One of the smart people with whom I spend a lot of time talking about the journalism business is Chris Krewson, the executive editor/online for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Chris is a unique combination of a digital native who is also steeped in traditional journalism, which gives him an interesting perspective. He has some interesting reflections on how journalism history provides context for what's going on today, so I decided to loan him the Recovering Journalism soapbox to talk about it. Take it away, Chris...
I'm reading David Halberstam's The Powers That Be, which traces the history of The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CBS and the Time/Life family of magazines.
In the current economic climate for newspapers, it's instructive.
First, creating world-class, international standard-bearing newsrooms that came to produce elite journalism–with the big salaries, investigative teams, international bureaus, travel budgets and all the ancillary costs–happened after those newspapers, first and foremost, got their financial houses in order.
(In LA, the Chandlers convinced the Hearsts to close their morning newspaper in exchange for closing their afternoon LA Mirror, right before the evening news killed afternoon papers. In Washington, the Post bought, merged with, and closed, the Washington Times-Herald, thereby gaining the bulk of the city's display and classified advertising.)
For both the Post and the Times, the business paid for the journalism, not the other way around.
Second, it only seems like these big newsrooms producing big, important journalism have been around forever.
The New Yorker's S.J. Perelman once said when his train stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he asked a porter to bring him a newspaper. "Unfortunately," Perelman recalled, "the poor man, hard of hearing, brought me the Los Angeles Times."
While the Post's Woodward and Bernstein eventually brought Nixon down, that product of California Republicanism was created by The Los Angeles Times' kingmaking political 'reporter', Kyle Palmer, who wrote flattering mentions in his column and cleared the field of other opponents. Other Times reporters took leaves of absence to run political campaigns.
In those days, Democrats could only appear in the LA Times by buying an ad - and even then, it might not run!
And the Post? It was an also-ran newspaper in its own city, after the Hearsts' Times-Herald and the afternoon Star, first known for its liberal editorial page when the nation was in the throes of McCarthyism. News was routinely buried or not reported, mostly on purpose.
In other words, newspapers in big cities (and heck, in small towns too) could be and often were awful -- until they could afford to be great.
Thanks, Chris. Indeed, the tradition of great journalism that many pundits seem to romanticize is a relatively recent development. Before Woodward and Bernstein, for instance, there wasn't a lot of investigative journalism at most papers; it really exploded in the '80s. The financial success that Chris cites also allowed the professionalism of a lot of newsrooms that were pretty crummy a generation ago. We need to find new ways to preserve quality journalism–but it's anything but a divine right, and btw, there's no reason why newspapers should think they have a monopoly on it.