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From AJR,   December 2011/January 2012  issue

Speak No Evil   

While news organizations demand full disclosure from everyone else, they often resort to euphemisms and sugarcoating when they report on their own downsizing. Mon., November 28, 2011


By Paul Farhi
Senior contributing writer Paul Farhi (farhip@washpost.com) is a reporter for the Washington Post.     

The Bay Area News Group, publisher of the leading daily newspapers in San Francisco's suburbs, had some important news to share with its readers in late August. In a 700-word, unbylined article that appeared on its newspapers' Web sites, it said 11 of its dailies would soon be consolidated into two titles, the Times and the East Bay Tribune. The "rebranding," as the story put it, "will result in greater emphasis on providing high-impact, regional and local coverage."

The piece noted one detail only in passing: One of the papers involved in the consolidation was the Oakland Tribune, which would henceforth be submerged into the new East Bay Tribune. In other words, the Oakland Tribune, whose masthead had flown for more than 125 years and whose reporters had chronicled everything from the sinking of the Titanic to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, would soon be no more. Its demise rated all of 21 words in the company's official news announcement.

As a model for how the news media report about themselves, the passing of the Oakland Tribune ranks among the more eye-opening, and perhaps more appalling, examples. But it's not entirely unusual. As the news about many traditional news outlets ricochets from bad to worse, it's hard to find a lot of honest self-assessment or even simple self-disclosure. Readers and viewers looking for straightforward information about their favorite newspapers and TV stations layoffs, bureau closings, circulation declines and the like are unlikely to find much of it in print or on the air.

When news organizations bother to cover themselves, the stories tend to come dressed in euphemism, redolent of spin and obfuscation, if not outright untruth. Layoffs and mass firings are often reported in the bleached language of a management textbook "reductions," "trims," "streamlining." Such is the Orwellian nature of these stories that decline is often dressed up as proof of vitality. In its announcement about the demise of the Oakland Tribune and the consolidation of its other newspapers, for example, Bay Area News Group President Mac Tully was quoted as saying, "We're taking these actions to strengthen the company for the future and to offer additional value to readers and advertisers." (Then again, maybe not: BANG reversed course in late October and said it would retain the Oakland Tribune nameplate and those of most of its other local papers a decision prompted by "reader feedback," according to a company spokeswoman, Nina Lesowitz.)

While executives may try to soft-pedal the bad news, that's no excuse for reporters to play along. "It's a journalist's job to get beyond the euphemisms," media analyst Ken Doctor says. It's one thing for a source to describe something in flowery terms, he says, but reporters need to spell out the hard facts. The problem, he says, is that many journalists who report on their own companies don't know much about business or even how their own companies operate. "I've probably gotten a half-dozen calls from newspaper reporters who say they're writing about [an internal development] who start off the conversation by saying, 'I drew the short straw.' " He adds, "There are good reporters on the beat but, by and large, the people who are reporting on their own companies don't have much background in business."

Readers could be forgiven last year for thinking good news was afoot when the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia, disclosed a "reorganization" that eliminated most of the paper's copy editors and designers. The Daily Press' story quoted Gary Weitman, senior vice president of corporate relations at the paper's parent, Tribune Co., who called the move a "pilot project" for the rest of the company. "We're hopeful that we can use the learnings [sic] from this to improve our local coverage everywhere," he said. He didn't explain how firing local journalists and centralizing design and copy editing in another city would improve local journalism.

The same less-is-more thinking colored USA Today Publisher David Hunke's characterization of a newsroom reorganization last year. "This gets us ready for our next quarter century," Hunke told the Associated Press. It was an odd assessment, given that the overhaul resulted in the dismissal of 130 of the paper's journalists.

