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Saturday, October 01, 2005

A Museum on Main Street

Denny Wilkins wrote a provocative column in Editor & Publisher last month. He is now a journalism professor but the larger part of his career was spent as a working newspaperman. We quote a little bit here; you can read the whole column in Editor & Publisher here.

So: Should I tell my college j-students today that the Mighty Media Corporations that own the newspapers they will work for don't worry about journalism but rather fear:

* company stock prices that go down instead of up
* federal regulation that pre-empts corporate profit-maximizing efforts
* exposure as anti-consumer in pricing their products and their advertising space?

In newsrooms controlled by this worldview, only rarely do bold new ideas emerge about how to significantly improve journalism.

In this worldview, the traditional Great Mission and Moral Imperative of a newspaper as considered by the Founders -- to provide information that allows the public to make fully informed consumer and political decisions -- will further erode the ability of journalists to gather information and report it without fear or favor.
He writes a lot more about shrinking news staff, the shrinking news hole, and shrinking circulation. Once you read the whole column and, perhaps the countervailing view linked on the Wilkins piece, you can sound off here.

Is there anyone out there who would disagree that all of the things he writes about are on exhibit at Fort Wayne Newspapers?

Ed. note - you are free to offer comments as to how Fort Wayne Newspapers may be the exception as well. After all, the striking feature is that this is still a two-newspaper town.
This is a very interesting topic. To explain my opinion you must know a little about me. I spent 13 years growing up in Fort Wayne. I left soon after my 22nd birthday and spent six years in the Navy. I then spent a couple of years in Omaha and then about three years in Kansas City.

I spent eleven years living (Or being stationed in) six different States, Florida, New York, California, Hawaii, Nebraska, and Missouri. I have travelled a lot overseas (About 20 countries.) Then my wife and I moved back to Fort Wayne to raise a family.

I have been a "news junkie" for most of my life. I have always preferred the newspaper to television. I have recently started getting a lot of my news from the internet and the radio.

The local newspapers seem to me to be similar to the newspapers I have read in the different places I have lived. There are certainly things about each newspaper I like and dislike, that is the way of the world.

I think it is great that Fort Wayne has two newspapers. What is disappointing to me is how consumers are gravitating towards the media that has a bias similar to their own.

The Sentinel is more conservative and the Gazette is more liberal. Americans are gravitating towards news sources that espouse their views, this is NOT a good thing.

I make it a point to get my news from several sources. I generally read the Sentinel and the New York Times most days. I read the Gazette frequently. I listen to conservative talk radio. I like local blogs (Most are liberal for some reason) and The Drudge report. I try to listen to all sides and form my own opinion.

If there is one thing I have learned about news sources in the United States it is this, they are biased and all of them allow their biases to influence their journalism.
I have one question for any newspaper people that read the article Mitch Harper posted. How does the rule of thumb (1 news room person per thousand of circulation) compare to what exists in Fort Wayne? I would guess our newspapers have no where near 1 person per 1000 circulation.
FW local papers are stuck in the 60's. Not enough local news--read the small publications to find out what is going on--the Business Journal, the Huntington TAB, etc. No coverage of local Arts events but reruns of sports best read in USA Today. Takes 4 to 5 minutes to read the local papers. Too bad really. The Bloomington paper is more liberal but has much broader coverage of what is going on locally.
>Americans are gravitating towards
>news sources that espouse their views,
>this is NOT a good thing. ...

>...news sources in the United States...allow
>their biases to influence their journalism.

Nobody will pay a subscription fee to be insulted once a day, "good thing" or not.

The reason why we're currently gravitating toward editorial ideologies which agree with our own is that the rhetoric has become so extreme and hysterical that it is unpalatable unless you happen to agree with the worldview being offered up.

If you're a red state reader, why would you want to lend your financial support to a paper that regularly propagandizes that the President is a moron, that we're currently losing a mideast war which is just like Vietnam, and that we need to let the U.N. and the Supreme Court "reform" our Constitution? These versions of current events are unflattering, extremist characterizations, certainly not empirical facts.

