Journalism at a Crossroads

Remarks by Al Cross

The Miller Center of Public Affairs, University of Virginia
June 27, 2001

A.J. Leibling, the famous press critic, said 40 years ago, "The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role is to make money.” I learned that in my first job out of college, as a weekly editor who signed a note to keep my paper alive and had to close it down two months later. I went to work for Al Smith, who taught me how to practice good journalism and stay in business.

Al paints a discouraging picture about America’s smaller newspapers, the kind on which we once worked. They’re more important than you might think, because in some states, including ours, those are the newspapers that most people read. But what about larger papers, and the news media at large? Is their service to democracy also being compromised by a push for profits? There’s no question about it.

And in some states, that may have a disproportionate impact on rural areas, because those areas are being dropped from the circulation and coverage areas of major regional dailies. My paper is one of the few that still has a more-or-less statewide bureau system, with reporters scattered from Paducah to Hazard, towns that are one county removed, respectively, from the Mississippi River and the Virginia border. But it’s hard to find our paper in those places, and impossible in many others, because such far-flung circulation is a money-losing proposition. And we have fewer Kentucky bureau reporters than we had a few years ago, and those bureaus write fewer stories. They aim almost exclusively for Page One – the page that has the most impact, but also the one that drives circulation and profits. Much of the slack in our coverage and circulation could be made up by smaller dailies, but they are increasingly owned by chains, and unable or unwilling to spread their wings.

Since the Miller Center has a special interest in the presidency, I also wanted to mention national coverage by regional dailies. That has declined precipitously, and again I’ll use our own company as an example because it’s the only one for which I have details at hand. In the Gannett Company offices in Arlington, there were once five reporters for the Des Moines Register and two reporters and a clerk for The Courier-Journal. The Register’s staff is expected to soon be only two, and we’ve had a one-person bureau for some time. With the exception of trips to the nominating conventions, our Washington reporter didn’t get to cover any of the presidential campaign, though he is a presidential history buff who recently published a short biography of Woodrow Wilson. And when President Bush recently named a Kentuckian to run the Rural Utilities Service, formerly the REA, an important agency in our state, we gave it three paragraphs. When Al Smith was in the running for the TVA board and named chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission in the late 1970s, we probably ran three PAGES worth of articles.

Of course, perceptions of presidents and presidential candidates are formed mainly by television, but that hasn’t made up the slack, either. In fact, it has become an increasingly unreliable source, with less political coverage and shorter sound bites – so short that their main effect is to make stories less boring, not to impart real information. You probably know the main reason – facing burgeoning competition from cable channels and increasingly from the Internet, TV news departments are airing what they think people WANT to see, not what they NEED to see to be informed citizens. And cable channels are increasingly filled with talking heads trading opinions, not real reporting and analysis.

With the explosion of electronic media, we seem to have an increasing market for opinion and a declining market for facts. That stems in part from the psychology of the old journalism-school theory of cognitive dissonance – no matter what people hear, it tends to reinforce opinions they have already developed. The corollary to that theory is that readers and viewers tend to seek out sources that offer opinions with which they agree, and that can only increase the market for opinion.

But the most disturbing trend in journalism is the trumping of First Amendment ideals, such as helping voters make fully informed decisions, by the corporate imperatives of dividends and stock prices. I believe those corporate values hold stronger sway today than at any time since the advent of truly modern American journalism, which can be dated from the great wave of consolidations after World War II and the general acceptance of the principle that good journalists should strive for objectivity in news coverage and fairness in all that we do.

The corporate values are stronger because publicly held companies play a larger role in American journalism than ever before, and because those corporations are getting bigger through acquisitions financed by loans made on the premise that profits will keep growing. Frank Blethen, publisher of the Seattle Times, one of the last large, family-controlled papers, says that “Public-company ownership and concentration of ownership are incompatible with a newspaper’s public-service stewardship.” I wouldn’t go that far, because I know plenty of journalists and managers at publicly traded newspapers who make public service their ultimate mission. But it is becoming increasingly clear to those of us who care about that mission that it is more subject to compromise than ever before.

Eugene Roberts, a former editor at the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer, and Thomas Kunkel, dean of journalism at the University of Maryland, put it this way last month in a seminal article in American Journalism Review: “The American newspaper industry finds itself in the middle of the most momentous change in its 300-year history, a change that is diminishing the amount of REAL NEWS available to the consumer.”

To Gene Roberts and Tom Kunkel, and to me, “real news” is what many news-media managers increasingly dismiss as “boring -- government -- stuff.” News about government and public affairs is what James Madison had in mind when he wrote the First Amendment, and it is up to journalists to stand up for such principles. That’s what we try to do in the Society of Professional Journalists, of which I am president. We like to help people differentiate journalism from entertainment and true, reliable reporting from tabloid sensastionalism, be it print or electronic. Our core missions are freedom of information, which stems from the First Amendment, and journalistic ethics, which stems from the great responsibility that is concomitant with the great license granted us by Mr. Madison and the Founding Fathers. We stand for the proposition that journalism is more than a business, it’s a calling. Our corporate masters may be in it for the money, but we are not. One of my editors once said – Al, this is where you blush – that the history of journalism teaches us that sooner a later a reporter or editor has to take on his managers and risk his or her job for the sake of principle. This appears to be, unfortunately, a time when that should happen more often.


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues

University of Kentucky
School of Journalism and Telecommunications

122 Grehan Building, Lexington, KY 40506-0042

Phone: (859) 257-3744, Fax: (859) 323-9879

Al Cross, Institute director, al,cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: May 14, 2005