Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Puppies, Iraq and Fuck You

Yeah, I love this debate. I wrote at the Committee of Concerned Journalists on the naughty word controversy (What the $%*&#! Did He Say) and how newspapers perpetuate a silly standard of keeping foul language off their pages even if the foul language is the story (btw,the clip doesn't make clear what prompted Sam Zell to curse; it was the reporter who asked the question walking off before he had finished talking).

But the merit of the question is fundamental. And I don't think there is an easy answer. Unlike, say, the Big Three automakers it is too easy to blame newspaper executives for failed strategies that have left their businesses struggling; while Detroit is similarly saddled with legacy issues that new players were fortunate to be able to avoid, it is also true that US carmakers missed and dissed trends that invited nimble competitors to flourish.

But people still buy cars, so at least the automakers don’t have to start making bicycles, gyrocopters -- or frozen pizzas.

Newspapers were also not quick to pick up on the revolution in their business. But even if they had, they would have still have been confronted with a different reality: people don’t still buy newspapers. So newspaper companies do have to find out if people want the equivalent of bicycles, gyrocopters or frozen pizzas.

And they have to hope their customers won’t be mesmerized by the next shiny thing and abandon the gyrocopter for a jet pack (or they have to position themselves to be gyrocopter/jet pack agnostic).

And they have to figure out how to make money on a gyrocopter or get by with less by selling non-strategic assets, cutting back on coverage, requiring more of their employees, etc.

Is it any wonder that there are basic questions about what business newspapers really need to be in to survive? If GM can be described as a pharmaceutical company that also sells cars is it a shock to the system that newspapers regard both their delivery systems and news editing philosophies as malleable?

The important question, I think, isn’t so much if covering puppies (or local theater or high school football or weddings) isn’t real journalism. It is that, when we loosen the definition of what is news, we don’t also loosen the definition of what is good journalism. And, in an emotional sense, that newspapers still can do journalism no matter what else they have to do.

I mean, it wouldn’t really be GM anymore if all they were was the world’s largest private purchaser of Viagra.

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