Saturday, March 18, 2006

What is a reporter?

Probably not Phil Anderson.

Phil is a good guy. He writes well enough. But he's not my idea of a reporter. He's a Christian and he's sincere about it without being a jerk. But he's got an agenda and a free hand.

He reports fine when he reports. To his credit, he covers other faiths frequently, in an informative manner and with his biases in check. But his biases are never more than a column away.

One expects any beat reporter to get a little "inside baseball" now and then. When the baseball writer becomes a booster for the home team it's not a big deal. It's just sports. A lack of objectivity can cost credibility but it's not like a blind eye to the Royals' problems will have a deleterious effect on public policy. But you don't want your cop reporter to become a cheerleader and you sure wouldn't want him or her to be writing your law enforcement columns.

Anderson seems to be C-J's all-purpose "religion writer." There's no effort to differentiate between his roles as reporter, critic and columnist. One must simply take a deep breath, start reading and figure out what sort of piece you're into as you go along.

In the typically neither-fish-nor-foul item in today's C-J, headlined "Author updates a brilliant book" (not on-line), one would expect such a value judgment to indicate an act of criticism. I suppose it is if the single comment "reads as fresh as the e-mail that just popped up on your computer screen" is a review. If it's not a review then it's just a context for Anderson to offhandedly characterize, in his words, "the inevitable suffering that is so prevalent in a fallen world."

I'm sorry, but I'm no more comfortable with the religion writer describing the state of the world as though the view through his spiritual filters were consensus reality, than I would be if the reporter covering city government was openly using his or her party affiliation as a baseline reference point.

I credit the editors at the Capital-Journal with the mental acuity to understand why this is problematic. In our region, the godly, Christian nation bias plays very well and the free hand Anderson has to promote his theological views is allowed because a craven calculus suggests it comforts more readers than it alienates.

This is right if the only measure of journalism is a contented circulation manager. By any other measure, it's not a good thing.


What is a newspaper?

And, what's its purpose?

In my estimation a newspaper is several things and serves several purposes. Some of these function in tension with one another and some, directly at odds.

The idealistic view is that a newspaper is a compendium and journal of news and information which exists to serve the needs of the community and to promote an informed and critical-thinking populace in an unbiased manner. At best this is lightly clung-to, animating goal of the journalists, editors and publisher. At worst it is an utter myth, cynically held up like an illuminated icon by people with no such motivation.

Here's the bottom line. A newspaper is a business. A newspaper is an economic enterprise.

A newspaper has content so that people will buy it and read it. That is the reason there is anything written for or paid for as syndicated content. The only true pressure to maintain anything like balance or objectivity, to be inclusive in it's coverage or to attempt to be comprehensive is because to fail to do so too dramatically, in one direction or another will reduce circulation.

The business of a newspaper is to develop and maintain readership and then sell access to that readership to advertisers.

What a newspaper is willing to do to build and maintain circulation is up for grabs and is at the mercy of a number of factors.

Any business has as its fiduciary responsibility, generating profit for those that hold equity in the enterprise. One should never imagine that this does not take precedence over any concept of responsibility to readers or community. In the universe of the hometown newspaper, the newsroom is performing well if circulation goals are met and readers are not angry.

On the other hand, let me not suggest that for those with authority over the content of the newspaper, no value is found in the printed word. It's been said that freedom of the press belongs to those that own the presses. The control of a newspaper is possession of a bully pulpit. To what extent this perk is exploited varies.

The owner, the publisher or the managing editor may interject an op-ed piece at any time with little or no scrutiny or oversight. The editorial board may be a reflection of the community or an expression of the will of management. Your newspaper has an editorial writer. This person has the primary responsibility for composing editorials that the editorial board has decided should appear in print. The thrust of an editorial is determined by committee, then this writer must satisfy that vision. Being the person with fingers on the keys gives this individual subtle power. How well or poorly a certain point of view is promoted can be colored by how much or how little the writer agrees with the position. It's important that this person be compliant and willing to suppress his or her own views in deference to those of greater authority.

Being a large business with a manufacturing infrastructure and a large workforce, as well as stakeholders with revenue expectations, it's probably futile to expect your daily paper to strike a pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-corporate transparency stance. Your paper may have to cover both "sides" of that dichotomy but it resides firmly in one camp, itself. And don't expect a lot of content that will get the publisher a cold shoulder in the locker room at his country club.

A newspaper is not a product that is reproduced day after day. It's a product that has to be reinvented every day. 24 hours is not a long time and there's a whole bunch of space to fill.

Stories become stories in a variety of ways. Some are assigned by editors to reporters and some are pitched by reporters to editors and get the green light. Assignments can be innocuous. Someone's going to the city council meeting. Someone is covering the grain elevator fire. Some pitches are innocuous and just good news judgment. If a reporter hears that some kid is training for the Olympics it would be remiss not to bring that to an editor's attention.

Every reporter, photographer and editor is a human being with a unique constellation of values and biases. These humans are drawn to stories and images for a variety of reasons. You and I read or skip their work similarly.

One person might be drawn to a story about AIDS hospice care, another by someone inventing a new baseball bat. There's space to fill and if the story isn't time-sensitive, both will be written. In this way, reporters, photographers and editors not only color how stories are covered, but what is covered within the bounds of protecting circulation. What constitutes controversy and how controversy is dealt with is a moving target. Remind me to tell you about John Bell and C-J's coverage of the Phelpses in the early '90s, sometime.

Sometimes, a "reporter" can get away with journalistic murder with a blind eye from management if it serves the economic interests of the paper. Sometimes it's murder one may presume is approved of by a majority of the readership. This is cynical pandering and can allow an individual use the newspaper as a personal pulpit, literally.

That's my next entry.