The newspaper press is in very great danger today. There is the possibility that newspapers as we have known them for a long time in the western world will change form, will indeed go out of existence.
I am not often a prophet of doom. I am not prophesying doom today, if those of us who are deeply dedicated to the task of informing the public through the medium of print respond to the crisis with appropriate action and adaptation.
What are the dangers?
Some are very concrete, others much more subtle. But, in the first place, costs of producing newspapers continue to mount astronomically. Some gazers into the future have speculated that we will have to compress our printed products, and charge something like fifty cents a copy in order to stay in business.
I do not take so dim a view, but none of us can avoid the conclusion that we are caught by opposing pressures: the rising costs of production, particularly of labor, and the constant inroads into national advertising revenues made by television. The two curves fight one another, and catch us in a cleft stick.
What I say here relates particularly to large metropolitan newspapers which depended heavily on national advertising. Smaller papers, and particularly community newspapers, do not have so tough a problem. They can perform services which radio and television cannot effectively carry out. Their utility in the future is less jeopardized.
I do not believe, with our friend Professor McLuhan, that the day of the printed word has gone. I believe written language has great power and value, and will always have it. But if we are to survive prosperously and serviceably, we will have to use our unique tool of written language more powerfully and more responsibly than we have done in the recent past.
That brings me to the second element of the newspaper crisis–the first having been the economic crisis–which I should like to discuss. It is our own basic problem of fulfillment of responsibility, and this is particularly applicable in an election year.
In essence it is the problem of credibility. Mistrust runs through our national society today. Maybe that is why Waterville’s great citizen, Ed Muskie, has chosen trust as a campaign slogan. For a newspaper to be mistrusted is a very unhealthy situation. And for mistrust to permeate a nation’s blood stream, like a noxious virus, is a disastrous condition.
Newspapers should work hard to restore their credibility. This means much greater attention to accurate reporting. I shall not use the word “objectivity” because I do not believe there is any such thing, but I believe accuracy is a standard which can be relatively if not absolutely sought, and detachment is a quality which will help.
I believe a reporter–and the reporter is the vital person in the news process–should feel a high sense of professional detachment. He is not a participant in an event, he is an observer of it. He has feelings like everybody else, he can have fire and excitement in his handling of the news, but he is a reporter above all and that means he is professionally outside the event, however much he may get bashed or gassed or pushed around. His job is to tell what happens, as best he can, and in a way as nearly as it appears to the participants themselves as possible.
Perhaps this last point is over-simplified and debatable. Certainly an event will look differently in the eyes of the observer than in the eyes and viscera of the participant. But we should strive more vigorously to describe an event so that those who saw it will say: “Yes, that’s the way it was.” I know this is a counsel of perfection, since every event looks differently to every person seeing it, but I believe we could approach the ideal much more nearly than we do.
Very often indeed, participants in events will read about it in the paper and say: “That’s not the way it was at all.” This builds up mistrust. Part of the trouble lies in our standard definition of news. Generally speaking, news is novelty, sensation, crime, passion, disaster, and the more the better. Nobody denies that such elements find ready access into the human mind: they are interesting, and the newspaper must be interesting or perish.
But that kind of news is not the whole of life. The absence of crime in a nearby town may sometime be more important, hence more worthy to be communicated to readers, than to banner headlines of a gruesome murder halfway around the world. It is difficult to make important news interesting. It takes more professional skill. But it ought to be done much more widely than ever before. The mirror we hold up to life ought to be less distorted. The significance of news to people’s lives–significance for good as well as for evil–ought to be a definition of news.
New definitions of news will lead us into new and important areas of human life. We should not merely continue to staff beats at police stations and city halls, and of course alert newspapers are not doing so. There has been a tremendous growth of investigative reporting in recent years, often through teams. These have moved into many areas of life which need exploring, but there is a great deal more to do.
