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American Journalism Review
Of the People, By the People, Bore the People  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   March 1992

Of the People, By the People, Bore the People   

IS IT THE MEDIA'S FAULT THAT PEOPLE DON'T WANT TO READ ABOUT GOVERNMENT? SOME EDITORS THINK SO, AND THEY'RE FINDING INNOVATIVE AND ENGAGING WAYS TO PRESENT THE NEWS.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.

     

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   » Keeping Readers Awake

Soon after Deborah Howell took over the Washington bureau of Newhouse News Service in the summer of 1990, she bridled at all the somber Potomac pontificating and hired James Lileks as what she calls her "resident funny man."

Lileks ventured to Washington from St. Paul, Minnesota, bent on exposing the "basic idiocies" of government. It didn't take long. In columns and features, the former humor columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press began to chronicle such topics as the Agriculture Department's hog-to-corn ratio ("Not to be rude, but, well, so what?") and the Great Ketchup Reclassification controversy (in which the "Evil All-Powerful Government" poured itself a mess by proposing to review the thickness standards).

And Lileks was there, if underwhelmed, for a visit by Boris Yeltsin to the Lincoln Memorial: "..[H]e is completely obscured by the pack of reporters, and whatever words he is saying are drowned out by the shouts and oaths the Secret Service is hurling at the cameramen."

Some may see opting for irreverence as an obvious ploy in a city whose absurdities have inspired Johnny Carson and Art Buchwald for years. But no one is laughing at the reasoning behind Howell's move. Industry-wide, newspapers are rethinking traditional government coverage as they intensify their struggle for readers.

To Howell, Lileks and many others, government reporting, whether from city hall or the statehouse or the marble halls of Congress, has become too boring to endure. Accordingly, newspapers nationwide have begun pepping up or cutting back government news, calling into question the raison d'etre of journalism,

the monitoring and watchdog role.

Unanimously, they maintain they are trying to provide better service to harried readers. But profound and ominous questions accompany the changes. Does dwindling audience interest in civic affairs foreshadow rejection of the ideal of the educated citizen? Will the press's longstanding devotion to public service recede into oblivion, supplanted by a market-driven allegiance to the tony and trendy?

Or, are these lamentations misplaced? Is the press simply doing what it should, responding to a public less preoccupied with big government and more insistent on relevance?

More Minutiae, Less Filling

Journalists clearly believe that the public's eyes glaze over when the topic is government and politics. To appreciate this, just note what editors are saying about government news:

"We may want to de-emphasize a bit the daily machinations of government," writes David Lawrence Jr., publisher of the Miami Herald and president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE).

"You can fill up a newspaper with an awful lot of minutiae," says Shelby Coffey, editor of the Los Angeles Times.

"We're covering a great deal less of the turn-of-the-wheel kind of thing. Nobody gives a damn," says Davis Merritt Jr., editor of the Wichita Eagle.

"We want to do less about following every leaf that drops," says Baltimore Sun Managing Editor Kathryn Christensen.

Such comments drip with disdain for what Tallahassee Democrat Executive Editor Lou Heldman calls "the kind of things that get gnashed around in city council meetings week after week."

John A. Dvorak has covered state and local government for more than 12 years for the Kansas City Star. He says his work has changed markedly. "A few years ago, we would do stories on relatively routine actions by government bodies that today we won't even think about writing," he says. "All of us feel pressure to produce stories that are more interesting, more readable, stories that more clearly show their impact on people."

Once, Dvorak says, he and his paper followed bills through the entire "hurdle process" of the state legislature, from subcommittee to committee, House to Senate. But this year, when the Missouri legislature considered a host of environmental bills, "We just didn't pay very close attention. We felt they weren't quite important enough or interesting enough to warrant our attention."

Something similar has happened in the District of Columbia, where the Regional Reporters Association (RRA) has tracked the closing of several Washington bureaus – closings due not only to increased financial constraints but to reduced demand for federal coverage as well.

"There's less desire for nuts-and-bolts government news," says Jonathan Salant, RRA president and Washington correspondent for two Syracuse, New York, newspapers, the Herald-Journal and the Post-Standard. "There is no request to write, 'The Defense Appropriations subcommittee today voted on a bill that would mean X dollars to Syracuse.' This year, I decided not to cover a single appropriations story until the final bill passed, and nobody noticed."

Though change has accelerated, newspapers continue to churn out plenty of routine copy. Take, for instance, those one-time ubiquitous reports on what didn't happen, such as a recent San Francisco Chronicle article that began: "At the request of Governor [Pete] Wilson, the state Lottery Commission postponed making changes yesterday that might reverse the games' serious decline until a replacement is found for Lottery Director Chon Gutierrez."

Or, the reports on what almost happened but didn't, such as a 20-column-inch Houston Post dispatch that led: "Representatives for Mayor Kathy Whitmire's reelection campaign Tuesday nearly pulled out of a scheduled televised debate with challengers Bob Lanier and Sylvester Turner over last-minute problems with the studio set."

Or even the reports on something that happened but almost nobody cared about, such as this one from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch: "The Redistricting Committee of St. Louis Community College tentatively agreed Tuesday to recommend a new method of electing members of the college's Board of Trustees."

Remarking on the narrowness of some coverage, New York University professor Neil Postman urges journalists to both monitor local officialdom and "to widen the areas of public discourse and public concern." Author of "Amusing Ourselves to Death" and "Technopoly," Postman complains that the press "treats what George Bush has to say or what happens in Congress almost as technical matters and doesn't widen the debate."

