Newspaper Narcissism

Our pursuit of glory led us away from readers

American journalism is in trouble, and the problem is not just financial. My profession is in distress because for more than a decade it has been chasing the false idols of fame and fortune. While engaged in those pursuits, it forgot its readers and the need to produce a commercial product that appealed to its mass audience, which in turn drew advertisers and thus paid for it all. While most corporate owners were seeking increased earnings, higher stock prices, and bigger salaries, editors and reporters focused more on winning prizes or making television appearances.

Some long-term reporting projects have been undertaken, and multiple-part series published, simply because they might win prizes. Over the past ten years, The Washington Post has won nineteen Pulitzer Prizes. But over that same period, we lost more than 120,000 readers. Why? My answer, unpopular among my colleagues, is that while many of these longer efforts were worthwhile, they took up space and resources that could have been used to give readers a wider selection of stories about what was going on, and that may have directly affected their lives. Readers have limited time to spend on newspapers. The number has been twenty-five minutes, on average, for more than thirty years. In short, we have left behind our readers in our chase after glory.

Editors have paid more attention to what gains them prestige among their journalistic peers than on subjects more related to the everyday lives of readers. For example, education affects everyone, yet I cannot name an outstanding American journalist on this subject. Food is an important subject, yet regular newspaper coverage of agriculture and the products we eat is almost nonexistent unless cases of food poisoning turn up. Did journalists adequately warn of the dangers of subprime mortgages? I don’t think so. (CJR’s answer to that question is on page 24.)

We have also failed our readers in the way we cover government. The First Amendment not only guaranteed freedom of the press from government interference, it also gave American journalists the opportunity—I believe the responsibility—to find and present facts on issues that require public attention. Our press is not protected in order to merely echo the views of government officials, opposition politicians, and so-called experts. Too often, though, that’s what occurs.

One of my basic concerns is that American journalism has turned away from its own hard-won expertise, and at the very time when readers are looking to us to explain the context of what is happening and what will happen next.

Most newspapers and the broadcast media have cut the number of reporters on beats. Meanwhile, young reporters are increasingly shifted from beat to beat, never having enough time to master complex subjects such as health care, public education, or environmental policies. As a result, more of their stories are based not on reportorial expertise, but on pronouncements by government sources or their critics.

Reporters are shifted around in part because of decreasing resources, and in part because within the profession, reporters are encouraged to become editors, editors to become publishers, and publishers of small papers pushed to manage bigger ones. This results in less expertise at the most important level—where reporters gather information.

Meanwhile, we have turned into a public-relations society. Much of the news Americans get each day was created to serve just that purpose—to be the news of the day. Many of our headlines come from events created by public relations—press conferences, speeches, press releases, canned reports, and, worst of all, snappy comments by “spokesmen” or “experts.” To serve as a counterpoint, we need reporters with expertise.

Consider the worst of recent examples. I believe the Bush administration sold the March 2003 invasion of Iraq to the American people beginning with a public-relations campaign that started in August 2002. Vice President Dick Cheney kicked it off with a series of speeches on the growing threat from Saddam Hussein, and it continued almost daily, with key members of the administration giving speeches, statements, or press conferences. The result was that the threat from Saddam Hussein—his alleged nuclear weapons, the idea that he would give chemical or biological weapons to terrorists—dominated news coverage right up to the time the first missiles hit Baghdad on March 19, 2003.

Manipulation of the media was taken to its highest form by George W. Bush’s administration. It built, however, on what went on before.

In 1922, Walter Lippmann, in his book Public Opinion, wrote:

The enormous discretion as to what facts and what impressions shall be reported is steadily convincing every organized group of people that whether it wishes to secure publicity or to avoid it, the exercise of discretion cannot be left to the reporter. It is safer to hire a press agent who stands between the group and the newspapers.

In 1968, Joe Alsop, discussing the Vietnam War, wrote that “facts influence events.” The increasing reports by war correspondents of U.S. failures in the war gradually undermined public support for the fighting. Five years later, facts presented by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and published day after day in The Washington Post proved Alsop’s words in dramatic fashion. The Post’s newspaper stories led to the resignation of a president.

Watergate, I believe, was the high-water mark for newspapers as vehicles for bringing the public previously unknown information about serious matters. But I also think that, in many ways, it has been downhill ever since.