News in the past has been event-oriented. It is getting to be more and more situation-oriented. We have been the slave of the event, the servant of time alone, and we have wasted a lot of time just waiting around for things to happen. Investigative reporting about situations is much more rewarding, gets much deeper into significance and validity than merely covering an event. Nothing can more effectively restore the credibility of a newspaper in a community than the uncovering of some situation which badly needs exposure.
This brings me back to the political year. Like everything else, the coverage of politics becomes more complex and more costly. I think we tend to over-do it. Our whole society, as a matter of fact, suffers from what is technically called information overload. This applies above all to the floods of speculative which emerge from states like New Hampshire and Florida before the voters of those great states have the opportunity of casting their crucial ballots. I think a good many Americans are going to get very weary of politics before November arrives at last. But I think that on the whole, this campaign will be covered accurately and honestly. American political reporting has steadily improved down through the years. In the 19th century, most papers were deeply partisan. Their news stories sound like vituperative editorials today. Over the last half-century, things have got better.
We have now-a-days three levels of political writing, and they ought to be kept distinct and identified. First is the reporting of events and situations. Next is the writing of opinion and analytical signed columns. Finally come the newspaper’s editorials, which express its own opinion. The only difficulty in these categories comes in the reporting, the news and situation stories. Much has been said lately of interpretive reporting. I do not like the term. It smacks too much of opinion, and really belongs in the second or signed opinion or analysis column. But the reporting can be enterprising. It can be reporting in depth. It can legitimately compare a candidate’s words today with his deeds in office a year ago. It can investigate, probe, uncover, always with reportorial tools, which are the most devastating tools we possess. With the existence of news analysis or opinion columns, there is no need for the reporter to go farther afield in the realm of opinion. Interpretive reporting, I think, is a contradiction in terms.
The political reporter has to work very hard to be detached. And when reporters, as so many inevitably are, are rather liberally oriented, skeptical, cynical, and when they tend to build up an adversary relationship to the powers-that-be, and when the representative of those powers–like President Nixon–has neither personality nor policies which greatly endear him to political correspondents–well, when all this exists, the reporter has to work doubly hard not to let his prejudices show. He must be honest and fair. It is even more difficult for the television reporters and pundits, where–as we have been reminded–a facial expression can tell a story. I thought I saw some newsmen being forced rather reluctantly to rise above their prejudices on the recent Nixon trip to China.
Anyway, I think the political reporters will be on their good behaviour this year. Vice President Agnew’s spirited criticisms have made us all more careful, and so far as that goes it’s a good thing. For the goverment to threaten use of its regulatory power over the electronic media to control or influence their political reporting would be a total and very dangerous abuse.
News media behaviour this year will have more than a little to do with public credibility toward the media in the crucial years ahead. If we behave worthy of the public trust, we will receive it. And we will be making our contribution to the restoration of faith in our vital national institutions and in the integrity of our fellow man.
That will be worth doing.
Colby College remembers alumnus Elijah Parish Lovejoy through the annual Lovejoy Award, which honors journalists who demonstrate courage, integrity, and craftsmanship.
Born in Albion, Maine, Lovejoy graduated from Colby in 1826. On Nov. 7, 1837, in Alton, Ill., the newspaper editor and publisher was killed after he refused to stop publishing anti-slavery editorials. He was called America’s first martyr to freedom of the press by John Quincy Adams.
Current Lovejoy Selection Committee Members include Matt Apuzzo ’00, reporter and investigative correspondent, New York Times; Nancy Barnes, senior vice president and editorial director, NPR; Sewell Chan, editorial page editor, Los Angeles Times; Marcela Gaviria, producer, PBS FRONTLINE; Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, Colby College; Martin Kaiser, former editor and senior vice president Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Mindy Marqués, vice president and executive editor, Simon and Schuster, former editor, Miami Herald; and Ron Nixon, global investigations editor, Associated Press.
For more information, visit colby.edu/lovejoy