McGuire on Media

Mutter is right: Editors could help, but they won't get invited

The Newsosaur, Alan Mutter, prods at a sore wound with his recent blog called “Ventilating the Chinese Wall.” He wondered if I wanted to write a counterpoint. I don’t disagree with him enough to do that. In fact, I think there’s a lot of merit to his provocative ideas. It’s his premise that editors might get invited to the business table to help solve the industry’s problems that I think is more than a bit faulty.

For roughly 20 years the issue has not been that editors don’t want to be at the business table.  They do. Reporters and sub-editors don’t like it, but most editors understand they have to be a part of making the newspaper a success or they are going to lose any and all ability to produce a quality newspaper. I think a lot of editors agree with Mutter that they are among the most creative people at the newspaper. Mutter’s challenge to bring investigative skill and creative thinking to building news audiences makes sense too.

I was actually a part of an experiment in the mid-90’s to do just that.  Publisher Joel Kramer, now of MinnPost fame,  put me in charge of “Reader Customers” to try to attract and build audiences.  The idea has a lot of merit, but I got dragged down by trying to manage the mechanics of customer acquisition and circulation. We wanted to be innovative, but the old structures crushed us.  That is a big part of the challenge here, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

I think the belief that editors want a wall between themselves and the rest of the newspaper company is an error.  The idea of a wall is too simplistic and disguises the legitimate issues of integrity that are involved. Most great editors are more concerned with protecting readers than their own self-interest.  Editors believe that great content serves readers, and they resist efforts to defraud readers, to trick them or deceive them in any way.  Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in Elements of Journalism say there is “an implied covenant with the reader that material is not bought and paid for, it is not self-interested and it can be trusted.” They call that “ journalistic independence. It is not disinterestedness, detachment, or disengagement.”

Kovach and Rosenstiel are correct. It is that protective behavior publishers read as dissent. When editors protect newsrooms from unreasonable cuts, when editors fight to protect integrity of the product and resist selling key words in web copy, when editors fight for treating readers and citizens first, Publishers and CEO’s find that obstructionist. In their short-sighted quest for short-term profits and fixes, Publishers have not wanted to hear that protecting the long-term health of the franchise is a superior value.

It has been far easier to condemn editors as naive and self-interested.  Categorizing editors as clueless makes it easier to bully an entire building to make decisions that will feather management nests even if it hurts the company and even the industry in the long term.  Another handy-dandy tool has been to co-opt editors with big bonus packages and options. That strategy includes accusing editors of being poor team players and impeding other managers’ bonus quests if the editors don’t play along.

Kovach and Rosenstiel are even uncomfortable with the concept of the wall. They believe it encourages isolation which they decry. Second, they believe that if two sides of an organization are truly working at cross purposes—news will lose.The two former journalists were prophetic. News has lost and the way it’s been done is to crush dissent.

I could produce at least five editors who in the last five years were brought into Publisher and/or CEO offices and told  all that dissent stuff and fighting for the newsroom had to end or they could get the hell out. Beware, that this is an unnamed source situation but I have it on excellent authority that one famous CEO stood in front of a group of editors and publishers and presented his five-year plan and said something like this: I know many of you are going to object to this plan. If you do please leave us your address, and we’ll send you a postcard.

This my-way-or-the-highway environment has existed for the last several years.  It is not the kind of atmosphere which would welcome editors at the party to solve the newspaper industry problems. When I gave my 2002 President’s speech to ASNE I was surprised when a prominent CEO implied that I was seeking to overthrow the business side.  This is the kind of radical stuff I said in that speech.

My fourth prescription is that publishers and editors make a personal contract to create a sound business and serve the public interest. This ‘opposing side’ stuff is not going to work. Our news franchises are not going to survive if publishers and editors are squabbling, or worse, not talking at all. In too many places we have moved to a Mars-Venus kind of relationship between publishers and editors.

Editors are not being accorded the same status they once were in many organizations. Some of that is the fault of arrogant editors, and some is the fault of single-minded attitudes of publishers. Too often the resources of editors are treated like the resources of any other department. That’s not right. Content providers must be treated differently. Editors must be key players in making our news franchises strong. Certainly, they need to do it by being creative about new products and new methods. But the most important contribution of editors must be as leaders of great news products. That requires time, focus and commitment. We’re not going to create cooperation and partnerships by wiggling our noses and wishing it so. But a genuine contract between publishers and editors could help.”

Without question there are some excellent publishers and CEO’s out there who respect their editors. They believe partnership is far more productive than treating editors like adversaries.  Those publishers would welcome editors at the table and have been doing so for some time.

But in too many newspapers and newspaper groups the real wall exists between publishers/CEOs who have demonized editors and decided editors are the problem with American journalism rather than the solution. And, if integrity, protecting the citizen reader and fighting for the long-term health of a news franchise is obstruction then many editors are indeed obstructionist. 

Alan Mutter’s suggestion that editors and investigative reporting could help solve the industry’s dilemma is probably correct. I am afraid his idea simply does not recognize the hostility too many publishers and CEO’s harbor against editors.  Mutter is correct that until a true partnership is forged the futures appears mighty dim.

THE STUDENT AND THE FAIRY TALE

Ryan Kost is an outstanding student in the Walter Cronkite school here at Arizona State. He was a top student in my Media Ethics class last year, and he is print journalist every editor should clamor to attract to the industry. He was a Hearst Top Ten fellow this year. This semester Ryan is taking an Advanced Online Media class from Assistant Professor Carol Schwalbe. Professor Schwalbe requires her students to blog and Ryan wrote a pip last week .

It’s a must read for practicing journalists and editors. I can’t do it justice, but he talks about the Young Journalist tangling with the Evil Copy Editors. Ryan reserves praise for the Kind Copy Editors in his tale.  The Young Journalist points his finger at an ugly reality in newsrooms.  Some editors are there to help. Some are there to exert power. The somewhat anachronistic role of copy editors who must find something wrong in every story was a strong motivator for me when I tried to make copy editors part of teams.  In the interest of saving people costs most newspapers have abandoned that practice.  The result is too many copy editors whom  our young journalists see as evil and mean-spirited dampening their enthusiasm and vigor.  There has to be a better way.