Embrace the A-word

An editorial in Columbia Journalism Review says profit margins at big, publicly traded newspapers have widened, not shrank. An accompanying essay issue calls for more “aggressive journalism” to set agendas and explore solutions. Soul-searching is the order of the day in newspapers. Introspection may not be the panacea, however, if the soul is dead.

Perhaps, as a working journalist I should have known better, but I was astonished to learn how profitable newspapers remain, at least on average. The CJR editorial notes that:

“According to Morton Research Inc., John Morton’s Maryland media consulting firm, the weighted average of profit margins for the newspaper divisions of major media companies was 13 percent in 1991. It had climbed to nearly 20 percent last year — more than double the average profit margin of the Fortune 500.”

The editorial, subtitled “The American newspaper at a crossroads,” went on to urge that print media, “with their firepower, traditions and reach” should lead “great civic conversations” on the important issues of the day, even if political or business leaders avoid these problems. Amen!

The accompanying essay by CJR managing editor Brent Cunningham argues that only mass media have the penetration and reach to spur meaningful conversations on topics of public concern. He exhorts the press to write “stories grounded in solid reporting about what is possible, rather than simply what is probable; stories that shatter the official zeitgeist; stories that help set the agenda.”

While CJR pieces make rich use of the “conversation” buzzword of the blogosphere, they avoid mention of the term “advocacy” which is anathema to orthodox journalism. I understand the rationale. Journalism as practiced today is a set of conventions that have evolved over a century. Why inflame the traditionalists with a word like advocacy when you can lull them with a substitute like aggressive — which is how reporters like to think of themselves.

The trouble is audience habits and news delivery technologies are changing in Internet time. Newspapers and newspaper journalists can’t afford to cushion their professional ego-shock with euphemisms. As Philadelphia Daily News journalist Will Bunch said in a widely-quoted post on his Attywood blog :

“Much of the blame really lies with us, as journalists. We have, for the most part, allowed our product to become humorless and dull. In an era when it seems most people truly will be famous for 15 minutes, newspapers have stubbornly avoided creating personalities…or having a personality, for that matter. In a pathologically obsessive quest for two false goddesses — named Objectivity and Balance — we have completely ceded the great American political debate to talk radio, cable TV and the Internet, where people have learned that politics is actually interesting and even fun when people are allowed to take sides.”

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media