At Large : Newspapers take stock. Or do they?
Newspaper people spend a lot of time thinking about their business and their places in it. Sometimes, thinking about their business actually gets in the way of doing their business.
Generally, such self-reflection is unhealthy because it leads to generous grants of dispensation for past slip-ups and missed opportunities. The race today is to the disrupters among us, and newspaper owners have been delighted for years to be the very opposite of disrupters.
Taking one's own measure, at least by newspaper types, also leads to vast expressions of high-mindedness and greater purpose, which in the day-to-day run of the work have little to do with anything. A significant portion of newspaper business owners uses high-mindedness as a shield and a discouraging plurality of news consumers happily pierce that defense with a whoop and a "Give us a break."
Some journalist observer/participants take stock in honest terms, and their reviews can be refreshing, if a little flattening. For instance, this newspaper has been determined to meet the challenge of the online age for more than a decade. We've made and remade mvtimes.com, and we're still doing it. We've enjoyed great success overall, although the wounds from readers and online visitors unhappy with the changes remain visible on our backs.
We've added things like the online Comment feature and tended it carefully over several years, conscious that the attitudes of participants, commenters and non-commenters alike, are protean, and so must our oversight of the feature. Ditto on the wounds report.
We've redesigned and redesigned the print newspaper product several times since it began life as a tabloid conceived by Carol Kolodny and Mary Rentschler in the late 1980s, and now we've done it again. Ditto on the varied reaction.
(By the way, don't think that when you set out to wound us with your unappreciative comments that we are unwounded.)
Closer to the heart, writing about columns such as this one, Russell Baker, the longtime New York Times OpEd Page humorist, wrote, "It takes great self-confidence to write a newspaper column. Some might say it takes arrogance. Be that as it may, my willingness to pronounce on a great many matters of which I have little or no knowledge is one of my prime qualifications for this trade." It's an observation that might be applied generally to the news game.
Now, you will probably join me (I hope) in thinking that Baker may have gone a bit far in these remarks, especially about the little or no knowledge thing, but nevertheless there is a grain of truth there.
Then there is this, written by a onetime United Press International Washington bureau manager. It seems exaggerated of course, but — well, you judge for yourself.
"A newspaper is not the place to go to see people actually earning a living, though journalists like to pretend they never stop sweating over a hot typewriter. It is much more like a brothel — short, rushed bouts of really enjoyable activity interspersed with long lazy stretches of gossip, boasting, flirtation, drinking, telephoning, strolling about the corridors sitting on the corner of desks, planning to start everything tomorrow." If he were writing today, he might add fuming – about that horrid website that had the story up first, that tweet that everyone's talking about, those rumors flying around the Facebook universe. Hoggish as the profession may appear to be, we suffer too, in our way.
"Each of the inmates," he goes on, "has a little specialty to please the customers. The highest paid ones perform only by appointment; the poorest take on anybody. The editors are like madams — soothing, flattering, disciplining their naughty, temperamental staff, but rarely obliged to satisfy the clients personally between the printed sheets."
Some of this rings true, naturally, but the business about the editors, I maintain unrestrainedly, is unsubstantiated nonsense.
H. L. Mencken, a news god to the more benighted of us, formed no tentative opinions. "The average newspaper, especially of the better sort, has the intelligence of a hillbilly evangelist, the courage of a rat, the fairness of a prohibitionist boob-jumper, the information of a high-school janitor, the taste of a designer of celluloid valentines, and the honor of a police-station lawyer," he wrote in 1941.
Mencken could be harsh, but at least he knew enough to confront pretension and that "newspaper of record" hogwash we hear so much about.
He also said, "A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier." I certainly can't go along with him there.
Here's a Mencken that rings true. "I used to, in my days of running a column — I welcomed the letters that came in, and, in fact, edited them. I was in charge of the letter column, and always let anyone in who denounced me violently get in — because I believe that people like to read abuse." (And write it, I would add.)
In my experience, letter writers represent a fraction of a newspaper's readership. Online commenters likewise, although in both cases, readers and site visitors in enormous numbers feed complacently on the printed and online expressions. This time of year The Times circulates 17,000 print copies, and we get 10 to 20 letters a week. It is comforting to think, as I do, that the other 16,980 readers, plus the 2.5 times that number who read the paper according to pass-along statistical figuring, and the tens of thousands who traipse through mvtimes.com's web pages are content with what we've published.
If any of this vast readership horde had a beef, wouldn't they, like the fraction who weekly put pen to paper, communicate their dissatisfactions? Of course they would. To be denounced as often as he was (and we are), Mencken must certainly have irritated a great many readers. His view was that readers, like citizens in a democracy, know what they want and "deserve to get it good and hard," which is no way to run a newspaper. Or, is it, do you think?