May 14th, 2006 05:03 EST
Newsroom Shrinkage and the Columnist
The more the Fourth Estate shrinks and absentee bottom-liners squeeze the remnant the more dicey the role of columnists becomes. Most columns are canned. They arrive in newsrooms from syndicates where they`ve been vetted. The correct procedure is for the editorial page staff-- assuming the paper is big enough to have one-- to edit the column again to make sure there are no typographical mistakes, to decide whether to use it, to decide if it`s temperate, rational, helpful to the reader.
Columns usually go in the same place every day or every week, because they have a readership that anticipates them. But columnists can and do go off the deep end. They can and do say things that a client newspaper may not approve. They can and do contend things that a client newspaper may demand they prove before publication. That`s more or less the ideal picture.
The trouble is that many smaller newspapers and even mid-sized newspapers no longer have an editorial page staff or even an editorialist, because their corporate owners have shrunk the newsroom. This means that columns tend to become canned goods. They`re plunked into the usual news holes without much, if any, vetting. They`re just another way to fill a news hole. (News holes are shrinking, too, but that`s another matter). Now there`s a difference between a column, which comes as part of a package that newspapers buy from syndicates, and a think-piece, an opinion.
Think-pieces come from syndicates, too, but they`re often solicited from regional sources, such as universities. There again, the fewer people in the newsroom the more likely something will get in the paper that should have been challenged. Why should it have been challenged? Well, it could be because the conclusions don`t seem to be warranted by the available facts. It could be because the demeanor of the column or opinion piece conflicts with the owner`s views.
It could simply be that some other column has covered the same ground, and there`s no sense running both of them. Some newspapers regularly publish views contrary to the owner`s. Some are less balanced, more polemical. In every case, the owner has an absolute right to exercise control. It`s up to the reader to decide whether he can stomach the owner`s views. In most American communities the reader no longer has a choice, because competition is vanishing. That`s bad enough, all by itself, but when it`s compounded by the unremitting shrinkage of news staffs, readers not only get less enterprise news "news that has been painstakingly developed by the newspaper`s own staff "but it also gets haphazard editing and less discretion applied to content.
Editorial page staffs have always had to concern themselves with their owner`s views. Often an owner or publisher will write an editorial, and more often he or she will suggest one. The newsroom at large is also aware of the owner`s judgments, but its daily contact with the owner or publisher is not as close. Thirty or forty years ago publishers were often owners, but today the publishers are usually the appointed agents of the distant corporations that own the papers.
The danger of failing to properly vet a column or think-piece goes hand-in-glove with the ascendancy of infotainment, because in most cases they`re both canned. They`re developed somewhere else and sold to client newspapers. It`s much cheaper to buy canned content than it is to develop content locally. That`s why we`re being entertained to death instead of being richly informed.
Those of you who feel a need to understand the way the media operates should bookmark www.benbagdikian.com. Ben Bagdikian, a prize-winning reporter, is the nation`s most acute observer of the newspaper industry in our country.
Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)