The Washington Post now promotes itself as the "paper of record" because in October its website recorded more "clicks" than the New York Times site. Is this the new metric of journalism? What does it portend about the reporting of news?

Newspaper Musings — Reflections on the Olden Days and Modern Fears

By James A. Kidney

The Current Picture

Two recent events involving The Washington Post cause me to muse on changes in journalism.  First, the Post departed its long-time headquarters building on 15th St., NW, for a less majestic spot on 13th Street.  It is at least a symbolic retreat from the glory days of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, noted with unusual sentimentality by many Post veterans.

wapo-record circulation promo adPerhaps more significantly, the Post printed a promotional ad last week that got much attention in professional journalism circles.  It is adjacent to this text.

The promotional ad was based on the Post’s claim that it had a bigger overall visitor total – clicks — on its website in October than The New York TimesPost owner Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon.com, claimed that “What we’re doing with the post is we’re working on becoming the new paper of record.”

“Paper of record” was a hallowed term in journalism in the 20th century, always referring to The New York Times due to its diligence in coverage and the detail it often presented, such as full transcripts of important speeches by political leaders and congressional roll calls.  As the Times itself noted in a column by its public editor in 2004, there is no record the newspaper ever claimed the title formally, and doubt that even the esteemed Times would have deserved it or its reporters wanted it.

The Post never before dared call itself the “paper of record,” and it doesn’t deserve the appellation now.  Although one of the two or three best papers in the country (a bar lowering all the time), the Post closed New_York_Times_logo_variationits domestic bureaus years ago and has a far smaller news staff than the Times.  These discrepancies are reflected in the Post’s narrow coverage of national news.  The Post national coverage focuses almost exclusively on national politics and the federal government, with the occasional “blockbuster” series designed to win awards.  Other national news is relegated to a summary block of text, with a paragraph or two for each item headed by the name of the state where the reported event occurred. It does maintain a good foreign staff, albeit with fewer bureaus than the Times.

The sports page remains respectable, with several good columnists.  Style, which once was a leader in “journalism with attitude,” is now largely the arena of dull gossip and rather weird feature stories apparently aimed at millennials, though one hopes the millennials are not paying attention.  (The lead story today involved office parties.  I guess you had to go to the jump page to figure out what the story was about.  I didn’t bother.  But I’m far from being a millennial.)   Metro runs hot and cold in quality.  I have heard that Post management has mixed feelings about how much staff and money to devote to Metro.  Metro is not included in the Amazon Prime deal for six months of the Post on line for free, presumably based on the notion that D.C. locals would drop digital and dead tree subscriptions if they could get everything for nothing.

Post editor Marty Baron seemed to tacitly acknowledge that while the Post may enjoy more internet clicks than the Times, it does not yet beat its northern competitor as a more serious source of – what do we call it? Oh yeah – news.  “As I think about ‘publication of record,’” Baron told Politico last week, “my view is that it’s a record of the most interesting stories, not just any story that might be dutifully covered.” While Baron presumably did not quite mean his comment this way, it could easily be applied as a measure of “journalism” for People Magazine or Buzz Feed – neither of which would qualify as a “publication of record” under any reasonable standard.  (The same Politico article does a good job of dissecting what the measure of “clicks” really means for journalistic competition, and notes that no one has figured out how to reliably turn “clicks” into dollars.)

The Post invited some negative comparisons to the Times with its boastful ad.  But little is served by carping on the Post v. Times issue.  By today’s standards, as well as those of the latter 20th century, both are good papers that chase important stories and have highly professional journalists, often working under difficult circumstances – from bombs falling in Syria to bombasts berating them on the campaign trail.  They face more competition for eyeballs, mostly from lesser sources that promote cheap opinion over expensive reporting.  (This site pleads guilty.)

After the Times and Post, there is a steep drop trying to find national and international coverage of equal quality.  The Wall Street Journal comes close, aside from its often irrationally conservative editorial Dewey Defeats Trumanbent.  From there, where?  A long time ago, the Chicago Tribune maintained a large national and  international staff.  It promoted itself as “America’s Greatest Newspaper.”  It never was close to that, and, like the Journal, its jingoistic (jingoistic about Chicago always and sometimes the U.S.), highly conservative views often invaded its news selection and writing.  But the Tribune is less than a shadow of its former self and not nearly as interesting as when Col. Robert McCormick and his early successors imposed their views on the newsprint.

On the West Coast, the only possible competition is the Los Angeles Times, which at one time in the 1990s seemed close to being a genuine “New York Times of the West.”  (Full disclosure:  my late wife worked at the LA Times during that period.)  But it has been on a long downward slide since being acquired by the Tribune Co., owner of the aforementioned Chicago rag and other mid-sized former-good-to-great papers like the Hartford Courant and the Baltimore Sun.  Tribune and Gannett, the huge chain of small and midsize newspapers, have kept their papers in print, for the most part, but are not notable for other contributions to modern journalism.

Of course, it is not news that hard news coverage is more difficult to find and even more difficult to find that is done well.  As usual of late, things may get worse.

Portents for the Future

The Post’s move to new quarters prompted an editorial recounting the paper’s glorious past and promising a bright future:

While our headquarters, with all of its memories, will fall to the wrecking ball, we intend to keep chasing the same complex and confounding truths, with a new owner and a new office – and for a new age.

Bravo and good luck.  But another sentence in the editorial is both true and worrisome.  Contrasted to the “old days” when the paper satisfied itself with printing two or three editions every night, the usual suspects of digital technology have forced a major change: “Now deadlines are every minute.”