The celebrity of Woodward and Bernstein, along with financial rewards that accompanied Bob’s continued hard work, set new goals for others in the profession. At the same time, the impact an aroused press could have on government and politics was not missed by conservative supporters of the Nixon administration. Their response was twofold: demand more conservative columnists on newspaper op-ed pages and equal treatment in news columns for politicians and experts from “both sides” of issues. It was an informal way of applying the fairness doctrine, which was required of the electronic media, to print.

In 1981, at the beginning of the Reagan administration, Michael Deaver—one of the great public-relations men of our time—began to use early-morning “tech” sessions at the White House, which had been a way to help network producers plan the use of their camera crews each day, to shape the television news story for that evening. Deaver would say that President Reagan will appear in the Rose Garden to talk about his crime-prevention program and discuss it in terms of, say, Chicago and San Francisco. That would allow the networks to shoot B-roll. The president would appear in the Rose Garden as promised, make his statement, perhaps take a question or two, and vanish.

After a while, the network White House correspondents began to attend these sessions, and later print reporters began showing up, too. On days when the president went off to Camp David or his California ranch, Sam Donaldson, the ABC News White House correspondent, began his shouted questions to Reagan, and Reagan’s flip answers became the nightly news—and not just on television. The Washington Post, which prior to that time did not have a standing White House story each day (publishing one only when the president did something newsworthy), began to have similar daily coverage.

At the end of Reagan’s first year, David Broder, the Post’s political reporter, wrote a column about Reagan being among the least-involved presidents he had covered. In response, he got an onslaught of mail from people who said they saw Reagan every night on TV, working different issues. It was a triumph of public relations.

When President George H. W. Bush succeeded Reagan and occasionally drifted off the appointed subject, criticism began to appear that he “couldn’t stay on message.” When Bill Clinton did two, three, or four things in a day, critics went after him for “mixing up the daily message.” Being able to “stay on message” is now considered a presidential asset, perhaps even a requirement. Of course, the “message” is what the White House wants to present to the public.

These two elements on the editorial side of journalism—a move away from expertise and the growth of public relations in government—have been facilitated, in part, by the changing nature of newspaper ownership.

Newspapers across the U.S. were often begun by pamphleteers, political parties, or businessmen who wanted to get involved in local, state, or even national affairs. The founding editors of The New York Times started that newspaper as supporters of the Whig party and later switched to the Republican party. Adolph Ochs, who bought the Times in 1896, was helped in his negotiations by a letter from President Grover Cleveland, who wrote that Ochs’s management of The Chattanooga Times had “demonstrated such a faithful adherence to Democratic principles that I would be glad to see you in a larger sphere of usefulness.” The Washington Post’s publisher Phil Graham helped put Lyndon Johnson on the ticket with John F. Kennedy.

They used their presses to influence government, but that is what the founding fathers contemplated when they wrote the First Amendment. The idea was that citizens in a democracy were to read more than one paper or pamphlet, weigh all opinions and facts as presented, and make up their own minds.

Today, mainstream print and electronic media want to be neutral, presenting both or all sides as if they were refereeing a game in which only the players—the government and its opponents—can participate. They have increasingly become common carriers, transmitters of other people’s ideas and thoughts, irrespective of import, relevance, and at times even accuracy.

When is the last time you saw a major newspaper or television network set out its own agenda for candidates to take up? At a time when it is most needed, the media, and particularly newspapers, have lost their voices.

Beginning in the 1960s, papers large and small started being bought for large sums, first by newspaper chains, which in turn became controlled by outside financial interests. A few papers remained privately owned, but eventually almost all sold stock to the public. With that financial change came monopoly ownership, one newspaper per city or town, and the notion that the newspaper that survived should be neutral, presenting all points of view in each controversial story. As I said, the fairness doctrine has been transferred from radio and television to the newspaper. How ironic is it today, then, that there are dozens of competing electronic voices in almost every city, most of which now have only one newspaper.

The Graham and Sulzberger families’ ownership of The Washington Post and The New York Times is, I believe, a major reason why these newspapers continue to provide quality journalism. But even they and their editors are nervous when accused of showing favoritism or antipathy toward one party or another.

