January 24, 2003

Great Nick Denton Column on...

Great Nick Denton Column on the Troubles and Hopes of American Media: Of course, it helps that I agree with him.

Posted by at January 24, 2003 11:02 AM
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Of course, it helps that *I* agree with him, too. In fact, I agree so much that I think this boring essay would feel quite at home in any boring newspaper you could name. It has all the hallmarks of the genre -- it's vague, it names few names and pulls its punches. It also wanders all over the place; what's that stuff about Morley Safer and Bonnie Fuller doing in an essay about newspapers?

Of course, you can't prove a negative, so if Nick Denton is bored by newspapers, well, they must be boring. If he can stay awake long enough, maybe he could share some specifics with us. (Just to make him work a bit, though, let's declare the L.A. Times off-limits for now. There's too much crib-sheet material available from Welch, Layne, L.A. Examiner, et al.)

Newspapers *are* boring, and Denton touches on at least one of the reasons -- corporate ownership is the biggie, IMHO. It makes cost-cutting and maximum profits the paramount goal, rather than serving readers, covering the news and letting the profit chips fall where they may. Even lousy newspaper are great, mooing cash cows, and publishers used to know you could ride out bad economic storms and know the sun would shine again. That doesn't always happen in an era when Wall Street must be pleased at all costs.

But too much of this sounds like blogospheric conventional wisdom -- stuff you can repeat to nods all around because it's stuff *everybody* knows. When if you look around, there's still some hella good journalism going on out there:

* The Boston Globe will win whichever Pulitzer it wants this year, for its coverage of the Catholic-church scandals. It is doing everything a newspaper should do -- afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, and in a market so heavily Catholic that running anything negative about the church could have easily backfired big-time.

* The Washington Post just ran a beautiful, lyrical four-part series called "The Rim of the New World," about the immigrant experience in Atlanta. It read like buttuh, took you into a world you've never seen before and made you feel you knew everything about it.

* The New York Times had a multi-parter on conditions at iron foundries around the country owned by a single company, places that sounded positively Dickensian in their lack of regard for worker safety. It was a joint effort with PBS' "Frontline" series and read like the an indictment read at the gates of hell by God Himself. Outstanding.

Of course, I've only named the big national papers; what of the smaller ones? OK. I'm relying on memory here, but the St. Paul Pioneer Press exposed a cheating organization in the University of Minnesota athletic programs, a story that got them about a million cancelled subscriptions from angry sports fans and Jesse Ventura. The Seattle Times exposed an informed-consent gap during clinical trials at a respected cancer hospital. There's great feature writing in St. Petersburg, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and dozens of other cities. Carl Hiaasen works in Miami.

And if Denton thinks the New York Post is the greatest American tabloid (not a field crowded with contenders), he hasn't read the great Philadelphia Daily News.

Again, I'm in essential agreement with Denton. But I don't think whining in glittering generalities on weblogs is the way to fix it. Make journalism fun again, I say. Editors should strive for one surprise on Page One every day -- a jaw-dropper, a hey-Martha, a slow-burn story that tells the readers you don't know what you're going to get when you open your paper in the morning. That'll go a long way toward making journalism fun again, so you can attract the sort of smart, fun people who would want to work in such a place. A little more money wouldn't hurt, either; reporters earn the lowest starting salaries in any field requiring a college degree. But first things first.

Posted by: Nance at January 24, 2003 02:48 PM

Nance -- I actually agree with you quite a bit. I think there is a ton of good journalism in this country every day, and that the Brit papers people like me & Nick so lionize could use more than a dose or two of boring American-style fact-checking. What I'm looking for is some kind of beautiful new blend of British irreve But first things first.

Posted by: Nance at January 24, 2003 02:48 PM

Nance -- I actually agree with you quite a bit. I think there is a ton of good journalism in this country every day, and that the Brit papers people like me & Nick so lionize could use more than a dose or two of boring American-style fact-checking. What I'm looking for is some kind of beautiful new blend of British irreverence & sass, American thoroughness, and perhaps webloggian closeness to readers. Terribly hard to pull off, of course ... but I think that this era right now is actually going to be seen as a turning point for newspapers in the U.S. And for the better.

Posted by: Matt Welch at January 24, 2003 08:20 PM
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oint effort with PBS' "Frontline" series and read like the an indictment read at the gates of hell by God Himself. Outstanding.

Of course, I've only named the big national papers; what of the smaller ones? OK. I'm relying on memory here, but the St. Paul Pioneer Press exposed a cheating organization in the University of Minnesota athletic programs, a story that got them about a million cancelled subscriptions from angry sports fans and Jesse Ventura. The Seattle Times exposed an informed-consent gap during clinical trials at a respected cancer hospital. There's great feature writing in St. Petersburg, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and dozens of other cities. Carl Hiaasen works in Miami.

And if Denton thinks the New York Post is the greatest American tabloid (not a field crowded with contenders), he hasn't read the great Philadelphia Daily News.

Again, I'm in essential agreement with Denton. But I don't think whining in glittering generalities on weblogs is the way to fix it. Make journalism fun again, I say. Editors should strive for one surprise on Page One every day -- a jaw-dropper, a hey-Martha, a slow-burn story that tells the readers you don't know what you're going to get when you open your paper in the morning. That'll go a long way toward making journalism fun again, so you can attract the sort of smart, fun people who would want to work in such a place. A little more money wouldn't hurt, either; reporters earn the lowest starting salaries in any field requiring a college degree. But first things first.

Posted by: Nance at January 24, 2003 02:48 PM

Nance -- I actually agree with you quite a bit. I think there is a ton of good journalism in this country every day, and that the Brit papers people like me & Nick so lionize could use more than a dose or two of boring American-style fact-checking. What I'm looking for is some kind of beautiful new blend of British irreverence & sass, American thoroughness, and perhaps webloggian closeness to readers. Terribly hard to pull off, of course ... but I think that this era right now is actually going to be seen as a turning point for newspapers in the U.S. mment










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