The On-Going Debate

The imminent closure of the Cox Newspapers' Washington bureau is one more piece of bad news for journalism. It followed word from the Newspaper Association of America that newspaper advertising revenues fell almost $2 billion in the third quarter for a record 18.1% decline.

With the shrinkage of so many newsrooms in response to the economic crisis, the demand for common sense and understanding by owners, publisher and editors has never been greater. But what can be said when Sam Zell, the owner of the Los Angeles Times and other Tribune Company papers, comes up with a patently absurd comment that illustrates how little he knows about the news business?

In an interview with Conde Nast magazine a few weeks ago, he berated what he said was "the entire focus on Pulitzers... the entire focus is on becoming an international correspondent." That piece of nonsense was followed by this observation:

I mean I know that because our newspaper sent somebody to Kabul to cover the Afghan Idol Show. Now I know Idol is the number one TV program in the world, but do my readers want a first hand report on what this broad looked like who won the Afghan Idol Show? Is that news?

As a former two-time judge of the Pulitzer Prizes in journalism, I can concede that Zell may know something about real estate, but he doesn't know a damned thing about journalism or even what his own newspaper is doing. No newspaper that I know places its entire focus on the Pulitzers. Important newspapers have prize editors to survey potential awards entries for a number of different prizes, the Pulitzers being only one of them. The Times dispatched Bruce Wallace to Afghanistan to cover the war, not to cover the demise of the Afghan Idol program. In his time in Afghanistan. Wallace did six stories, only one of which dealt with the Afghan Idol that was going off the air. It was the last one of those he wrote that ran only after the show's last episode was broadcast in Kabul.

Zell's lieutenants echo their owner's belief that local news is what readers prefer over national and international news. They would have had a more credible argument except for a three-part series that ran this week in the Times. It described in excruciating detail a long drawn out love affair between a onetime member of the Aryan Brotherhood incarcerated in Pelican Bay, California's most notorious prison, and a love-struck divorcee lawyer in Omaha. The series began on Page One that ran four columns across the fold and jumped inside to two full pages. On another day when the series ran to three pages, the New York Times had front page stories on Afghanistan, Mumbai, the recession that began last December, the problems facing one of President-elect Obama's cabinet appointees and the budgetary problems facing California. The LAT was missing in action.

If the debate over what kinds of news the public wants is Topic A among newspapers, the question about who delivers it has been heightened in television. The network news anchor may soon become an anachronism. But it is the multi-million dollar contracts of star anchormen and women on local television newscasts that already are being cancelled nationwide or are in serious jeopardy.

"Station managers are finally acknowledging that the audience no longer IS watching with any loyalty to channel brand, network or anchor," says veteran television producer Peter Shaplen." Consultants tell local news managers that the only thing audiences care about are traffic and weather.

Investing today means more than paying anchor but buying Super Doppler and Accu-Weather computers, animated and 3-D traffic maps with commute times and what ever bell and whistle as can be added and promoted." Shaplen says audiences nowadays can get raw information from anywhere. "It isn't important to have a solid presenter telling me the raw information on TV anymore. I can and prefer to do it myself. Wham! Another nail in the coffin of the news anchor."