It was one thing to ignore the occasional subtle bias on the opinion page (what a benign-sounding word, "bias") but quite another to tolerate the explicit, unrelieved partisanism we see on the editorial pages now. I can hear THAT on the street; editors should be able to present a better quality of perspective on the news, without the personal bias. I don't care which way these editors vote, as long as they're not trying to tell us how to think. That's just self-importance, and it's not their job.

I get the impression that there is economic pressure for Fort Wayne to become a one-newspaper town (why else would we need assurances that we'll continue to have two for a while longer?). If so, by all rights the conservative paper should be the winner in this community, hands down. This is a mere common sense conclusion which curiously goes against statistical probability. The liberal Journal-Gazette appears to be more popular, not for its editorials but because more people like a traditional morning paper (I prefer fresh news in the afternoon, thanks) and because the J-G delivers a stack of ads, fliers and coupons every Sunday while the News-Sentinel doesn't even put most of the fliers in its Saturday weekend edition.

Those subscribing to the J-G can pay only $5 a month and get a paper 7 days a week. Those subscribing to the N-S have to pay twice as much if they want a weekday conservative paper AND wish to clip coupons from local businesses on Sunday. None of this has anything to do with the editorial page. If the editorials were the determining factor, as I said the N-S would win going away. But I imagine if pressed to decide right now, most people would vote against their own ideology and in favor of the $5 a week 7-day paper with ads intact, despite the fact that they despise the editors' opinions and don't bother to read them.

What SHOULD happen if we have to settle for one newspaper, in my view, is that the J-G and N-S should consolidate their staffs; the editorial page would become two facing pages with liberal and conservative headers, and an equal number of column-inches printed to cover liberal and conservative ideologies every day. Staunch support of constitutional gun rights to balance the whining for even more unconstitutional infringements, for example.

I'm curious about other points of view when they are respectfully and thoughtfully presented, and I seek them out online, but the J-G unapologetically pushes a left-leaning tract sheet -- I mean, editorial page -- pandering to a local minority, while it continually endorses the wrong political candidates. I would not ever subscribe to the J-G alone. I'd stick with television and the Internet, if my choices were so limited.

The N-S could do a better job of marketing. They should start unmasking their morning-paper competition as yesterday's news, and selling themselves matter-of-factly as the up-to-date package for all the folks who read their paper after work. Then the N-S should get its act together and stand up more consistently for traditional local values, from defending the WHOLE Bill of Rights to curbing the U.N. to introducing us to anti-liberal candidates (unlike Helmke or Bayh) for office. If the N-S can't differentiate itself, while delivering attractive news and opinion to its red-state base, it won't make the next cut.
Corporations try to balance making a profit that makes their shareholders happy and making a useful product that keeps their customers happy. Are you saying: 1)that no longer applies or, 2) the rules should be different for newspapers?
I assume Leo is addressing me and not Mr. Wilkins. I'll respond by addressing the general Indiana Parley readership.
I don't believe corporations should try to BALANCE making a profit that makes their shareholders happy and making a useful product that keeps their customers happy.
It is an imperative that a corporation does both.
There is an implication in the phrasing of Leo's question that HE views the two things as mutually antagonistic.
As for the comment that the rules should be different for newspapers; my goodness, the rules ARE, different NOW for newspapers.
To address Leo directly -
Your employer operates under a Joint Operating Agreement. That's a specific federal law to exempt newspapers which are organized following certain procedures from the regular federal anti-trust laws. I'm well aware that Fort Wayne Newspapers had one of the first JOA's in the country; it predated the arrival of Knight-Ridder by decades. So, it's not really a matter of publically-traded corporate ownership.
Leo, are you suggesting that the rules SHOULDN'T be different for newspapers?
Would you support Congressional repeal of the JOA Act?
On this topic, here's a column by an Edward Wasserman that should be required reading:

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