Posted by Tom Gable
The title of the news panel was “It’s Not Your Grandparents’ Newspaper or Newscast Anymore” and although it occurred in San Diego with local media, one can find several lessons learned with broader implications:
- - The ability to self-publish on the Internet has created a world where journalistic principles most likely don’t exist and readers now have the burden of determining what is journalism and what is not
- - Evolving newspaper business models, with 24/7 reporting and fewer copy editors, has resulted in more errors
- - The competitive nature of the broadcast media can creating feeding frenzies, such as the one experienced when the loon preacher in Florida threatened to burn a copy of the Koran on Sept. 11
- - Viewers need to distinguish between entertainment shows and news shows
- - Journalistic standards are lower with online media (or nonexistent)
The panel was held Sept. 17 at a biweekly luncheon meeting of the Catfish Club, founded by the Reverend George Walker Smith in 1970 to spur dialogue and understanding among different segments of the community. More than 70 attended, including community leaders, elected officials, retired Sheriff Bill Kolender and a couple of gadflies.
The moderator was Michael Grant, former columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune and now journalism and media instructor at Grossmont College. He was joined by: Jeff Light, editor of the U-T (www.uniontrib.com); J.W. August, managing editor of KGTV (ABC affiliate, owned by McGraw Hill); Andrew Donohue, editor, Voice of San Diego, 100 percent online newspaper; and Leon Williams, now retired, the first black elected to the San Diego City Council and also the county Board of Supervisors, who has a long history of promoting positive deeds in minority communities.
Grant set the stage by noting that with the evolving world of self-publishing, there are no guarantees online news is journalism – accurate, verified and worthy of trust. He said in pre-Internet days, the news media acted as gateways to screen out the questionable, objectionable, unverifiable and other non-news. Now, with everyone being self published, journalistic principles may simply not exist. (I had one former editor hand back a daily business column written on deadline saying it wasn’t writing, it was typing; glad he was around to make it right.)
Grant, a droll former Texan, said the authors of websites, blogs and other self published information and mostly never been to journalism schools. As a result, it is now up to the citizens to have the burden of determining what is journalism and what is not.
Donohue said he sees “churnalism not journalism” because of the 24/7 news cycle being chased by media with smaller staffs and more pressure. He said if gatekeepers of old had been at work, the preacher who threatened to burn the Koran on Sept. 11 might never have been covered.
August, of Channel 10, said cable beats things to death. He also used the Koran story as an example. The cable news networks picked it up and it turned into a feeding frenzy. If they had just dropped it at the outset, August said, the story would have gone away. He noted the growth of fake news programs and the challenge of confusing real news with entertainment.
Williams said the media has a duty to be accurate. He told the audience that the reporters often ask leading questions (“Don’t you think it’s the end of the earth?”) and complained about reporters twisting things to create conflict. He said the media need to keep their feelings and prejudices out of the news and present the news as fairly and objectively as they know how (in whatever the format).
Light, recruited from the Orange County Register where had driven web-based initiatives, said the new owners of the U-T bought into a losing operation and now wanted to find a way to “improve lives and build a stronger community.” When the new owners arrived, they found an aging, shrinking and dissatisfied audience, Light said. They did research and people were interested in values and improved community coverage. Rather than do incremental changes, the U-T made major changes to give a strong signal to the community. This included a complete design overhaul and making website news coverage the driving force, with section editors later determining what should make the print edition.
On accuracy, Light said the time-honored process within the news business was to have reporters arrive at a different level of trust, based on experience. They would turn in their stories, which would go through the editing process. Does it ring true? Have the facts been checked? Then the story would print. He said news media hear quickly if the are wrong, or if not all sources have been used.
In answers to questions from the audience, he said they have reduced the number of copy editors at the U-T. It was a financial necessity. He said he was given a certain budget for reporting. Under the old news model, 40 percent of the staff covered the news and the rest was infrastructure, including copy editors and editors. Now, they’ve reduced the number of copy editors to increase the number of reporters in the field and improve community coverage.
There will be a spike in errors, he noted, but they will be cosmetic. The reporters are getting closer to each community they serve, which he believes will be well received. He said he likes the online comments to stories because they help the media learn. But he hopes to eliminate anonymous postings.
The panel agreed that online comments are great, but need attribution. Light said the blogs and the various voices with anonymous comments get into demagoguery. Donohue said online platforms can generate ranting. Since the Voice of San Diego changed to eliminate anonymous postings, the quality of the comments has gone up considerably. They also moderate the comments.
Grant noted that with anonymous comments, most of the harangues turn into people ragging the comments of others rather than the story.
Donohue said Voice of San Diego, the online paper, has a tight editing procedure. The reporter prints the first copy of the story and gives to Andrew to edit with a red pencil in the old-fashioned way. The reporter is then challenged to prove the accuracy of the story. As a third step, copy editors conduct fact checking. They also require that reporters to footnote their stories. The footnotes are hidden, but give the editors of the opportunity to research and learn more. On big stories, the material is sent to their lawyers. This diligence hasn’t prevented Voice from breaking some big stories in politics and education and winning awards. Its processes could provide a model for any legitimate media outlet, online or otherwise.