Just about every American business, corporate, partnership or non-profit, has undergone recent change in strategy, internal organization, public communication and employee compensation.
Journalism — the news gathering and dissemination craft — not so much. Newspapers are closing at a record rate. Magazines are struggling or, like Honolulu, have turned to putting their pages up for sale to real estate companies’ ads, developers’ promotion of their projects, or Best Doctors and Best Dentists.
Journalism isn’t just being jolted by Covid-19. It’s being diminished by a growing social media, and even the programs like the Word Press that elevates me from a mere Facebook poster to a world wide web publisher.
Then there’s all the opinion pieces that have sprouted in local newspapers. Readers have never totally accepted the explanation that a paper’s editorial page is divorced from its unbiased news pages, but sticking opinion columns right in their with the news columns have made that assurance ever more suspect. If David Shapiro is railing against rail on Page 2 of the Sunday Star-Advertiser, isn’t that more influential than a pro-rail editorial in the Insight segment buried inside the Dining In supplement? The paper gave columnist Lee Cataluna access to its news pages, too, until she left to join Civil Beat’s opinion writers.
So what’s happening nationally and what, if anything, can be done to revive a flagging craft, a seriously damaged reputation for fairness, no favorites, no pandering to advertisers, and draw in journalists much turned off by relatively low pay (like a teacher) and the threat of furloughs (like a government worker.)?
When I began, at the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times in 1955. the editor — Tom Harris — was god. We reporters did not argue about stories’ content or approach. His word was final. My pay was final, too. $45 a week. But it was an old-style newsroom with interplay of close-quarters journalists. Not like today’s newsrooms (see below).
Currently, the Star-Advertiser doesn’t even have a listed editor. That’s pretty weird!
Another technical thing (I’ll get to the bias/no bias in a moment) was the fantastic copy editing to catch mistakes or make some read better, through a huge “copy desk: at the Times, and later when I worked at the Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal. That desk has been decimated in today’s newsrooms and that’s why you see so many more mistakes or badly-written stories in the morning newspaper.
The #2 god in the newsroom — Sandy Zalburg of the Honolulu Advertiser was one of those — was the city editor. The person who assigned local stories to reporters, complimented well-written ones, and screamed at or tore up poorly-written ones. This god kept bias out of stories, too. He (always men then) was unmoved by complaints from either the paper’s editor-in-chief or advertisers. Today, city editors tend to buy into their paper’s mission to keep advertisers happy and okay “promotion” stories.
Now about bias, either actual or perceived. My experience is that reporters tend to be liberal/progressive. They are in the craft to give voice to the voiceless, expose corruption and favoritism in government. Yes, they might be conservative Republicans, but they are in journalism to tell it like it is. So some bias creeps in. The unhappy citizen probably gets more space than the defending government employee.
There’s no question that journalists tended to pound on Donald Trump. But he brought the pounding on himself with his off pronouncements. Still, I think it’s true that many journalists such as Jake Tapper at CNN, seemed to have it in for Trump from the day of the 2016 election. And the New York Times with its plethora of anti-Trump columnists often seemed to be an instrument of the Democratic Party.
Locally, Gov. Linda Lingle seemed to travel a tougher road with journalists than her Democrat predecessors. That might have been because of her unpopular furloughs during the recession. Her #2, Duke Aiona, was hounded over his dietary suggestions. And nobody in my memory got as much one-sided coverage as Mayor Frank Fasi. Reporters, frankly, just did not like him and he did not like them. It was a Trump v. Press play.
We’d get better editors and reporters if newspapers could pay more for top-flight journalists. The way things stand, reporters have been fleeing to local government PR jobs which give them better salaries, good retirement benefits, and medical insurance coverage for life after sufficient government service. In the 1990s when I was paying imported, good reporters $50,000 at KGMB, the general manager suggested I take brand-new UH journalism grads, pay them $25,000 and teach them the real world skills.
That’s time consuming and ridiculous. One new hire went to a GOP news conference and came back to ask “who was that Hiram Fong they kept talking about.”
It would help if the UH could put out a real newspaper and do TV newscasts similar to what’s being done at Brigham Young University, which has turned out some fabulous news gatherers.
We’re down to one newspaper with no Saturday edition, a compilation TV news through KGMB-KHNL (same gatherers/presenters for both stations), MidWeek operating now with freebie writers replacing the former professional columnists, and radio news a thing of the past except for Hawaii Public Radio.
We might soon be getting our “news” from Twitter and Facebook. That’s very disturbing.
So what to do? Newspapers should consider converting to non-profits with the income improving the product rather than the investors’ pockets. Yes, the owners would take a hit, but they probably will anyway as advertisers drift away. That’s always been newspapers’ Achilles heel: they have ben instruments of money and personal power, with information often a secondary or tertiary motive.