Journalism in Romania: A Diogenean Essay (Part 3)

Journalism in Romania: A Diogenean Essay (Part 2)
July 3, 2013
Journalism in Romania: A Diogenean Essay (Part 4)
July 8, 2013
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“If their ideas are so good, let advertising write the stories.”

When I was a journalist (and I hope it’s still this way in the US) if an advertising executive walked into the newsroom, one of us editors would jump up and block their path, asking if there was something they needed (or more likely and facetiously whether they were lost).

If a suggestion was made that a reporter might want to talk to someone, we would take that person’s business card, read it, and promptly throw it away. We would remember their name and we would try to be certain never to call them. Because even as a coincidence, the last thing we wanted was for someone to think we could be influenced. (In fact, just the idea that someone thought we could be, honestly, made us quite angry. I won’t tell you what we mumbled, but it was a request that they go do something.)

All it takes is just one simple step to start breaking that wall – that wall that exists between advertising and editorial. Because once advertising infects editorial, it is almost impossible to undo. Why not call this one guy? suggests an advertising manager. Just mention this product. You like to write profiles. Why not write a profile of this guy? He’s important and he’s rich. Oh, and also, he’s a big advertiser here. Yes, the reasoning goes, you have to talk to someone, why not talk to the someone who helps pay all our salaries?

Just this once, you are told. But it’s never just this once. Because now the line moves depending on how important other things are – and an ethical line that moves back and forth ceases to be any kind of line at all.

So in this latest example (where the computer finds key words and links them to an advertiser), I wonder what would happen if none of the articles contained enough of the key words? Would the advertiser pay less? Or would the “right” words be inserted? “So we put in the word ‘marketing’ just a couple of times,” I imagine management might say. “It didn’t change any meaning. Just a few times here and there. No damage was done.”

And now, once again, this little subtle intrusion has helped make you lose sight. “Look, we did it before. Nothing terrible happened.” And you have further blurred the distinction between the way things are and the way someone wishes them to be, between the information you pay reporters to collect and the message that advertisers pay you to print.

Even more dangerous is the fact that what you have failed to consider is that every time it is done, there is a different word that’s not used. Or there’s someone else who is not called. Someone or some company who, in the reporter’s estimation, would be more interesting to readers. Someone better to quote. A better profile to do. In fact, the best editors and reporters are considered “the best” precisely because they know what stories to choose, how to tell them, what examples to use, and what words are needed to convey the importance or the excitement of an interesting story.

Even left alone, reporters and editors have a hard job to do. And there are precious few who are truly any good. It takes certain skills and much talent. So if you begin to play with that for business reasons, you will lose exactly what you hired them for – to produce a good paper and to bring in more readers.

Unfortunately, in Romania, it appears much too often that even editors don’t know. Or if they do, perhaps not enough of them care. I’ve heard too many stories of editors who don’t edit. Of editors who don’t lead. Or of those who refuse to help shape the ideas, to help direct the reporting, or to work closely with reporters in the hard sculpting and writing of a difficult tale. No, these editors are but bureaucrats, presumably incapable or too lazy to do a good job. They are no longer editors but merely bad managers and firmly part of the problem.

The simple reality is the only way to bring in more readers is to fight for good stories and to remind your editorial staff that they exist for the readers, not for the advertisers – not even for themselves. They exist, and their stories exist, I repeat, only for the readers. Nothing else they do will ever matter at all. Sound idealistic? Yes, I’m sure that it is. But you will never succeed if you do it any other way. Besides, isn’t it difficult to try to shame the politicians if the company you work for also has no shame?

Make no mistake, there will always be pressures, if not from advertisers than sometimes from even yourself. Even the best of intentions can go badly wrong. When I was business editor at a paper owned by Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the US, we were supposed to ensure a certain percentage of people we included in our stories were minorities. How, I wondered, were we supposed to find out? Ask the executive on the phone if perhaps he was African-American, or maybe part Mexican? The fact is we ignored it in our reporting and our stories were better.

Yet what happens here? I’ve heard editors too often say: “It’s a crisis out there. What can we do? We need to survive.”

No, the reality is you need to mature. That’s how you’ll survive. If you’re an editor, I say, first do your job correctly. Working with the advertisers is not part of your job. Let advertising worry how to do their job better. It’s been more than 20 years and if your reporters are still relying on NGOs to teach them the business, you will never succeed. (In fact, can anyone tell me why these NGOs still exist?)

So, is it really too soon to do a good job? In every way? Every day? Is there a reason, for example, you cannot make sense of your web page? Is it an inability or a reluctance to do your job well that creates a home page more than 15 screens long? If you can’t make a selection as to what is important, when (presumably) you have read all the stories, what makes you think readers can tell just by glancing at your mess? Yet even glancing is impossible, given your onslaught of pop-ups and interstitials and rich media banners that make your pages so infuriatingly crowded they seem to dare us to try.

Or how about your front pages, for which you routinely choose the wrong stories, which then jump inside to layouts that are wasteful and confusing. Do you not have enough news? That’s what wire services are for. By the way, is there nothing but politics and government process that happens around here? And why do you write as if most of the stories were PowerPoint presentations? No wonder nobody cares. You’re boring us all.

You don’t have to believe me. Just look at your sales. Aren’t you embarrassed to sell so few copies? Did you know that giving people information is not the same as giving them news? A list of facts, without explanation, is not an article to be read. You are supposed to tell us the importance of what you write about. (Has the expression and concept of a“nut graf” not reached here?) Business stories are worse, reading like press releases or a page from an INS report. Have you learned nothing by reading the international press?

Yes, I’ve heard the excuses – not enough time, it’s been only 20 or so years. Ok, I wonder, how long does it take? Another six months? Another five years? I’ve never heard an argument about why it can’t be now.

And in the meantime, while you tell us to wait, what do you have? Young idealistic journalists, struggling to learn what it means to be reporters, who have no mentors, no examples to follow. Not really. Their editors do not “own” the stories their reporters write. The editors do not provide the guidance beforehand, the assistance during, or even the hard editing after the stories are written. I’ve read too many almost-good investigative reports here. They are mostly unconvincing and without impact. They are amateurish in their writing, unsophisticated in their tone, and clumsy in their proofs.

Then I hear the editors blame reporters. No, that won’t do.. You’re the ones who approve the stories. If they’re not good, then fix them. If they are good, make them better. That’s what an editor does. Otherwise, you’re just a bureaucrat, warming a chair.

Instead, keep advertisers away and concentrate more on teaching young reporters how to do their jobs well. They don’t teach it in school. They’ve got no other place to learn. (Some time ago, a young reporter who covered the auto industry here asked me if I had any advice about how to generate good story ideas. I told him to spend a couple afternoons having off-the-record chats with the guys in the showrooms who are selling the cars. Given the look on his face, you would have thought I had just told him to jump off a bridge. Seriously, is nobody here teaching this stuff?)

It’s simple:  you’re an editor, so be one.  Know that as soon as you become complicit and allow yourself to co-exist for the advertiser, or even the owner, you distort your best judgement as a journalist – if you have any. And if you do that, be sure the readers will leave. They already have. They might not know why, but you can be certain it’s because they could feel a difference. And your publication is dying a slow – but certain – death.

Sure you can blame it on the crisis. You can blame it on the kiosks. You can blame it on the internet. You can even blame it on the advertising department.  My bosses back then blamed it on TV. But looking back, it wasn’t TV that was killing us in the ‘90s. It was simply ourselves.


“No matter what you think, your publication is not your product.”

(An introduction to journalism that even the owners can understand – I hope.)

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