Journalism is in trouble.
OK, I'll admit, that's not really news. Anyone who has witnessed the de-evolution of cable "news" or has followed the gutting of newspapers around the country has some sense of what's going on. But I suspect it's even worse than imagined. The very core of American journalism is being eroded, drip by agonizing drip.
It was bad enough when my local newspaper (and former employer), The Des Moines Register, announced a restructuring this fall that appeared to leave some traditional "beats" uncovered while beefing up its political reporting. The process included new nebulous titles, unflattering pay ranges and the clunker - everyone (except for a handful of top managers) had to apply for the job he or she wanted.
This insult, on top of wave after wave of layoffs in recent years, was apparently too much for several newsroom veterans who thought their decades of experience and devotion to a company on the skids was worth more than the opportunity to apply for further employment, albeit in the "newsroom of the future."
A handful of them remembered the "newsroom of the past," the one that earned the Register a spot on Time magazine's Top 10 newspapers in the United States in 1984. That was a year before the paper was snatched up by Gannett, its present owner. The Register was the crown jewel in the Gannett chain at the time, a position that, frankly, was not that difficult to achieve given Gannett's reputation for lackluster journalism but lusty profits.
So, several of the paper's standout reporters, editors and newsroom leaders walked away this fall, taking with them decades of institutional knowledge. While their departures are simply the latest blows to what used to be known as "The Newspaper Iowa Depends Upon," I see two other serious threats to the newspaper's credibilty.
As its motto implies, The Register once saw itself as Iowa's paper of record. To that end, it once maintained bureaus across the state and in the nation's capital and operated its own circulation system that guaranteed delivery to every corner of the state. It took pride in offering timely, in-depth and relevant reporting. It still professes to have that commitment to its readers, but two recent examples belie that commitment.
The Register was days late in reporting the eviction of a controversial "mall zoo" in Des Moines (at least two TV stations carried the story first), even though reporters presumably were in the mall to report on the opening of a new multiplex movie theater.
In the second case, the Register ran an excellent, solidly reported in-depth story on a pending crimial case that has wide reader interest, an older Iowan being charged with sexual abuse of his wife, who was in a nursing home with dementia at the time. It was the prototypical Register story of the past, the type of journalism Iowans have expected from the state's paper of record.
But it wasn't a Register story. It was written by Bloomberg News reporter Bryan Gruley, who is based in Chicago. It's troubling to an old-timer like me to think that a reporter from Illinois could scoop Iowa's biggest paper on a story with such an obvious Iowa angle.
The second threat to credibility extends beyond the Register and that's the need for accuracy. That's pretty much journalism's Rule No. 1 -- get it right.
When I came to the Register in 1981, I was impressed by its layered editing process. A story needed to pass through several editors and several levels of proofreading before it appeared in printed. This process regularly saved the newspaper (and reporters) from embarrassment and probably a lawsuit or two. Many award-winning reporters owe a solid debt of gratitude to the copy desk.
Editors aren't perfect, of course, and I have no first-hand knowledge of how the editing process works today at the Register, but I believe mistakes are more common than in the past and are, thus, more threatening to the newspaper's credibilty. Two mistakes this week had me coughing up my Cheerios.
One story, about a movement in Iowa to draft Sen. Elizabeth Warren into the 2016 presidential race, had this line:
"Meanwhile, Warren keeps insisting she’s in the presidential sweepstakes, most recently in an interview with NPR."
It should have read that Warren's NOT in the presidential sweepstakes. Omitting that single three-letter word totally contradicts the theme of the article.
Today, columnist Dan Finney offered an interesting column about high school journalists. In the piece, Finney asked a student where he got his news. In the next paragraph:
"There was a time, even in my lifetime, when people trusted intuitions such as the Register or their local TV stations to tell them the truth."
Obviously, Dan meant "institutions," not intuitions. Spell check run amok, or just sloppy editing?
I suspect that most casual readers didn't notice these transgressions, don't care about them or simply have low expectations. It's the curse of copy editors to notice these things, however, and, regardless of what you might think, they matter.
There are lots of good people still at the Register and they're still doing good work. But fewer of them know the community they serve and there aren't enough of them.