That phrase – “deadlines are every minute” – struck a sentimental nerve.  Before finishing night school and turning to law, I was a reporter for 10 years, all but the last of them working for United Press UPI LogoInternational, a wire service competitive with the Associated Press owned by the Scripps-Howard Newspapers.  UPI’s motto was “Deadline Every Minute.”[1]  Since UPI had “clients” – newspaper, TV and radio – around the world, the motto meant that every minute there was some client somewhere needing the latest news.  Another slogan used by the press service was “Get it First, But Get It Right.”  Both slogans were accurate, but especially the second one.  Getting on the wire first – before the AP – with a big story was given a high priority.  “Beating the AP” was a cherished kudo on a big story – such as a major Supreme Court decision, the beat I had most of my time with UPI in Washington.

In those days – the 1970s – I always was jealous of the reporters for the Times, the Post, the old Washington Star and other papers.  Except for the Star, which was an evening paper until it folded, those reporters had the luxury of a whole day to digest Supreme Court decisions, call esteemed law professors, the parties to the decision and various experts to write complete stories that went beyond what the justices said and much more into what the news meant.  From my point of view (though surely not theirs), these reporters had the leisure to do a thorough job.  Often, late in the term, the Supreme Court handed down several important decisions at the same time, multiplying the burden on the wire service reporters.  No matter how many decisions the court handed down, however, morning newspaper reporters had a day to report the news, often with the assistance of others from their offices.

As a young man, there is no doubt working for UPI could be a heady experience.  What you wrote was seen and heard by millions as soon as it came through the teletype wires.  When the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, I “held” the “A” wire for over an hour with bulletins and follow-up to complete a good, workmanlike story while rifling through several different opinions in support of the final decision.  I got to sit in the press gallery and report on the Nixon tapes case and then report the decision itself.  In those days, only UPI and its staunch (and larger and richer) competitor, the AP, worried about filing instant bulletins.  The justices may have decided the cases, but wire service reporters like myself told the world about them.  The newspaper reporters working a few feet away would drop by UPI’s cubicle at the court for guidance and information.  Although it had some old timers, UPI, more than the AP, was a place for young people cutting their teeth on journalism at its rawest level.  After all, there was a “deadline every minute” somewhere in the world.

Until Scripps-Howard sold the service for a dollar to get it off its books (and, later, move very profitably into cable TV with HGTV and the Food Channel), wire service reporters on every beat, in every state capital and in many countries around the world faced the same challenges posed by “deadline every minute” on big stories.  Then a decline, already evident, accelerated.  (UPI still exists as a news delivery organization, but is owned by the Unification Church and, according to Wickipedia, does not even have a White House correspondent.)

The old UPI definitely was fun.  It was like Ben Hecht’s play (and later movie), The Front Page.  But, except on its own terms – speed — the “deadline every minute” ethos did not lead to great, or even very good, journalism. UPI and AP won their share of Pulitzer Prizes, especially in photography (for which 220px-The_Front_Page_(1931_film)_posterthere was little domestic competition – mostly the British news agency, Reuters, which acquired UPI’s photo service to add to its own).  Notably, Merriman Smith and UPI won the prize for coverage of the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963.  Smith was in the motorcade in Dallas and, legend has it, grabbed the car phone to report the news and would not let his AP competitor, Jack Bell, get his hands on the phone to report to his office.  “Smitty” won “the play” – he broke the news of Kennedy’s shooting and death. Papers with both wire services issued extras with the UPI logo and not the tardy APs.

There were later prizes for both AP and UPI for courageous coverage of the Vietnam War, in which reporters detailed ways optimistic reports from the military did not reflect the true facts on the ground.  Vietnam may have been the high water mark for the news services.  When Watergate happened, neither news service made much of a contribution.  It really never was the nature of news services to break news or devote much time to investigative journalism.  If a reporter found the time to engage in such work, it was welcomed.  But that was not why clients purchased wire services. They wanted spot news to fill the columns between the ads and to support headlines that would promote newsstand sales.  Or, in radio, to fulfill FCC requirements that they act in “the public interest” by “ripping and reading” wire copy on the hour and half hour.

This is why the Post’s reference to “deadline every minute” as the way news works now, even among the prestige press, is a frightening portent to the future of journalism.  No, sorry, it is a description of how journalism works now. The trend is likely to worsen because the slogan is now mingled with the dreaded word “clicks.”  The clicks on the links to stories – not necessarily “real news stories” – are what journalism counts today. A click on a story about “What Former Child Stars Look Like Now” is as valuable as “Numbers Show Inequality Getting Worse” or “Kennedy Shot Dead.”  Not only is there a premium on speed – similar to UPI, the New York Times needs to get out a wire service-like bulletin to your smart phone and follow up with a video – but the relevant metrics diminish the value of content.

There is no evident way out of this downward spiral unless a means can be found to pay for hard news reporting, including investigative journalism.  Various methods have been tried, including creation of non-profit organizations to collect news.  But, so far, none has been very relevant to the production of an internet site that provides broad, deep coverage of events and also returns a fair profit to its owners.  Probably the “pay wall” is the ideal solution in which people pay for quality.  But the internet universe will only support a very few publications that charge readers a fair sum for what they get.  In another example of the overall decline caused by inequality, most folks will be satisfied with lesser quality that is free. They can’t afford more.  Or think they can’t.

The really scary thing, among many things that scare us today:  If the Times and Post have a circulation battle, what if only one survives?

[1] You can still get a 58-year-old book from Amazon about the history of UPI to the mid-50s called Deadline Every Minute by Joe Alex Morris.

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