oberlin alumni magazine  
reporting for duty by michael doyle '78

newsroom then and now"The only way newspapers can survive is to give readers wat they don't get anywhere else. At the same time, there's a recognition that readers have less time and patience. I see these two pressures colliding."


TOM ROSENSTIEL SLAPS THE PAPER AND TURNS THE PAGE. He's beholding one edition of journalism's future, and Rosenstiel '78 isn't impressed. In his office at the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism, Rosenstiel slides quickly over the slick graphics, light fare, and bite-sized morsels of a typical issue of USA Today. It's seemingly newspaper-as-Muzak: technically competent, typically forgettable, and seemingly everywhere.

"The problem with USA Today," he says, "is that its hometown is an airport. It's hit on an important notion, which is that people have a limited amount of time, but not all things should be condensed."

Some things, that is to say, need the kind of fact-centered fleshing-out that marks journalism at its most memorable, and that suffers most grievously under the keep-it-tight structures of USA Today and its kin. Easily digestible news may suit a speeded-up society, but tidbits can also quickly lose flavor. For journalists, an eye-opening number of whom apprenticed at The Oberlin Review or WOBC, a fundamental challenge is balancing what the audience wants with what it needs.

"There are two conflicting currents in journalism," said Andrew Zajac '79, technology reporter with The Chicago Tribune. "The only way newspapers can survive is to give readers what they don't get anywhere else. At the same time, there's a recognition that readers have less time and patience. I see these two pressures colliding."

Rosenstiel and Zajac, to be sure, also recognize the merits of the paper that claims the highest circulation of any in the country. A former Los Angeles Times media reporter and Newsweek congressional correspondent, Rosenstiel appreciates USA Today's comprehensive sports section, the centerpiece features, and the hard-news fortifying what once was notoriously thin porridge. Building for the future, the paper has been luring supremely talented reporters away from the likes of The Washington Post. Critiquing USA Today certainly isn't what it used to be--McNews, some dubbed it. An invidious influence on the nation's shrinking population of 1,489 daily newspapers, reporters once sobbed into their beers.

The truth is, USA Today is both a better newspaper than it used to be, and yesterday's revolution. The paper claims a circulation of 2.2 million and is apparently turning a profit after losing hundreds of millions of dollars of the Gannett Newspaper Company's money. Its color-and-graphic influence has irrevocably spread far beyond Gannett's 74-daily newspaper empire. The nation's journalists, meanwhile, have turned their ulcers elsewhere.

Now it's the broader information revolution, manifested in the Internet and 24/7 cable television, that empowers journalists but also leaves them scrambling in a world of media mega-mergers. Attention spans and audiences are fragmenting, prompting some journalists to bellow louder and others to throw up their hands in despair. Rosenstiel and co-author Bill Kovach identified the trends in their book Warp Speed, using the otherwise unedifying tale of President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky to illustrate how assertion has replaced verification, information has merged with entertainment, and heat has become mistaken for light.

Tom Rosenstiel

"There are two primary trends in journalism going on," Rosenstiel said. "There's the blurring of the line between entertainment and news, and there's the slide away from reporting into argument...at The New York Times, that means more interpretive reporting, and on cable television, it means more shouting."

Some adaptations make sense in a busy world where people only devote 20 minutes a day to news consumption. People are fascinating, process is boring. People want news they can use. Drama is compelling. But what's interesting, immediately useful, and dramatic may not always be synonymous with what's important. One Washington-based Oberlin graduate recalled receiving an editor's memo ordering "fewer policy stories." The bemused political reporter likened this to "a sports writer being ordered to write less about athleticism."

Let's go to the numbers.

In Rosenstiel's junior year at Oberlin, 1977, 66 percent of the stories in seven major news outlets dealt with government and policy. One in three of all TIME and Newsweek covers represented a political or international figure. By 1997, a survey by the Committee of Concerned Journalists found that government and policy stories had fallen to 49 percent. Only one in ten of TIME or Newsweek covers bothered with politics or international figures. Celebrities and sensation help fill the vacuum. In 1977, less than 1 percent of network news stories dealt with scandal. By 1997, this had risen to 15 percent.

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