Monday, April 03, 2006

Is it right for a paper to let readers decided the front page?


By Michelle Cottle
The New Republic

Only at TNR Online | Post date 04.03.06 Discuss this article (46)

ho says the Bushies' crusade to spread democracy isn't working? Sure,
things are still a little hairy in Iraq. The Palestinian elections didn't
go exactly as we'd hoped. And Egypt has basically given us the finger as
far as fixing its democratic shortcomings goes. Over in Madison,
Wisconsin, however, the administration's ideas really seem to be catching

As reported last month by The Washington Post's indefatigable Howie Kurtz,
the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison's morning paper, recently moved to
harness the interactive nature of its website by inviting readers to vote
online for which of several stories they'd like to see on the front page
of the next day's paper. Rather than imperiously decreeing what sort of
piece readers should care about, the Journal's editors have gone
grassroots, giving the reading public a say about what is or isn't worth
its attention.

How democratic. How market-oriented. How customer-responsive. How utterly

I realize these are unsettling times for the Fourth Estate. The web is
changing the way people consume news. The Bushies, along with their
conservative media colleagues, have spent the past several years trashing
mainstream journalists as ideologically motivated and morally bankrupt.
Jayson Blair has convinced readers we're making it all up. Dan Rather has
convinced them we're all unpatriotic Bush haters. And every remotely
controversial news story winds up sliced, diced, and julienned by an
overcaffeinated blogosphere with a chip on its shoulder about the
arrogant, self-satisfied, lazy, corrupt "old media." It's hardly
surprising that polls show our public credibility headed towards that of
Jack Abramoff.

In response, journalists have become obsessed with showing everyone how
open we are to criticism, how eager we are to dissect our screw-ups, and
how committed we are to being humbler and more in touch with what our
readers have to say. The New York Times finally broke down and hired
itself a "public editor." Traditional media outlets have been scurrying to
create web-based reader feedback forums. And every time you turn around
there's some media group hosting a panel or conference or breakfast or
fondue party to discuss how we can make everyone love us again.

Fine. I'm on record as believing that journalists could do with less
self-flagellation, but I can see the appeal and potential benefits to
these moves. But even as we host all the chat fests and solicit all the
reader feedback we can stand, media outlets really should draw the line at
having readers do their job for them.

I realize it's very popular--not to mention economically savvy--to talk
about "giving readers what they want." And I'm in no way suggesting that
we ratchet back the "soft news" or "lifestyle journalism" pieces that keep
readers subscribing. (Hell, without its Wedding Pages, the Sunday New York
Times would only have two dozen readers.) But determining what merits
serious, front-page coverage really should be left to people whose careers
have been in the service of the news.

Already, I can hear the clackety-clack-clack of angry e-mails being
composed: Who the hell are the editors of the Wisconsin State Journal--or
even The New York Times--to say what is or isn't news? At the risk of
sounding tautological, they are the editors of the Wisconsin State Journal
or The New York Times or USA Today or what have you, and making exactly
these sorts of news judgments is a big part of what their profession is
all about.

And make no mistake. No matter how half-assed or silly it may at times
seem from the outside, journalism is a real, grown-up profession in which,
as with nearly every other job on the planet, experience and acquired
skill matter. While that may sound obvious, I'm convinced that a sizeable
chunk of the public can't quite get past its belief that any idiot can be
a journalist because, by and large, it doesn't require the same sort of
specialized or technical knowledge as being a doctor, chemical engineer,
or CPA. (Just look at all the articles and blog posts cheering the death
of the exclusionary, elitist big media and the rise of the web-empowered
citizen journalist.) It's a little like the disdain with which many people
quietly view child care providers: It can't take much skill or smarts to
tend to a child, because look at how many clueless teenage moms do it
every day. Likewise, folks figure that any idiot can form an opinion and
write a sentence, so what's so tough about being a journalist?

But reporting and editing, like preparing a legal brief or fixing a broken
toilet or properly taking care of a child, call for a variety of skills at
which one becomes increasingly proficient through experience. (Not to be
confused with opinion journalism, of course, in which folks like me just
make it all up as we go along.) Will experienced professionals
occasionally screw up? Without question. Do they bring personal biases to
the job? Almost certainly. But no matter what the Bush White House may
want you to believe, part of being a straight-news journalist is striving
to minimize the degree to which one's personal biases color one's news
judgment. (This, in contrast to columnists, O'Reilly-esque pundits, and
Ann Coulter freak shows whose careers depend on filtering everything from
the federal budget to the president's snack preferences through their/our
personal biases.)

Certainly, journalists could stand to pay closer attention to what's
happening in the communities they cover--or, in the case of the national
media, to venture beyond the rarefied cultural bubble of the New
York-to-Washington corridor. But it's absurd, not to mention
counterproductive, to think any of us can win readers' admiration by
further undermining the notion of journalists as serious professionals
with acquired knowledge and expertise. If members of the news media can't
take what they do for a living seriously, how can they possibly expect
anyone else to?

Michelle Cottle is a senior editor at The New Republic.


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