Two Very Different Takes on Corporate Journalism
Let the Citizen Beware?
By John H. McManus
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com) 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.
Let the Citizen Beware?
By John H. McManus
243 pages; $21.50
To use John McManus' delightful phrase, corporate journalism "is spreading like a sniffle through a day-care center." In these books, two professors undertake serious, systematic analyses of the consequences — and reach opposite conclusions.
McManus, focusing on local television, concludes bluntly that "market journalism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms." Demers, looking mainly at newspapers, is more optimistic. He holds that "critics have vastly overstated the..adverse effects" of corporate papers. He believes they actually emphasize quality more and profits less than at what he calls the "entrepreneurial newspaper."
Given the apparent contradictions, we might dismiss these works as self-canceling. But sticking with these books leads to some valuable larger points. Both are thoughtful works, and offer evidence that can take us beyond hunches and prejudices about changing times.
First, some distinctions. McManus looks mainly at market forces, that is, the desire to optimize profits through content that draws viewers. Demers looks at organization. He is interested in the impact of the corporate structure (a term generally synonymous with chain ownership) compared with locally owned, idiosyncratic management.
McManus, who among other things spends a lot of time inside TV newsrooms, documents several conclusions. He finds that news is an "elaborate compromise," a commodity influenced tremendously by investors, advertisers, sources and consumers. When market forces oppose journalistic values, he shows, the market usually wins.
He drives home his points both anecdotally and statistically. At the stations he studied, market forces routinely dominated the selection of stories (the interesting over the important), the production standards (cheap, source-generated pieces over expensive enterprise and investigations), and the telling of stories ("In a minute-and-a-half you want image and you want impact," one reporter explains to him).
Demers homes in on structure. Through interviews, questionnaires and statistical comparisons, he draws a compelling distinction between corporate and traditional management. Perhaps the most powerful difference, he believes, is the increased power of professional managers (including editors), who tend to make corporate papers more efficient and centered on quality.
Because of their strength, size and professional management, corporate papers are "more insulated from parochial political pressures." As a result, he finds, they are more likely to publish critical letters and editorials, promote reform and social change, and sustain higher morale.
Demers intriguingly attacks some of the nostalgic myths about community-based papers. He notes, for example, that they tend to tie into the local establishment, be more vulnerable to local advertiser pressures, and suffer from provincial fears of diversity and conflict.
He makes a powerful, counterintuitive argument that corporate papers "place less emphasis on profits as an organizational goal." In part, he believes, this is because larger organizations are naturally more stable, come by their profits easier, and so can afford less bottom-line fixation. He also contends that independent papers tend to be more secretive about finances; publicly held companies discuss money so openly, Demers feels, that we may exaggerate its overall role.
There is ample material to ponder, and both authors should be saluted for the best kind of work: combining applied and theoretical research with intelligent observation and analysis.
I must admit that McManus' anecdotes can stick with you more than charts and graphs.
One day, for example, he accompanied a TV reporter assigned on Election Day to take a "lighthearted angle" on why people weren't voting in a suburban council race. When someone suggests finding out which candidates a low turnout might help, the reporter demurs. The reason: He doesn't know their names.
Let the citizen beware indeed. l