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The Tentacle


April 21, 2009

Selling Newspapers?

Roy Meachum

"State of Play" opened this weekend; the film will be discussed with Bob Miller on his WFMD "Morning Express" Friday. Its’ message about modern newspapering burns in my mind and cannot wait another three days.

 

As editor of the fictional "Washington Globe," Helen Mirren does things right while holding off the "investors," who today threaten the most vital and important part of print journalism. As I wrote recently about the real-life "Baltimore Sun," too many of the nation's newsrooms fall under accountants as dictators. Always with eyes on the bottom line, these journalism no-nothings have taken what passed for life out of an industry already suffering.

 

What was billed as a grave recession threatens every hour to slide into a depression. Everyone appreciates that reality. Most have no way of understanding how owners, especially in newspapers, use "bean counters" to pay off "debts" in every department. As frequently as not, people fired have offended the brass in one way or another. I do not mean a conspiracy to do in your favorite paper. It is more often a product of minds that simply have no other simple answer. Had they understood, there might not have been so deep a crisis in the first place.

 

The "real" birth of television news arrived with President Jack Kennedy's assassination, everybody in the communications industry agrees; for newspapers it portended the death of afternoon and evening papers. Those owners with morning publications gave every sign they believed they would lead forever as media cash cows; it was in this era that The Washington Post, around the corner from where I once worked, threw up a veritable palace. The sports department that formerly existed in a crammed corner of the news floor expanded dramatically. Every reporter's expanded desk became a private suite unto itself. The staff in all departments once counted by platoons became battalions.

 

Together with its morning brothers, the Post enjoyed better design, flashier layouts and imported writers lavished richer language on subscribers. But long before the nation tightened its belt in the current economic breakdown, newspapers felt the hot breath of dot.com channels; they simply robbed readers’ time at first. Then they crept into the public's pocket-book. Even before the recession newspapers, by and large, were hurting to various degrees. Accountants taking charge was not overnight.

 

In the more than 50 years since I did my first show on Channel 9, going there from The Washington Post, I have observed the transition in both media; what was truly exciting has become ho-hum. Writing for Sunday's Style & Arts section Hank Stuever, from the Post's Hollywood bureau, describes "State of Play's" plot "a thriller about power, murder and a ludicrous frenzy of journalistic frenzy..."

 

Mr. Stuever misses entirely the point. Ms. Mirren and Globe employees, Russel Crowe and Rachel McAdams, practice journalism with a passion that has been missing from their real life counterparts since Carl Bernstein played hot against Bob Woodward's "cool." I knew Mr. Bernstein and he could be a pain in the knee while trying to pump another reporter for more details when working on the same story. But his style was to worry someone else almost literally to death until he got what he wanted. I didn't like him and he didn't care. He was ruled by a passion to get the story first.

 

This passion strikes me as most offensive to West Coast reporter Stuever; it is missing from today's print journalism and that's the real reason subscribers are exiting from papers, followed by advertisers. Turning the situation around requires bringing Charlton Heston back from the afterlife; maybe, just maybe, as Moses he could perform a miracle on members of my profession.

 

Without passion, my beloved journalism will disintegrate entirely. God forbid! It could still happen at the medium and lower levels, leaving shriveled giants to survive.

 

God forbid!

 

 



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