Peek into any print newsroom in America and you’ll hear reporters saying sometimes mocking or jaded things around the water fountain that they would never dream of uttering in public, on air or in print.
The journalists I worked with were generally a flinty, somewhat sarcastic, iconoclastic bunch who suffered neither fools nor bullies nor egomaniacs among their sources or other newsmakers gladly.
That’s one reason why I can’t help but cringe at The New York Times latest brainstorm of airing edited segments of its daily news meeting for all the world to see. The practice has already caused a few problems, public editor Clark Hoyt noted in Sunday’s New York Times.
I’d consider the concept a bad idea even if it hadn’t yet begun to backfire. Even if these excerpts are carefully edited, the concept strikes me as a disaster waiting to happen. Mind you, I’m all for transparency between journalists and public, at The Times and other newspapers. Reporters, editors and the editorial page editors should try actually reading and answering at least some of their email. (Perhaps I’m just an unlucky illiterate, but I’ve never gotten so much as an acknowledgment of any letter or submission I’ve sent the the paper over the last three decades.) The arrogance of newspaper reporters and editors in general has, in my view, contributed substantially to the declining readership of today’s newspapers. After awhile, the public tires of pounding on the locked door of a house with the blinds drawn.
But the way to solve the problem isn’t to turn editors, who have real jobs to do behind the scenes, into the web’s version of “The Front Page” or, even worse, “Broadcast News.” Let these folks do their jobs instead of preening in front of the cameras. And that job is not to watch their words because the public may be watching them.
In addition to heightening the risk of scooping themselves or simply saying something that’s in error on the morning installment of the daily five-minute “Timescast,” these little bits of seemingly seamless PR have the potential of muting or distorting daily communication among editors from all departments at the paper in other ways.
1. As dull as they can be, news meetings should be a place to not only pitch stories but challenge them and their underlying premise, to make them better. If editors are on their best behavior in front of the cameras or are distracted or intimidated by them, they aren’t likely to speak up in creative and interesting ways.
2. The editors who come to these meetings at a place like The Times already have an inflated enough sense of their importance without making them faces on the the web’s miniaturized version of being “on air.” Televising new meetings suddenly casts the editors as the “talent.” Instead, they should keep their keen and key supporting role as the smart people behind the scenes who work to make stories more complete, sharper edged, more creative in their approach and more compelling to readers. In short, their focus should be on the stories and the reporters who are writing them, not on the public who is stopping by for a bit of daily drama.
The Times is opening more of its news process to public view. It once did not matter if editors had all of their facts straight at the morning news meeting; there was plenty of time for reporting and editing. But with the world looking over their shoulders, things are different. Editors are dressing better, speaking in complete, sound-bite sentences, and mistakes are embarrassing.
News was a messy, fast-paced business even before Twitter, 24-7 cable and the blogosphere made it instantaneous. The print media, through their web sites, have learned that once again they can compete for breaking news against everyone else. That’s good, though it, too, detracts to some extent from the contextual wisdom the best print stories bring to the news marketplace. Still, it keeps an old medium in a new and instantaneous game.
This latest step, selling ringside seats to newsroom deliberations, does nothing in my mind to help the newsgathering or news dissemination business. To the contrary, it’s likely to deceive the public by turning important and functional news meetings into sanitized displays of newsroom charade or to diminish the news itself by making the backroom players more important than what their paper is supposed to be covering.