Jack Shafer has a point. To a point.

October 26th, 2006 → 11:05 am @ // No Comments

On Monday, Slate’s Jack Shafer, (and here’s the standard caveat/suck-up included in the vast majority of stories press critics write about other press critics) — who’s somewhere between a friend and an acquaintance and is a reporter and writer I greatly admire — (now I can commence my criticism) took his trademark orneriness and applied it to the recent hand-wringing about media cutbacks.

Jack makes a couple of good points, such as:

* “[J]ournalists don’t want you to know this, but thanks to technology, it’s never been easier to hunt down a story, capture it, and bring it back to the presses for printing. A middle-school student sitting at a Web terminal has more raw reportorial power at his fingertips than the best reporter working at the New York Times had in, say, 1975. The teenager can’t command an undersecretary of defense to return his phone call as the Times guy can, but thanks to Google he can harvest news stories and background information that would take the 1975 model journalist days to collect.”


* “It’s hard to sympathize with the woe-is-us crowd of journalists when you learn that the number of full-timers employed by U.S. news-media organizations today has increased by almost 70 percent compared with 1971, according to The American Journalist in the 21st Century. The book doesn’t even include in its census the new jobs in online newsrooms or at the business-wire upstart Bloomberg News.”

(I’d be curious to know more about that study. Does it include staffers at the magazines that have sprouted since 1971? Because I’d be surprised if the Star (or Maxim) is the type of journalism the so-called hang-wringers are referring to.)

But Shafer completely misses the boat here:

* “The idea that a newsroom should employ X hundred staffers because it has traditionally employed X hundred staffers ignores the changes technology has made in the news market. For instance, Tribune critics denounce it for cutting the foreign bureaus at the Baltimore Sun and Newsday, which it owns. But should every metropolitan newspaper* keep its Moscow or Jerusalem bureaus when readers can click to Web coverage from the New York Times and the international press, especially when many of those papers are losing circulation? Something’s got to give.”

The (admittedly excessive) extension of that logic is that every story only needs to be covered by one outlet;** the past several years have shown the extent to which that’s not true. The best-known example of this is Knight-Ridder’s coverage of the WMD situation in Iraq (coverage which Shafer has praised). When the Times, among many other outlets, was accepting the Bush administration’s WMD rationale for war, Knight Ridder led the pack in uncovering the extent to which this wasn’t true. (Earlier this year, most of K-R was bought by McClatchy.) There are plenty of other stories the designated big-kid-on-the-block has missed over the years, from Watergate on; thank goodness other, redundent outlets have been there to pick up the slack. Foreign reporting is incredibly expensive; in fact, it’s essentially a subsidized part of any news operation. (Brief digression: the fact that the Times‘s public editor spent a column debating whether this was acceptable shows the extent to which the public editor position has become a joke.) But it’s also necessary (and will only become more so in an increasingly interconnected world); in fact, as Times editor Bill Keller has said (and I’m paraphrasing here), it’s this type of reporting that comprises news outlets core mission.

I’ve worked at a daily paper, and lord knows there’s lots of deadweight at virtually every daily in the country. (That’s just as true at many weeklies; I’ve oftentimes been confused by just what the hell people do all the time.) The fact that so many newspaper employees are guild members makes the shedding of this deadweight incredibly difficult, and it’s the guy who’s been collecting a steady paycheck while writing an occasional brief (or online column) that’s the least likely to accept a buyout. (Why take a lump sum when you can get paid for doing next to nothing?) Judiciously culling staffs — when judicial culling is possible — can only be a good thing. But foreign bureaus and investigative reporting is precisely where this culling shouldn’t occur. We need three U.S. reporters covering Moscow a lot more than we need three covering the local school board, but it’s the Moscow reporter who’s more likely to see his job disappear even if it’s those school board reporters who are more likely to be phoning it in.***

* This is a bit disingenuous. Neither Newsday nor the Sun is an example of the type of “every metropolitan newspaper” Shafer’s trying to evoke with this phrase, the argument here isn’t whether the Cleveland Plain Dealer or the Kansas City Star should have a fully staffer contingent of international reporters.

** I fully realize Jack is not suggesting a national team of reporters with everyone covering one subject and sending those dispatches out to the rest of the country; I’m trying to make a point here.

*** Please: no hate mail from school board reporters. I’ve covered school boards. A lot of local reporters are great. Etc etc.

Post Categories: Jack Shafer & Media reporting & New York Times

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: