Veteran reporter Walter Pincus has a fine piece in the Columbia Journalism Review examining what’s wrong with print journalism and how it can be saved.  It’s a good read and an educational review of how we got here.

One prescription he has is to, frankly, follow the lead of public relations professionals.  One of the tenants of the PR business is that repetition and a sustained effort is often needed to influence the news.  If you are trying to increase attendance, say, for a jazz festival, as I am doing for a small festival in Colorado, one news release is not going to cut.  Reporters and editors must become familiar with it, hear different facts over time and eventually a smart angle might get good coverage.  One tactic is to keep the information in small, quickly digestible bites.  Pincus thinks that’s a good prescription for keeping newspaper readers.

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. (emphasis added) 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.

…[O]wners, 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.  (emphasis added)

One issue that frustrates me in today’s print journalism is the “faux fairness” doctrine.  Print journalists too often act as secretaries transcribing comments and going to great pains to give each side its due, even for such one-sided issues as evolution.  There’s no other viewpoint here of any scientific import.  But conservative, for a long time, have effectively demanded and received this “faux fairness.”  Pincus gives us the history.

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.

…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.

Pincus also provides a look at how the PR superstar Mike Deaver impacted the news.  What I didn’t know was that it wasn’t until Reagan’s administration that The Post almost mandated a daily White House story.

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.

You think newspaper are partisan?  Is The Post and the New York Times liberal, and the Washington Star and the Dallas Morning News conservative?  Well, that’s the way the founding fathers thought it should be, according to Pincus.

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. (emphasis added)

Which is what we web surfers do, isn’t it?

The only disappointment I had with Pincus’ article is that he teased us with a phenomenon I wished he had explore:  the proliferation of print media pontificating on television.

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.

What do print reporters do to get access?  Are they paid and how much?  Do they put aside objectivity for bombast, the drug of choice for cable news?  How does the appearance of T
he Post reporters on a cable show impact the coverage the paper gives – or downplays – about that media outlet?  What do journalist compromise to ensure a return engagement?

Still, it’s a good read.