When the San Diego Union-Tribune was taken over by a private-investment company, Platinum Equity, in 2009, the paper tried to put the best face on the deal and its new owner. A day after the purchase was completed, the Union-Tribune ran an upbeat Q & A with Louis Samson, the managing partner who led the buyout. Samson pooh-poohed talk about the newspaper industry's problems and spoke about bringing "a result-oriented culture" to the venerable paper, long owned by the civic-minded Copley family. "We are committed to attracting, incentivizing and rewarding talented people who are dedicated to the growth of the business," he said. "We will reward positive energy... The last thing we want to do is chase spiraling revenue downhill through endless cuts."

The story, and the paper's subsequent coverage of the buyout, never said much about Platinum's lack of experience in running newspapers, its reputation for tight cost management or the strategies private-equity firms typically employ to profit from the assets they acquire. Sure enough, three days after taking control of the paper, the new owner announced that it was laying off 192 Union-Tribune staffers. Three months later, it said it was cutting an additional 112 jobs. And two months after that, it said it would pare 116 more. Those who remained were required to sign an "intellectual property" agreement that banned them from encouraging their coworkers to follow them to a new workplace. The Union-Tribune never mentioned the requirement; that story was broken by the independent Web site Voice of San Diego.


When news executives announce staff reductions, no matter how draconian, they often reassure readers that they shouldn't worry, because the paper will simply do "more with less." One refreshing exception came in 2007 when Steven A. Smith, then editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, warned his staff that cuts were on the way. Smith steered clear of any reassuring nonsense. "A smaller staff means a lesser paper," he wrote. "Doing more with less is corporate-speak BS and you won't hear it from me. There is no way to make this pig look like anything other than a pig." (See Doing Less with Less, December 2007/January 2008.) Smith left the paper the following year as the paper reduced its staff by 25 percent.

Even when news organizations do reveal something unflattering about themselves, it's rare for them to spell out the details or total up the cumulative effects of previous cuts. Articles about newsroom cutbacks almost never reveal which reporters or news departments have taken the brunt of the bad news. Is the sports staff getting hit? The copy desk? The statehouse bureau? Will the paper still be staffing familiar beats or providing the same features? And a larger question goes unanswered: What does it mean to readers and to the community that one of its foremost news sources is sick and getting sicker?

The Bay Area News Group, which is owned by MediaNews Group, didn't attempt to answer those questions when it announced its quickly jettisoned reorganization plan this summer, but a few outside commentators tried. Media analyst Doctor wrote on his Newsonomics blog that the restructuring of the papers would result in diminished localism and journalistic accountability. "Newspapers are all about community identity; they have both reflected it and provided rallying symbols of it," he wrote. "Business efficiencies may argue for 'East Bay,' but readers' senses of what's local are something else again." By Doctor's count, the newspapers' newsrooms had shrunk by half over the past 10 years, amounting to hundreds of lost reporting jobs. "How many [important] stories never see the light of day?" he asked. "How many corruptions, large and small, are unfound? We don't know; we don't know what we don't know."

As the bad news about the media business has piled up over the past five years, Doctor thinks media companies have become accordingly less interested in telling people about it. "The discussion [among newspaper publishers] has been, 'Why beat ourselves up in public? Why continue to report our bad numbers all the time?'" he says. In a more confident time, before the recession, "people in the industry would bend over backward not to be seen in any way as self-promotional. But this unending onslaught of bad news has made people at the higher echelons rethink that."

Pulling the punch is bad enough. But journalists or maybe just their gun-shy publishers are becoming increasingly reluctant to report on themselves at all. Layoffs have become so routine in the mainstream media that many news outlets no longer bother to acknowledge them to the public. Jim Hopkins, whose Gannett Blog tracks the nation's largest newspaper chain, says the newspaper industry has become rife with "stealthy layoffs" cutbacks that are never reported. "It's pretty spotty now," Hopkins says. While publishers may be understandably reluctant to share the miserable details, Hopkins thinks it's hypocritical for news organizations to demand disclosure from other sources when they won't provide it about themselves. "Newspapers have a responsibility to be transparent" with their employees and readers, he says.

