December 16, 2009

The Toxic Newspaper

This morning is the first morning of my adult life that I am not a subscriber to a local daily newspaper.

I am distressed by this.

But my distress is nothing compared to the disgust I feel about the harm the Springfield News-Leader is doing to our civic discourse. It is a toxic presence. And I can no longer spend my money on it and, thus, be a party to the damage.

I had not planned to write about my decision on Rhetorica (although I did Tweet it and post it on Facebook). But a conversation my wife and I had this morning convinced me to do so. Wife Rhetorica, by the way, is a professional journalist with more than 25 years experience and a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She knows a little something about it.

We were standing in the kitchen wondering what to do with ourselves when she said:

“I didn’t change. The paper changed. You hear all this talk about how people don’t care about politics or their communities so they don’t read papers. Well, it’s not true.”

Yes. That’s exactly what I saw on Twitter and Facebook yesterday. In response to my postings there, I received many positive replies and e-mails from people I know who are vitally interested in this community and vitally interested in news.

The gist of their replies: What took you so long?

Why is the News-Leader toxic? I’ll mention three things (in my opinion):

  • Gannett’s mismanagement of its assets has made it difficult to do good journalism. Coverage of local news is thin at best. Good veterans have been laid off, fired, or otherwise allowed to escape.
  • A shocking amount of “news” in the paper is regurgitated press releases. Two pictured columnists are former reporters now working PR for local organizations. (I don’t blame them. They are simply doing a good job for their clients.)
  • For reasons I do not understand (perhaps economic), the News-Leader has turned its Voices section (the editorial section) into a forum for amateur pundits (I’m being polite) who are apparently not fact-checked or edited or otherwise supervised or taught. This is the most toxic section of the paper as it has been given over to mindless partisan bickering.

The News-Leader is not the only game in town. And, trust me, there will be attempts to fill the gaps. I’ll have more to say about this in the weeks ahead.

And it’s not like I can’t — if feeling the need for self-inflicted pain — just go to the web and see what the News-Leader is offering as news today and in the future.

It’s not the news or journalism I’m giving up on. I’m simply refusing to pay money for a product that I believe is doing more harm than good. In short, the News-Leader utterly fails the primary purpose of journalism: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

It would be unethical of me to pay money to harm our civic discourse.

Past coverage of the News-Leader on Rhetorica:

31 Responses

  1. Thank you. 🙂

  2. Sven 

    Holy cow. It’s as if they misconstrued the point of Jay Rosen’s open systems vs. closed systems concept as “Hey, let’s channel the former into the latter. We can call it Open Sewer.”

  3. acline 

    Sven… Hey, OS needs a logo!

  4. Bee 

    I, too, am a professional journalist here in the area, although I have never worked at the News-Leader. I have never had any desire to work there because of its reputation.

    In the not-too-distant past, I worked in PR for a local company and it was interesting to be on the other side (sending the press releases instead of being the one to receive them at a newspaper).

    What is truly disturbing about many of the media outlets in the area is the fact that they will run press releases, often verbatim, and without so much as calling to ask any questions.

    A few times, I tested the media by writing the press releases in such a way that would spark a few questions in the mind any good journalist. I thought, “Surely, the TV stations or newspapers will call to ask more about point A or B.”

    Nope. They still ran things exactly as I sent them.

    There was even a very hairy situation about a lawsuit with my former employer and when I sent out the press release about this hairy situation, my former employer and their attorney were very sneaky with the way they wanted things worded. They wanted to appear innocent, as if they were not the leadership when this occurred. Truth is, they were in charge and had not done what they were ordered to do in order to remedy the situation.

    Sadly, the news media took the press release at face value and ran with it.

    Truly upsetting for those of us who value journalism and realize its importance in our society.

  5. Sven 

    Something like this, which would allow an excellent mixed-metaphor slogan, “Surf the SNL sewer!”

  6. acline 

    Sven… ROFL 🙂

  7. Sven 

    I agree, Bee. If there’s anything more terrifying than the media becoming a vehicle for mindless ressentiment, it’s the media becoming a mindless vehicle for mindlessness. Cf. Demand Media.

    I also should cop to a slight bit of ambivalence on the partisan part of mindless partisanship. I loves me some well-crafted polemic.

  8. Tim 

    Congrats, Andy!

  9. acline 

    Tim… Thanks, I guess 🙂

  10. Jason 

    Good on ya, Andy, for standing up and not only canceling your subscription but writing about it here. Your track record of credibility when it comes to media issues is outstanding and your critique certainly has a lot of merit.

  11. Al Neuharth 

    I agree with your assessment of the News-Leader, Andy, but I would feel better about this latest post of yours if you had revealed that you once were involved with the newspaper and that your involvement came to an unhappy end.

  12. acline 

    Al… 🙂

    What do you mean by “involved”? Please enlighten us.

