Every yard needs a watchdog; or, Thank you, Mainstream Newspapers

I didn’t expect to blog so much about the Tribune when I started this thing, but I realize it is just one more medium I ingest, and has just as much relevance to our common culture (especially as newspapers try to be more like entertainment). So when Sunday’s Trib really wowed me, it was time to say something.

Saying “newspapers are dying” is kind of like saying “the world’s going to hell in a handbasket.” It’s always a little true, but neer quite completely. It’s neither more nor less true for one generation as for the previous one. Lately, though, it really seems like the Future Is Now for my dear old fishwraps. Ad revenue is dwindling, page count is shrinking (not to mention page size!), and thanks to a shrinking “news hole,” the paper feels more jumbled and spare. (The Trib’s Op-Ed page was *always* the last two inside pages of the front section; now it’s a nomadic feature that wanders the newsprint wastelands, never sleeping in the same place twice…)

Then there’s old RedEye, the creek-deep insta-paper for Generation Zzzz. When the Tribune introduced this daily short-form paper in 2002, it was an invigorating moment in journalism: Stuffy, entrenched suburban paper reinvents itself with brevity and zip to compete for the dwindling market of young readers. The Chicago Sun Times launched its Red Streak at the same time, and with rival newspaper hawkers hustling on opposite corners, the competition gave downtown Chicago a turn-of-the-century feel. The only things missing were newsboys shouting “Extry! Extry!” about the latest on McKinley’s assassination.(Chicago Business has an interesting summary of the rivalry here.)

But RedEye quickly became an entertainment and joke paper, with wafer-thin coverage of actual world news, and excessive space given to sports prognostications and celebrity hook-ups. Whatever it earns the Tribune in ad revenue, RedEye likely has done little to renew the shrinking ranks of Big Paper subscribers with newly converted young commuters waking up to their need to know more. Nah, RedEye is free and it’s got sudoku.

It’s been painful to watch the mainstream press wriggle like this. So it gave me a boost of J-school pride to see Sunday’s Tribune come with a half-wrap “house ad” around the front page, aggressively touting its services as a government watchdog.

Sadly, that story touted about the title plate about Cubs fans and Sox fans tries to make much hay out of rotten non-news. "More Cubs fans have cats, 24.1% to 21.3%" Thanks, Watchdog!

Note that wrinkle to the wraparound: For a brief moment I assumed it was the typical advertisement wrap, which often girds the funny pages to tell me of deals on toner at Office Max. Halfway through the annoyed crumple, I realized my mistake, and soothed it out lovingly.

I couldn’t beleive it. Like Howard Beale telling us he’s mad as hell and he’s not going to take it anymore, the Tribune is standing up and shouting on its front page, “We’re relevant, dammit. You need us!”

The wrapround features brief summaries of recent investigative reporting success the paper has enjoyed, from busting Gov. Blago’s senate auction to whistleblowing the poisoned well scandal of Crestwood, Ill. In all, eight in-depth investigations in the last year (or so; the timeframe is unspecified). What the editors are saying without saying is: “Who’s gonna nail these perps? Local TV? Bloggers? Twitterers? Pound sand, digerati — it’s mainstream muckrakers all the way!”

Other recently raked muck: Clout-based admissions into University of Illinois, shady doctors promoting miracle cures for autism, Chicago's poor track record for elevator inspection, and aysmal test results for infant car seats that never got reported to manufacturers.

Other recently raked muck: Clout-based admissions into University of Illinois, shady doctors promoting miracle cures for autism, Chicago's poor track record for elevator inspection, and abysmal test results for infant car seats that never got reported to manufacturers.

Who else has the resources, the training and the trustworthiness to do long-form investigative reporting? Without this major daily paper, we may have never known that a loved one’s rape had gone unsolved because the police department failed to test DNA data they had on hand (which is the front page watchdog story you see in the photo at top).

The back page of the wrap is a “Meet the Watchdogs” photo album identifying, by name and picture, all the staff writer and editors who specialize in the reporting and investigation that led to those stories. If you ever thought newspapers were faceless and monolithic, this sort of puts the kibosh on that.

If I understand correctly, this wrap is just one in a series of five that seem to be making arguments why the Tribune should be your newspaper of choice (Entertainment& Sports, Local Economy, Commnity Issues and the “Chicago Experience” being the others). But with this Watchdog example, I think it’s a far more persuasive a tool for why newspapers should be your choice for all news.

