"News Is a Verb: Journalism at the End of the Century"
By Pete Hamill
Ballantine Publishing Group
102 pages; $9.95
In colonial America, pamphlets, rather than newspapers, often were the medium for political discussion. Newspapers of the day generally were small and thus lacked the space required for extensive essays. Moreover, if you paid to have your own pamphlet printed, your views weren't subject to an editor's pen. Thus, in 1776, when Paine wanted to argue the case for independence from England, he did so in his own pamphlet.
Over the years, as newspapers thrived, the pamphlet all but disappeared as a vehicle for public debate. Now, Ballantine Publishing Group has launched a new line of modestly priced paperback originals it clearly hopes will be seen as a modern counterpart to the popular pamphlets of Paine's day. The Library of Contemporary Thought, says Ballantine, will give "top opinion makers a forum to explore topics that matter urgently to themselves and their readers."
And so we have "News Is a Verb," in which Hamill takes a look at newspapering in the 1990s — and likes very little of what he sees:
"With the usual honorable exceptions, newspapers are getting dumber. They are increasingly filled with sensation, rumor, press agent flackery and bloated trivialities at the expense of significant facts... They cover celebrities as if reporters were a bunch of waifs with their noses pressed enviously to the windows of the rich and famous. They are parochial, square, enslaved to the conventional pieties. The worst are becoming brainless, printed junk food. All across the country, in large cities and small, even the better newspapers are predictable and boring."
Goodness knows any court would have to recognize Hamill's credentials as an expert witness. A newspaperman for nearly 40 years, he served his apprenticeship — "covering fires and murders, prizefights and riots" — at the New York Post. Later he worked for the New York Daily News and New York Newsday. He's been a rewrite man, a war correspondent and a columnist. In 1993, for what he calls "five wonderful weeks," he was editor in chief of the New York Post, until press lord Rupert Murdoch bought the paper and replaced him. In 1997, he put in an only slightly longer stint — eight months — as editor in chief at the New York Daily News, until he was fired.
In his slim volume, Hamill takes dead aim at what he calls the "virus" of celebrity journalism. He notes that as editor of the Daily News he took a hard line regarding coverage of real estate tycoon Donald Trump. "Trump was not banned from the newspaper but he did have to do something to appear in its pages. The 'stories' slowed to a trickle... After I was canned, Trump 'stories' came back in a fetid rush."
Yes, it's been said over and over again that "names make news," but Hamill argues that today's newspapers are obsessed with big names at the expense of much of what's actually going on around us. Too many papers, he says, put the Spice Girls on page three and relegate a story detailing cuts in library funds to page 28.
"To qualify as news, celebrities must do something. Not only that, they must do something that is surprising, interesting or new. Mr. Big Name browsing in the Gap among the pile of jeans is not news. If Mr. Big Name throws the former Mrs. Big Name under the Sixth Avenue bus, that is news... The proper noun is not enough; there must be a verb."
In addition to lamenting the rise of celebrity journalism, Hamill decries the declining news hole, the demand for inflated profit margins, drastic cutbacks in coverage of international news, slavish reliance on polls and focus groups and the premise "that the abstract management techniques of other businesses — cereals, real estate, parking lots — can be applied without penalty to newspapers."
Sound familiar? Of course it does. It's more or less the same litany of complaints you're likely to hear from any group of working journalists.
Nor is there much that's startling in Hamill's suggestions for ways that newspapers can improve. He argues that newspapers must embrace their community as a whole, rather than just certain demographic groups; that they must win more women readers by giving them the information they seek on education, health and other issues rather than continuing to patronize them; and that they do "what television can't do," instead of trying to become "printed television."
While Hamill may raise at least some eyebrows when he suggests that newspapers "cut their prices to attract more readers at the low end of the economic curve," his book is hardly a revolutionary tract in the spirit of Thomas Paine. Nonetheless, it's engaging, thought-provoking reading, and, as such, it fulfills the key aim of this new publishing series, which, says Ballantine, is "to say things that need saying."