My post-Korean War generation entered journalism because we wanted to change the governmental system. Our role models were James Reston of The New York Times, whose column I proofread during the five months I was a copyboy at the Times; Edward R. Murrow; Richard Rovere, then writing the Washington Letter for The New Yorker; and even playwright Arthur Miller. They were among the journalists and writers who led the challenge to Senator Joe McCarthy’s red-baiting at a time when most mainstream journalists were being “objective” and reporting, uncritically, his accusations about Communist infiltration of government and his unproven allegations about individuals.

As a copyboy in 1954, fresh out of college, I delivered mail to Hanson Baldwin, then the Times’s highly respected military correspondent. When Baldwin wrote a news story or a piece of analysis, it was read in the Pentagon and in Congress. They had to read him because his years of coverage and his insights made him as expert as top generals and civilian defense officials. I didn’t know it then, but those days had a major influence on my approach to journalism.

I am a Democrat, and everyone knows it. No one is more aware of it than I am as I write stories for The Washington Post. I worked for Senator J. William Fulbright twice in the 1960s, when I was lucky to run two eighteen-month Foreign Relations Committee investigations for him. The first grew out of magazine articles I had written about lobbying in the U.S. by foreign governments. The second focused on military involvement in foreign policy, and grew out of discussions I had with Fulbright during my initial time with him. Those two sabbaticals were among the most important and enlightening years of my life, and influenced my view of reporting on government. They showed me how little I knew as a reporter about how government really worked.

Part of the explanation for this lack of knowledge is the emergence of the idea, among reporters in Washington and perhaps elsewhere, that we should avoid socializing or developing friendships with public officials—even those who are our peers. As a result of this artificial separation, public figures remain one-dimensional to many journalists; they have no wives, children, or lives outside their professional positions.

Not to me. After fifty years of living and working in Washington, I’ve had personal friends in Congress, on federal court benches, in high government positions, even in the White House. We should be measured by our work, not by what we say or do elsewhere. I certainly hope that as witnesses to wars, civil-rights riots, peace marches, famines, and terrorist events these past decades, we all have developed opinions which at times we may discuss or even argue about—or we just are not human.

Such experiences make us better observers and thus better reporters. With more and more PR peddled as news, journalists need the experience to sort out what really is news, and to deliver it in context.

As we’ve seen, fewer national and local newspapers are in the hands of fewer companies that in turn provide newspapers that are less appealing and relevant to people who have limited time to read them. And with the arrival of first the Internet and now the financial downturn, advertisers have panicked. The result is far less money to support serious journalism.

Although I have primarily been a reporter the past fifty years, I have also been a close observer of the financial side of the media business. In my college days, I bought stock in The New Yorker. I was an initial investor when Clay Felker started New York magazine, and when The New York Review of Books began. In 1970, I spent a couple of years unsuccessfully trying to start a national newspaper to be produced in Washington and printed on local presses in college cities across the country. From 1971 through 1975, I was executive editor of The New Republic, and put together a group that was to purchase the magazine after the 1976 presidential election, though we were outbid. I returned to The Washington Post in 1975 and today am a consultant to the company as well as a reporter for the newspaper.

I describe this background to justify talking about the finances of the newspaper business. In the early 1960s, Phillip Graham, at the time the president of The Washington Post Company, told me that the Post had just begun to turn a profit, but that he and Eugene Meyer, his father-in-law, who had originally purchased the paper, considered it a business much like a public utility. And as such, they thought making a profit of 7 percent would be a more than fair return on investment. This philosophy has guided me ever since.

Family-owned newspapers were the foundation of American journalism in the 1960s. Like the Post, most were started by businessmen who wanted a voice in their communities. Few were begun as the way to make a fortune. That began to change with the arrival of radio, and then television. The electronic media involved government licenses, which carried with them the requirement for delivery of public-affairs programming, starting with news. Newspapers became the obvious applicants, and many publishers suddenly became owners of local broadcast stations who stood to make a lot of money as network affiliates.

In the 1950s and 1960s, when newspapers made single-digit profits, radio and television affiliates could make up from 40 to 50 percent. Newspapers large and small started being swallowed by publicly owned corporations. With that trend came monopoly ownership. Gannett became the biggest. In 1977, as its purchasing of family papers moved into high gear, Gannett stock was around $8 a share. By 1990, it was at $75, and in 2004, it hit $90. At its height, Gannett produced earnings of more than 22 percent on its gross income, and set a standard that other newspaper corporations tried to emulate. When Knight-Ridder showed only a 14 percent profit, its major investors demanded it be sold.

