The New York Times will recover just fine.
By John Morton
Jayson Blair was not the first journalist to sandbag his newspaper with bogus reporting or other nefarious behavior, and, sadly, he probably won't be the last. It is important to remember, however, that painful as the Blair scandal was for the New York Times, two other major newspapers victimized by errant reporters in the past maintained their reputations and their successful businesses.
John Morton (email@example.com), a former newspaper reporter, is president of a consulting firm that analyzes newspapers and other media properties.
There are lessons to be learned, though, from what happened at the Times and earlier at the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. The lessons concern newsroom management and the use of unnamed sources (see "Down with Top-down" and "Important if True").
Newsroom management was not a big issue at the Journal in the early 1980s when one of the writers of the influential "Heard on the Street" column, R. Foster Winans, tipped brokers ahead of time to information about to appear in his columns.
Such dishonesty is practically impossible to prevent in even the best-managed newsrooms, although subsequent investigations by the Journal revealed that managers could have more rigorously checked Winans' history before hiring him. (A previous newspaper employer cited some questionable activities.)
Newsroom management likely was a problem at the Washington Post, where reporter Janet Cooke won a 1981 Pulitzer Prize for a profile of what turned out to be a fictitious 8-year-old heroin addict, sort of the ultimate in unnamed sources. The episode showed that on an explosive story, someone other than the reporter must verify that what is presented as real really is.
At the Times, newsroom management clearly contributed to Jayson Blair's success in misleading editors and readers with stories full of plagiarism and unnamed and nonexistent sources. In a way, Blair was the corked bat on the Times' team of reporters (apologies to Sammy Sosa), and there were plenty of warnings about his practices that either never reached or were overlooked by top editors. Such a breakdown in communication speaks ill of the industry's promotion practices.
The fact is, being a talented, hard-charging, Pulitzer-winning reporter does not necessarily equip a person with the management skills necessary to lead a large news staff full of disparate personalities, talents and egos. Yet it is this kind of reporter who tends to be promoted up through the ranks to editorships at papers everywhere.
Sometimes this practice works wonderfully; sometimes it doesn't. Apparently it did not work well at the Times with its two most recent chief news executives, Howell Raines (executive editor) and Gerald Boyd (managing editor).
According to the Times' own reporting, several staffers complained of a rigid, top-down management style almost completely devoid of the collegial effort necessary for a newspaper to produce its best, most accurate work. One can imagine how an editor's stark early warning about Blair's work could be pigeonholed on a staff of 1,000 editorial employees, but it would not have happened at a well-managed newsroom.
It is easy to point out management failures, but it is difficult to suggest remedies. Mid-career training for journalists is available at the Poynter Institute, the American Press Institute and elsewhere, but these programs may not be sufficiently comprehensive or focused enough on managing people, which is the issue here. MBA programs concentrate too much on financial issues. Clearly the newspaper industry needs to address the problem of management, rather than rely on the luck of the draw.
A question I was asked often during the Times scandal was whether the newspaper would suffer financially because of damage to its image. The only significant harm would come from lost ad revenue and a decline in readership. Advertisers base their spending choices on the number and kinds of readers a newspaper has, and these factors are unlikely to be affected by what happened with Jayson Blair.
Had the Times stonewalled about its problems, as some newspapers might have been wont to do, the paper's image could have been damaged sufficiently to harm readership and advertising. But the Times gave full vent to correcting Blair's inaccuracies, inventions, plagiarisms and other misdeeds, in often numbing detail. Finally, the two top editors fell on their swords.
If anything, the Times' reaction to this misfortune reinforced its reputation as the nation's premier paper of record, just as the Wall Street Journal's extensive coverage of Winans' misdeeds and the Washington Post's lengthy exploration by its ombudsman of how the Cooke affair unfolded enhanced those papers' reputations.
Still, serious questions remain for the industry about newsroom management and the widespread use of unattributed sources.###