors have been made and some of today’s journalists just shrug and say that’s part of today’s deal, unconcerned, apparently that the false facts, once reported, may live on forever in the Internet world.  There has been a definite erosion in standards; accuracy, while still important, has given ground to immediacy. Journalists can tweet falsehoods and other will pick up the information, spreading it far and wide. All of this has coincided with the structural change and financial difficulties suffered by mainstream media. And the competition coupled with the financial pressures have changed the way newsroom leaders lead.

In fact, the role of the editor has changed dramatically. In 1982, the separation between advertisers and editorial was more defined, almost absolute. Now that invisible wall is gone and while editors are still the guardians of standards, the protectors of the public’s right to know, they also are now marketers and collaborators with the advertising and circulation departments. They’ve been brought more into the financial realm of leadership and folks can differ as to whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.

So change, yeah, lot’s of it. I guess you would say it is almost-gerbil like. I wouldn’t have ever thought of that.

One Comment