Monday, November 14, 2011

At once perceptive and arrogant

That pretty much sums up my reading of Laurie Winer's part-memoir of her days at the L.A. Times and part-review of James O'Shea's book The Deal from Hell in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

True enough, Winer has me more often than not muttering and shaking my fist at her recounting of the cavalier and rapacious sacking that Sam Zell and his minions did to Tribune and the Times.

Hers and Dean Starkman's recent piece about the San Jose Mercury News should be must-reading, if for no other reason than to think with the wisdom of hindsight about what has happened.

But just as I am about to shake my fist in solidarity again, up pops that old journalistic arrogance in Winer's retelling:

All of FitzSimons’s ideas came from his knowledge of broadcast; he thought newspapers should focus on local news and that editors should rely on readership surveys to figure out what consumers want covered, and then cover those things. This is the antithesis of a good newsroom, where editors rely on reporters who are on the ground asking questions to help determine the importance and urgency of stories. Then, editors, most of whom are former reporters and have overarching expertise in their fields, confer over which stories should take precedence. The front-page editorial mix is based on their collective view of what a well-informed person needs to know about his neighborhood or country: not a distinction that the average citizen has the perspective to be able to make. When real journalism is being practiced, these decisions are not ever based on which stories will increase the stock portfolios of the editors or the newspaper.

Yes, basing your editorial decisions solely on readership surveys is the antithesis of good journalism. But actually paying attention and listening to your readers, and then using that to expand your frame of reference when making those vaulted journalistic decisions Winer praises? That's not the antithesis at all. It's using your head and putting the arrogance on a shelf.

"Real journalism" shouldn't be done for the aggrandizement of others, no. But it also needs to get real - if it doesn't generate the resources necessary to support it, it's dead. Winer seems to be living in that land of Oz that too many journalists have inhabited - where somehow the roads are paved with gold and we're all taken care of, and ignore that man behind the curtain who eventually has to be paid.

How condescending -- "not a decision that the average citizen has the perspective to be able to make." No, but the average Joe and Jane do have the perspective to make a decision and they're making it, and they're telling arrogant journalists "you're not that important anymore."

Maybe that's tough to handle, but a show of arrogance back doesn't do anyone any good. Yep, Zell was a schmuck when he told a photographer in Orlando that to survive, newsrooms have to figure out how to find enough resources to cover both "puppies and Iraq" and characteristically delivered the message with a "f*** y**" to the person who asked the question. It's unfortunate because it means Winer and others can easily dismiss it without getting off their pedestals.

Unfortunately, they're just as guilty of uttering the same epithet -- at their hoi polloi audience, which, newly empowered by technology, is giving them the finger back.

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At 11/14/11, 6:05 PM, Blogger Davisull said...

Doug, perceptive commentary. I found myself even more put off by the piece than I expected. All through it runs, but we are here to save the world, and all most people care about is their plebian self-interest, so -- well, one could quote Sam Zell here.

The irony of this and the San Jose piece is, when newspapers became, as she said, cash machines, most of them suddenly had the ability to do things they never could have done before. Some took full advantage of it, some played with it, some concentrated only on executive profits. But simply saying that, flush with this cash, newspapers should simply have turned to the newsroom and said, here you go, bags of money, use it as you see fit, we don't care, is not realistic. Yes, some families, such as the Bancrofts, essentially did that. But was it really better when most newspapers had very little money, as they do now?

In the end, it just reads like, "For years I had a subsidized position to say what I wanted, which, since I am more educated and informed than the typical person, benefitted society. I should have been able to keep it as a social good." But no matter how profane Zell was, there is nothing wrong with puppies and Iraq. There is nothing wrong with saying, if readers have said for 50 years that they look to newspapers for local news, one should provide them with local news.

At 11/15/11, 10:45 AM, Blogger Doug said...

Thanks. Hope you like your new digs.

Check out Part 2 of this meme that I'm going to post in a moment - from YouTube.



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