At the risk of lèse-majesté, I would like to offer a couple of suggestions to Sam Zell and other Tribune executives to ponder as they struggle to measure the productivity of their reporters and streamline their newspaper empire: first, forget about the recent news that monkeys can fish. I know, it’s a tempting solution to the bloated newsroom – and it would end that old saw about typewriters and the complete works of Shakespeare – but even as our common ancestry reveals all manner of new intelligences, it is highly unlikely that researchers are on the cusp of discovering that macaques, baboons, chimpanzees or even orangutans can either type or copyedit, or write headlines and lay out pages.
And though the average monkey could probably do a reasonable impression of talking on the phone, copying isn’t always the same as doing. One doubts the average monkey’s ability to interrogate the average bureaucrat, politician or, indeed, executive – although all evince the capacity to babble in a manner which could, uncharitably, be described as simian.
From this follows the equally dispiriting news that “copying press releases” isn’t “journalism.” Think about it this way: if you see a dog chasing a ball, it would be a mistake to describe the dog as “playing soccer,” and then hire it to play alongside David Beckham. A dog, no matter how clever, is just not going to grasp the offside trap. Or even the concept of passing the ball. And it’s the same with writing up press releases: it may look like journalism, but it’s not. (A shame, as copying press releases would be an easy way for reporters to hit that 300 – 3000? – page copy productivity mark).
The thing about press releases is that they are not always accurate. Take, as a convenient case in point, today’s LA Times story warning people about the toxic fumes given off by shower curtains. Scary, huh? But it’s based on a study by an activist group, and if you *read the study,* you’ll find, albeit towards the end of the 44-page document, that the group admits its emission tests couldn’t find the chemicals (phthalates), which are touted by the LAT as especially risky, migrating from the curtains. And if they don’t come out, how can they be a risk? It’s a bit like saying “if you drink gasoline, you’ll get sick; therefore (read all about it!) cars are toxic.”
Given that William Knowles, who received the Nobel Prize in 2001 for work crucial to developing green chemistry, recently denounced this kind of activist science on phthalatees, don’t you think you should reward journalists for doing more than transcription? I mean, if that’s all you want journalism to be, write a program to trawl Ascribe or the PR news wires, and hire a few reporters from Britain’s tabloid press to come up with catchy, provocative headlines and scandalous spin. Alternatively, think about the value of journalists *not* writing inaccurate stories by doing background research, otherwise known as “reading,” and leaving the cubicle to go out and “talk” to people.
Finally, you may or may not remember the late LAT journalist David Shaw. He won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1991 – an honor that barely describes his service to the public and his standing in the journalism profession. Shaw spent months researching important stories – often to show how his own colleagues got it wrong (the McMartin Preschool child molestation case, for example) – and, memo to the LAT Health desk, how activist groups routinely spun journalists with badly-done studies.
I clicked on Shaw’s LAT obituary today, and in one of those painful ironies, there was an ad (and there may still be) for an LAT story about how celebrity blogger Perez Hilton “made it.” The teaser uses Hilton’s own words:
“I think what I do is noble. I think my job title is entertainer. I shine the light on celebrities behaving badly, and I also shine the light on those that get it right.”
The juxtaposition of Perez Hilton’s sense of nobility on holding truth to celebrity next to the life of Shaw, who not only deprecated this kind of blogging, but worried that newsroom cutbacks would doom papers to such sensationalism, really sums up what’s at stake for the LAT and the Chicago Tribune, and for Tribune execs: In life we can aspire to the sublime or wallow in the ridiculous; the trick to nobility is not to confuse the two.