Several of Gannett's newspapers, including USA Today, reported the retirement of the company's CEO, Craig Dubow, in early October. But as of early November, none had bothered to follow Hopkins' scoop that Dubow, 57, was eligible to receive a golden parachute worth up to $37 million. The story got scant attention elsewhere as well, despite a potent outrage factor: During his six years as chief executive, Dubow laid off thousands of Gannett's journalists, cut compensation for those who remained and presided over a company whose stock price plummeted 85 percent.


While subjecting one's own news organization to the same tough reporting criteria as any ordinary subject may be unusual, it's not unknown. Some of the finest moments in self-reporting followed great journalistic embarrassments and scandals. In the wake of the Janet Cooke fabrication episode at the Washington Post in 1981, the paper's ombudsman at the time, Bill Green, exhaustively investigated how the Cooke story came about in an epic 14,000-word Post story. The Wall Street Journal devoted two dozen reporters and editors in 1984 to a similar self-investigation of insider trading allegations against its "Heard on the Street" columnist, R. Foster Winans.

The honor roll might also include the Los Angeles Times, which bared its internal workings to readers after the paper was humiliated in 1999 by its publisher's decision to produce an issue of the Times' Sunday magazine about the newly opened Staples Center and split ad revenue with the arena's owners. Some months after the start of the Iraq war in 2003, both the New York Times and Washington Post offered frank assessments of their reporting lapses in the run-up to the conflict.

In contrast, some news organizations play defense when accused of gross misconduct. Witness CBS News' wagon-circling in 2004 when questions were raised about documents used in a "60 Minutes II" story about President George W. Bush's service in the National Guard. (CBS later convened a panel to look into the charges; it concluded that the story was mishandled but it did not say conclusively whether the documents were fake.) Amid similar criticism, CNN stood by its 1998 story about "Operation Tailwind" in which it alleged that the U.S. military used nerve gas on Vietnam War defectors until an internal investigation concluded that the network could not verify its accuracy. (See "An Ill Tailwind," September 1998.)

Of course, it's critical for news organizations to stand firm when their reports are criticized unfairly. But when legitimate doubts arise, it's important for them to be transparent.

USA Today didn't report the resignation of reporter Jack Kelley for a week after press reports began surfacing that Kelley had fabricated some of his stories (see "Who Knows Jack?" April/May 2004). The New York Times ran its first major piece about its own fabulist, Jayson Blair, nearly two weeks after Howard Kurtz broke the story in the Washington Post see "All About the Retrospect," June 2003. (To its credit, the Times ultimately ran a massive and devastating account of the Blair saga.) The Times was also far behind the rest of the news media in reporting about then-Times reporter Rick Bragg's deceptive datelines.

Following those debacles, the Times created a new position, public editor, to act as its readers' representative and internal watchdog. Other newspapers, however, went in the opposite direction, shedding such in-house critics. Ombudsmen have typically dealt with reader complaints, investigated alleged misfeasance and written columns explaining or condemning the handling of stories. Even in the era of sky-high newspaper profits very few papers had ombudsmen. But now the roster is shrinking (see "Tempting Targets," June/July 2008). A number of papers in the United States have eliminated the position in the face of the double-barreled challenge of the recession and the Internet-fueled transformation of journalism. Jim Romenesko, who until November was Poynter.org's influential media blogger, says he used to post a lengthy roundup of weekend ombudsman columns on his site every Monday. "By 2009, there were so few of them that I stopped posting the summary," he says.

The Organization of News Ombudsmen, based in Toronto, has lost about 14 members over the past three years. ONO now has a roster of about 100 members, about 40 of whom are retired or merely "interested" parties, according to Jeffrey Dvorkin, the group's executive director. The one growth area, he says, is outside North America, in nascent democracies among the former Soviet republics and in the Middle East and Latin America, which don't have a long tradition of news media accountability.

Dvorkin, a former NPR ombudsman, estimates that just about 30 newspapers in the U.S. still have ombudsmen out of 1,500 dailies. As for TV, he says he knows of only two networks or local stations that have ombudsmen ESPN and PBS. The broadcast networks have standards editors, but that's not the same thing as an independent ombudsman who reports on the network to the public, he says. Why no ombudsmen? "The legal departments [at the networks] feel that any admission of error will lead to litigation," he says.