I believe most corporate owners of newspapers made terrible business decisions over the past decade, thinking that the growing profits of the 1980s and early 1990s would continue. Chains paid excessive prices for family-owned papers and went deep into debt. The New York Times Company finds itself in trouble after paying $1 billion for The Boston Globe, over $2 billion to buy back its own stock at the height of its price, and another $600 million for a new building.

And now there is the economic downturn. In this environment, the Web has become both the threat and, to some, the savior. But I look at this differently than some in my profession. The Web has certainly taken an important chunk of classified advertising, but the broader threat seen by many is to me another sign of our own self-involvement. Journalists, probably more than any other group outside the financial community, are mesmerized by the Web. They closely watch it, so they believe others are doing the same.

Let me clarify that I am talking primarily about mass media—newspapers, television, and radio that traditionally have reached more than 80 percent of the American public. I am not talking about the thousands of Web sites and blogs that aggregate other people’s stories or present their own editorial material. They talk of thousands of unique visitors, but remember that these totals, often inferred rather than accurately measured, reflect monthly figures. When divided by thirty days in a month, they become smaller than individual newspaper circulations, which cumulatively sit at 110 million daily readers, even with recent losses.

Meanwhile, most consumers of online news do it from roughly 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. They are at work, and what they have time to see primarily are headlines. They don’t pay for what they see and probably won’t. And because the daily readership numbers are relatively small and the audience often geographically dispersed, the advertising hardly covers the cost of gathering the original stories. As Washington Post President Stephen P. Hills said recently, the Post newspaper is a $600 million business; its Web site is a $50 million business.

Nevertheless, there has been an outburst within the journalism community that the end is near. Serious people have proposed what in time will be considered absurd ideas—turn papers into nonprofit organizations; charge for each downloaded story; turn into Web-based publications; make Web aggregators, such as Google and Yahoo, pay for carrying newspaper stories. had some twenty million unique users for the month of October, making it the fifth-ranked news site on the Internet in terms of total visitors. The newspaper is sold to 800,000 readers a day, rising on Sunday to over 1 million. Without thinking, someone might say the Times Web site readership far exceeds the newspaper’s. But the definition of unique visitor is someone who within a month’s time visits the Web site more than once. It is not apples to apples, but by dividing the twenty million a month by thirty you get at best roughly 667,000 readers a day, which is short of the paper’s daily circulation.

I recognize that journalistically I am old-fashioned. I was going to say, an old fogey. But thanks to Microsoft Word, I have learned that a “fogey” is a reactionary. And Microsoft tells me its antonym is “activist,” which is a title I embrace. So I have to stand by Microsoft.

Like other industries caught up in today’s economic downturn, newspapers, which just a few years ago were rapidly expanding, have to reduce expenses, including staff. We also should look for other ways to use the materials we already collect and produce. The Post and other publications have taken first steps in joint ventures with network television news. I believe we will see a time when a major newspaper and a major television network jointly produce a daily news show.

But when it comes to editorial content, meaningful news about government, politics, and foreign policy is only one of the saleable elements. Good newspapers have to go back to delivering a daily product that our mass audiences want, and which provides to advertisers a unique means to reach consumers. Like supermarkets, newspapers must deliver quality in all departments.

Yet at the same time, owners, editors, and reporters should push issues they believe government is ignoring. They should do it factually and in articles short enough to read daily, but spread over time. That is how Americans absorb information—by repetition.

They should remember that “newsmakers” are intent on using the media to influence readers, listeners, and viewers to take up their ideas. The electronic and print media today probably have more power over public opinion—and thus government—than they had fifty years ago. But I fear they turn much of that power over to those who create news events to get coverage.

The press should play an activist role. That’s the reason a free press is important. Mine is a romantic and unfashionable view of journalism, but that is why many of us took up the profession in the first place.

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Walter Pincus is a reporter for The Washington Post, and a consultant to The Washington Post Company. This article is adapted from a lecture he gave in February in Berlin to The American Academy.