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Russell Frank: Have You Hugged Your News Provider Today?

by on March 16, 2012 6:00 AM

I love newsrooms. At first glance, they look like any other bastion of cubicle culture: wall-to-wall desks, computers, phones, piles of paper. It’s what’s on the walls that makes them special places.

At the New York Daily News, which I visited on a recent Sunday morning, one wall is lined with framed blow-ups of memorable front pages: “It’s War” (9/11), “Men Walk on the Moon,” “Dodgers Purchase Robby” (as in Jackie Robinson) . . .

Another wall is lined with photographs from “New York’s Picture Newspaper,” as the News once called itself. Here are sooty firefighters, kids cavorting in the spray from an open hydrant on a summer day, Sugar Ray Robinson delivering a knockout punch, Jackie Kennedy in mourning . . .

Sunday morning is about as quiet as newsrooms get. I counted four heads bobbing in that sea of desks.  But even when the hubbub is at its peak, newsrooms are a lot quieter than they used to be. Staffs are shrinking and by all accounts, morale is sinking.

The story is well-documented: how newspapers began giving away their content on the Web and can’t get readers to pay for it now, how Craigslist stole all the classified advertising, how the Great Recession has hurt display ad sales, how newsroom managers are buying out and laying off staff and reducing the size of the paper. It all boils down to a business model that worked great in the 20th century but is totally tanking in the 21st century.

Can this industry be saved? Clearly, interest in the news remains high, whether it’s grim tidings from Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, campaign trail demagoguery about abortion and contraception, the death of Whitney Houston or locally, the impending trial of Jerry Sandusky on child molestation charges. 

Yet, we tend to view the financial struggles of the news business the way we view the struggles of any other industry: If you sell a product or service that too few people want to buy, you’re going to go belly up, just as video rental stores did. C’est la vie.

Except journalism is not like every other business for one simple reason: The news is essential.

Ideologues on the left and the right would have us believe otherwise. The right attributes negative coverage of conservative politicians to liberal bias. The left attributes “lapdog” coverage of Washington and Wall Street to a bias toward the corporatist status quo.

Confront either side of this ideological divide with some serious watchdog journalism and they’ll call it the exception that proves the rule.

Last summer, while passing through Fresno, Calif., I picked up a copy of the Fresno Bee, a sister paper to the Modesto Bee, where I worked before moving to State College. I was shocked at how skinny the paper had gotten. To give you an idea, it was about the size of the Centre Daily Times, to which it has been related since the McClatchy Company bought the Knight-Ridder chain in 2006.

What’s noteworthy about this comparison is that there are almost 10 times as many people in the Fresno area as there are in Centre County. About half of the population lives in the City of Fresno. The other half lives in an assortment of towns and unincorporated areas.

Let’s look at one of the towns. Selma, Calif., calls itself the “Raisin Capital of the World.” It has 23,000 residents, a city council, a planning commission, a school district and fire, police, public works and recreation departments.

I’m willing to bet that most elected and appointed officials in Selma are honest, civic-minded folks, serving for the sole purpose of making a contribution to their community. But what if one or two of them are not? What if one or two of them, out of need or greed, decides to help an unscrupulous businessman circumvent zoning laws or environmental protections or building code provisions?

During the heyday of the Fresno Bee, the paper probably had a reporter assigned to Selma who endured those scintillating city council, planning commission and school board meetings and checked on the police and fire departments. If that reporter was halfway competent, there was a good chance that he or she would notice if any skullduggery was afoot. Indeed, even if the reporter was a complete nincompoop, his or her very presence might have deterred dirty dealings.

Now, judging from the sheer skimpiness of the paper, it’s hard to imagine the Bee has enough bodies to keep close tabs on all the towns in its circulation area. We often regard journalists as watchdogs, but a feline proverb might be more apt: When the cat’s away, the mice shall play.

By all means, let us bash the news media when they deserve to be bashed, but let us also remember how much we need that cat to catch those mice.



Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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