Media, lawyers, cops — some people find it easy to blame society’s ill on these things. But no matter their flaws, they’re essential for freedom and justice. If major daily papers die off, we lose that big sibling who looks out for us on the playground, and we’ll be even more subject to the bullies who hang out behind the bike rack.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Every yard needs a watchdog; or, Thank you, Mainstream Newspapers

  1. Desert Son

    Drew,

    I was right with you up until this line:

    But with this Watchdog example, I think it’s a far more persuasive a tool for why newspapers should be your choice for all news.

    Except science news.

    As you probably know, a few months ago The Boston Globe announced the closing of their science desk. This is just one area where newspapers, like everyone else, are being hit hard by the economy. It may be that, with the recollection of some economic strength, science returns as a staple of many mainstream media publications; time will tell.

    Regardless, I humbly submit that the newspaper is not dead, but it is changing to meet a changing market, and I think that’s a good thing. No more than theater was dead with the advent of film, nor film dead with the advent of home video, newspapers provide a service, and will continue to do so.

    However, I do think that newspapers must learn to do so alongside other media (they’ve already been doing it alongside radio and television for years; it’s not like they haven’t had the practice), simply because other media can step in to areas where newspapers simply cannot (due to space, funds, or inclination) produce more in-depth reporting.

    Like science (among other things).

    Blogs, as just one example, represent a singularly strong opportunity to get in-depth science information eclipsing that normally presented in newspapers, or on television, as part of generally consumed “news.” I’m a big fan of P.Z. Myer’s Pharyngula, as well as Orac’s Respectful Insolence, Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True, Blake Stacey’s Science After Sunclipse, Zeno Ferox’s Halfway There, Sean Carroll’s Cosmic Variance, and more.

    I know that print journalism is near and dear to your heart. In the last 15 years, I’ve been burned enough times with print journalism that what I’ve come to realize is that it’s just another medium for the distribution of information, but it’s not the only medium, nor even the best medium all the time. How could it be? Not that the others are without fault – human institutions all. I guess the question to ask is, what factors have precipitated backlash against print? Economics? To be sure. Ease of distribution? No question. One too many “Fool me once/Fool me twice” considerations. I’d say very definitely.

    Newspapers remain, as you said, essential to freedom and justice. Equally as essential are the consuming public, for who else will demand that the newspapers (and other media) continue to maintain rigorous standards? It remains as much on our shoulders as consumers of news as voting does on our shoulders as citizens in a republic. Some of us find that we can send a message of insistence to news media by frequenting other media.

    In the case of the science-minded readers of The Boston Globe, there may be little other choice.

    Long live the newspapers. Long live blogs and other media sites, as well, that they may, in the truest spirit of honest information distribution, continue to hold each other to the highest standards.

    Robert

    • jdrewscott

      I hear you, Rob, and thanks for the thoughtful reply.

      Where I was going with that rather, yes, overstated line about getting “all your news” from the papers was this: All good citizens should use newspapers as their first source of news. That’s not just for watchdog reporting, but for professional media’s news judgment.

      News judgment is another value endangered by the prospect of the dying daily. I didn’t properly address this in my original post, but having news judgment imposed upon you is so critical to getting a proper breadth of information. In other words, you read (or at least have a chance to read) a set of stories specially selected for their widespread importance to your world. The opposite of this is self-selecting your news; only clicking on headlines that appeal to you; only stopping by the blogs that interest you; only seeing a world as big as your comfort zone.

      (News judgment, of course, is also a great bogeyman in the debate on newspapers, and is a topic for a whole ‘nother discussion. It boils down to the question: Whose objectivity do you trust? For a hundred reasons, my answer is a major daily paper — not local TV news, not a blog, not a lone opinion maker in his insulated radio studio.)

      So after ingesting our doses of ink-and-paper, by all means, let us fill in the gaps with data from more sources. I’ve praised programs like PBS’s “Frontline” in this space, and could go on with praise for Bill Moyers, NPR, BBC World News, and even Jon Stewart (who we all know is the primary source of news for some statistically significant portion of adults).

      And add those blogs you prize, Robert. Clearly you have an appetite for science that not even a fully staffed Boston Globe could sate. For me? I’m quite confident that, even with the closing of specialty bureaus like science, newspapers will still report on the major advances covered by (and promoted by) trade journals. That doesn’t say much for reporting ability, yeah, but it does meet my news judgment criteria: If it’s impactful to society as a whole, I’m confident a newspaper will discover it (eventually) and report it, even if it’s just saying, “Lookit what the New England Journal of Medicine said about medical marijuana!”

      By the way, old friend, I have to admit I don’t frequent the sites you cite, especially “Why Evolution is True.” Because I already know it is. Robert are you waffling? 😉

      Ook ook ook,
      Drew

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