He advocates greater variety in sources and approaches. During the Persian Gulf War, for instance, the media "mostly focused on having technical people on the air telling us about the technology being used," Postman says. "You rarely saw any poets, any playwrights, any philosophers, any composers, any artists. What the press did was to make it as if the only people qualified to speak on what was happening were technical experts."

When arguing for rejuvenating government news, editors insist they don't intend to slash public service. "We will be doing absolutely the wrong thing if we start ignoring public officials and government," Deborah Howell of Newhouse News Service says. "They're the ones making the rules. They're the ones with the power. But I want to write relevant stories that people want to read."

Hiring Lileks as humor writer wasn't the only unorthodox move Howell made at her bureau. She also lured reporters to cover family, children and education; religion, morality and ethics; and social trends – hardly the standard Washington fare. Howell willingly sacrificed daily-event stories to produce what she calls "context reporting" – what does it really mean?

Many journalists readily concede there is less government coverage today, with increased emphasis on quality over quantity. At least three reasons account for this: the shrinking news hole in many papers, the increased attention to topics such as lifestyles, leisure and science, and the perception that the public lacks an appetite for mundane copy about government. That the public recoils from such stuff is nothing new; what's new is the increased economic importance of maintaining readers.

"There is less volume to read about government in our papers, and that's by design," says Wichita's Merritt. "I can remember when we covered the county budgeting process, and every time they cut 27 flashlight batteries, we wrote a paragraph about it... There are county commission and city council meetings now where we won't write a line. The focus now is on impact."

Serving the Public?

Few people would oppose articles with impact, but the nagging question remains: Where will it all lead? Is this the slippery slope away from social responsibility, or just a timely retuning of outmoded patterns? For many, a pivotal question is who will most influence the direction of evolution: journalists schooled in public service values, or marketers willing to tailor the product to perceived audience taste?

Most news-siders hope the edge goes to journalists who will accept some market thinking rather than marketers who may or may not have journalistic conscience. To forsake the monitoring role for short-term popularity would imperil both the public and the press. For example, although ASNE President David Lawrence wants to downplay coverage of government "machinations," he also warns against "abdicating our crucial role as 'watchdog.' "

Jonathan Salant, the Syracuse reporter, is also concerned. "If we're not there and if these people [in government] don't know we are out there, there may become a greater tendency on the part of politicians to cut corners or take money or not do their jobs," he notes. "If we're not there, all people are going to know is what politicians send out in press releases and newsletters."

If journalists and their public service values are to prevail, they should follow a two-part strategy: Pay careful attention to changing conditions in society and adapt their copy to achieve, in Howell's words, "new ways of serving readers."

To start, journalists need to acknowledge that the world has changed. To those born in the booming post-World War II days, the association of "news" with "government" may seem understandable. It is no accident that the rise of a government-oriented, civics-infused definition of news coincided with the Roosevelt-to-Reagan half-century of governmental and magisterial growth. But this era, now over, may well have been the high-water mark for interest in big government in and of itself. Now, government is so inter-related with every aspect of our lives that separating it out doesn't always produce the best coverage. A more holistic strategy involves assigning someone, for example, to cover health (including both public and private angles) rather than the Department of Health and Human Services.

This doesn't suggest that the government's role is diminishing. On the contrary, one cannot overlook the mammoth bailout of savings and loan institutions or still-fermenting policy questions about abortion, crime and education. Critical issues still play out on the government stage.

Increasingly, however, it does not suffice to cover such issues by narrowly focusing on government. Crime and education cut across every aspect of society, and disproportionate attention on government does not fully suit readers.

Consider one finding from a Center for Responsive Politics study of Congress and the media. Asked how many congressional news stories "connect with you," 38 percent of people aged 66 and older replied, "Most of them," not a terribly high figure to begin with. But for people 18 to 25, the figure was only 16 percent.

Given the changes American society has undergone, coverage of government itself may not need to predominate as it once did.

But of course it will not, and should not, disappear. So journalists must take greater responsibility for helping sort out the truly relevant from the run-of-the-mill.

To ensure an attentive readership, journalists also need to choose topics more thoughtfully, explain them more skillfully, and present them more compellingly – efforts now under way at many papers around the country.

If, as many believe, newspeople must make peace with shorter stories and diminished news holes, then the best-case scenario is to trade quantity for quality. Well-planned, well-executed coverage might actually inform citizens better while occupying less space.

"My answer," says author Neil Postman, "is that newspapers should go into the meaning business."

In addition to meaning and context, humor writer James Lileks thinks readers should be given something else: the inside scoop, from reporters unleashed to write what they really know.

"We probably should have term limits for reporters," Lileks says. "Take them out after three years or so and oblige them to end their tenure with a blistering broadside in which they say what they've learned..but haven't been able to say before."

What does the future hold for government coverage?

Don't rule out a period of retreat during which resource-hungry publishers defang watchdog journalists and snatch reporters and space from the government desk. Using public alienation as an excuse, they could redistribute the resources to who-knows-where.

But such an approach stands to be temporary and self-defeating. The notion of social responsibility is too ingrained, too vital and, in an information age, too profitable. If a watchdog press didn't exist, someone would have to invent it. Since it does exist, it should endure.

It remains quite plausible that professional values can compete with market forces and win their share of battles. We can expect reduced coverage of institutional government, increased coverage of broader issues that involve but do not key on government, and more attention to writing, as in the columns of James Lileks. None of this necessarily threatens the public welfare.

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