    Drat! This could be interesting. But I’ll bet you’re just a random troll who won’t return 🙁

  13. Jason 

    Oh look…anonymous accusations. How cute. 🙂

  14. Fines 

    I didn’t fully realize the horrible truth about press releases until I started working at a newspaper. I get an inbox full of e-mails each morning from different city departments and businesses that I know I will see in the next day’s daily and the evening news. Rarely, if ever, are the stories changed at all. At night, I constantly point out things on the nightly news that are straight from press releases to my wife. I’ll admit that I’ve rewritten my share of press releases for briefs but never, ever for an actual story.

    I think the most odious action of a newspaper is to put the by line “By the Staff.” If you’re just printing a press release, don’t put anything. Don’t try to give it some credibility by saying it’s a staff effort.

  15. Tim 

    A Graphic History of Newspaper Circulation Over the Last Two Decades

    When Falling Circulation Is A Good Thing

    Andy, you’ve joined the informed daily-paperless crowd. The info-world is your oyster.

  16. Tim 
  17. acline 

    Tim… Interesting stuff. I hadn’t seen Newspaper Death Watch before.

    But, but… I still like the old-time feel of print. Oh, well… movin’ on…

  18. Sven 


  19. acline 

    Sven… This part was particularly telling:

    “We need not state our political affiliations and preferences. But suffice to say, we understand how many, on both sides of the political spectrum, feel revulsion toward recent opinions expressed by Perry. But to simply stop reading the Daily Sound, or demand Perry be fired, rather than responding in kind with words and countering opinions, seems counterproductive.

    “While the suggestion in Perry’s column for a “bounty” on the president was highly inappropriate, we carry the old-school ideal that fighting opposing opinions with more opinions and more words is the most effective way to right a perceived wrong.

    “Rather than yelling about what a dimwit Perry is, and threatening to never read the Daily Sound again, we invite readers outraged over her last column, and any other, to write in. Demands from readers for equal space in the paper to rebut columns by Perry or other guest columnists, are rarely, if ever, made.”

    IOW, we don’t want to pay an economic price for our lack of editorial judgment. And if you try to make us pay that price, well, you’re bad citizens.

  20. Last Monday(12/14/2009) the SN-L hit the trifecta on its voices page.
    My wife and I were ready to give it up.
    We made a conscious decision to keep our subscription because we find that we are not yet ready to give up the simple pleasure of reading the morning newspaper while we share a pot of coffee.
    One could say that the paper’s content is no different than some blogs.

  21. acline 

    Bus… We indulge that simple pleasure now with The New York Times on Sunday.

  22. Tim 

    Hmmm …

    The offending Velvet Revolution ad.

    The offending Daily Sound editorial with this excerpt:

    While chasing you with lawyers, lies, and pitchforks, Obama Thumpers will call you every name in the book. If you don’t take kindly to their way of thinking, you might be a gun-toting redneck (I still haven’t figured out what’s wrong with that), a racist, radical, or terrorist; a right-wing extremist; paranoid, dangerous, or violent. You might even be akin to one of those awful folks who opposed civil rights. (Those would be mostly Democrats, by the way.)

  23. Tim 
  24. acline 

    Tim… Plenty of intemperate language to go around. I quit the N-L because, among other reasons, they failed to squash this stuff on the right and the left. And if you complain and stop the paper, well, journalists suggest maybe you ain’t such a good citizen.

    Perry is right to challenge “bounty” talk on the left. She would have made her case better had she avoided it herself.

    And the paper would have served Perry and its readers better had they handed it back to her for a re-write.

  25. Tim 
  26. Tim 

    Don’t Stop There! Five Adventures in Civic Journalism

    News-Leader backs off civic journalism

    Marymont left in 2001 and was replaced by Ledford.
    Ledford left in 2004, and was replaced by Wyatt.
    Wyatt is the current Executive Editor of SN-L.

  27. Tim 

    re: journalists suggest maybe you ain’t such a good citizen.

    Careful, Andy, you’re a step away from graduating to “press hater” and then hard core press hater“.

  28. acline 

    Tim… I’m out of pocket for just a couple of days, then I’ll respond. Lots of fun stuff here 🙂

  29. Tim 
  30. acline 

    Tim… Great find! Thanks for posting it. Still on vacation, btw, and not feeling like doing much more than playing tennis and other such things one does in Florida.

    But I will say this: What he’s seeing is exactly what I was writing about in my blog essay about how horse-race stories are constructed.

    It’s also the difference between the rhetoric of lecture and the rhetoric of conversation, which this blogger understands very well.

    The question for me remains: When will the MSM finally get it? (And I’m thinking it may be the case that they will never get it.)

  31. Tim 

    I’m not sure if they do “get it” they can implement it on the paper/radio/tv medium?

    “Things I Used to Teach That I No Longer Believe” Was the Title of the Panel…

    When I started I would commonly say to students, “it’s not the content, it’s the form.” (Or: the medium is the message!) I thought this was very wise. Then I learned that content is king, sort of an opposite lesson, and it seemed wise for its time too. Now I don’t see either statement as useful or wise. To figure out when content is king you don’t need slogans like “content is king.” They hurt more than they help.

    Enjoy Florida!