"My sense is that media organizations [in North America] are so financially anxious now that they want to please their audiences rather than inform them," Dvorkin says. "They want to be friends" with their readers and viewers. ONO's surveys suggest that having an ombudsman fosters great credibility among readers and audiences. "This is a very easy way to help restore confidence in the media," he says.

My former Washington Post colleague Howard Kurtz has spent more than 20 years on the media beat, and is as familiar as anyone with the perils of bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you reporting. For most of this time, Kurtz simultaneously worked for the Post and CNN, and the dual role both attracted criticism and at times put him on a collision course with two companies that supplied his paychecks. (Kurtz left the Post last year and is now Washington bureau chief for the hybrid Newsweek/Daily Beast; he continues as host of a weekly media-discussion program on CNN called "Reliable Sources.")

"Reporting on my employers can be challenging, of course," he says, "but both sides understand it's part of the job. Once in awhile there are bruised feelings, but that comes with the territory."

Kurtz says he's never been pressured into not doing a story about one of his employers. He also says he applies the same standards to those he works for as to those he doesn't. "I know some people are always skeptical [about his independence], but I think I've covered my media companies aggressively enough to make clear we aren't pulling punches, and ultimately allowing such independence adds to their credibility," he says. "But most news organizations steer clear of covering themselves when possible, and it does convey a pretty blatant double standard. Television in particular does little self-examination."

David Carr, the New York Times' media columnist, often confronts similar issues when he takes aim in his column at a company or media baron. Carr's critics sometimes question whether he's favoring his own team at the expense of others. To correct for this, Carr goes the full-disclosure route; in a recent column slamming Dubow's massive parting gift from Gannett, he noted that Times Co. Chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. and CEO Janet Robinson were criticized by labor unions in 2009 for earning a combined $12 million. "You always have scrutiny from people on the outside who think you're in the tank for the people you work for," Carr says. "The media beat is fraught. It can be a no-win situation."

Some news organizations still go the extra mile to lay out their own bad press. NPR employs a full-time media correspondent, David Folkenflik; produces a weekly news and discussion program, "On the Media"; and has maintained an ombudsman's office for years. For the past year or so, NPR itself has been in the news often, and Folkenflik has been thrust right into the middle of it. He's reported on NPR's controversial firing of commentator Juan Williams; the resignation of NPR's chief fundraiser after he was caught on a hidden camera making intemperate remarks; the resignation of NPR CEO Vivian Schiller; and the debate over federal funding for public broadcasting. What's perhaps remarkable about Folkenflik's NPR coverage is how little criticism and controversy it has generated despite the hyper-partisan and charged atmosphere surrounding his employer a possible sign that he's played things down the middle.

The Times' Carr cites another reporter who has handled tumult within his own company with similar journalistic poise and aplomb: the Chicago Tribune's Michael Oneal, who has written dozens of stories about the leveraged buyout and subsequent bankruptcy of Tribune Co., the parent of the Trib, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and other media properties. "He's been absolutely definitive," Carr says. "He knows the most and he writes what he sees."

While greater self-examination and more transparency surely can't solve the larger economic issues confronting the news media, they certainly couldn't hurt, either. Pointing to surveys showing ever-declining respect for the news media, Ken Doctor puts it this way: "There is abysmal ignorance among citizens about what journalists do to inform the citizenry."

Which is why, at the risk of self-indulgence, it may be as important as ever for the media to tell the public more about themselves. Ultimately, such reporting isn't about the state of the media so much as it is about society's ability to know about itself, says Gene Roberts, the former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and ex-managing editor of the New York Times.

"Those of us in journalism know that if there are only a few people in the state capital covering all the business of government, you have to be missing more than you're getting," Roberts says. "The public has no idea how many reporters are involved and how inadequate that might be. We should be making the public aware. We should be telling our own story better."