February 11, 2015 Last Updated 1:39 pm

Rough day for U.S. news media as errors, an exit, a news anchor’s suspension become the news

Jon Stewart announces he’ll leave The Daily Show on the same day NBC suspends Brian Williams, but real negative impact on the news media comes from cost cutting and poor editorial decisions

In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. So, in an environment where the media has lost much of its credibility, and where partisan media is considered the best business model for success, a comedian is America’s most trusted news anchor. (Except, he’s not really a news anchor, of course.)

Yesterday we learned that NBC would be suspending Brian Williams for pumping up his resume, so to speak. Meanwhile, Jon Stewart announced that he would be leaving The Daily Show, likely when his contract runs out in September. (We’ll see if he can do better than Max Scherzer as a free agent.)

Williams-StewartFor many consumers of the news in the U.S., there are few tears for the departure of the news anchor, and much sadness for the loss of the comedian. But media observers, who relished the opportunity to pile on Brian Williams, are missing the big picture: the traditional news media is decaying and suffering from self-inflicted wounds.

Today is filled with examples of how the newspaper industry is working hard to end its close relationship with its readers.

Carolyn Washburn, editor of Gannett’s Cincinnati Enquirer, wrote a memo to staff about the sloppiness she saw in copy submitted and appearing in the paper.

“Just a reminder that clean and accurate copy starts with each reporter and photographer sending clean and accurate copy along to their producer or coach… then that producer or coach reviewing to make sure it’s all good before sending it along to digital publication or the Studio,” Washburn wrote to staff in a memo reproduced by Jim Romenesko.

The use of the words “producer” or “coach” is a sign that something is amiss. Isn’t it the job of the copy desk to make sure copy is cleaned up, fact checked? Oh, that’s right, Gannett eliminated the copy desk as a cost cutting move.

Even three years ago Washburn could see what the effect of this kind of cost cutting was having on the newspaper, even suggesting bring in an English teacher to help out with cleaning up copy.

“Also, it is simply true that there are fewer layers of editing to catch us when we fall,” Washburn wrote in 2012. “So it is up to each of us to re-read our work with clean copy in mind and ensure each of us passes along copy that can be published right now with all the basic facts, spelling and grammar correct.”

“So, in the spirit of being helpful — I really don’t mean this to be insulting but helpful — what would you think about having an English teacher review our paper for a week, identify our most common grammatical sins and come in and give us grammatical refresher for grownups?”

Wow, just wow.

Romenesko also posted a memo from the executive editor of the Bakersfield Californian requesting more “quick-hit 4-inchers” – a euphemism for a short story written with little need for sources or further investigation – pointing out that the most popular stories on the paper’s Facebook page were…

  • Store bought grated cheese vs. grating it yourself
  • Scottish chimps
  • Target stores walking suspect employee- thieves through their stores in handcuffs
  • The weather

As a publisher, I can see the problem: the newsroom is now in charge of the business side of the paper, tasked with driving revenue through page views and paid subscriptions. This has been my fear for a number of years as the trend has been to deemphasize advertising and promote paid content. The result has been the exodus of many talented ad pros to digital-only properties, and the very predictable decline in overall revenue. Even the NYT, which is doing best at driving new digital subscriptions, is only treading water overall. If this is the best this model can accomplish… well, you know what I am saying.

I think these moves, to cut costs and reimagine the newsroom, lets the corporate suits off the hook. It has been, after all, the responsibility of the business side of the news business to drive revenue, to have the marketing side promote and expand readership, for production to find ways to print and distribute the product more efficiently and less costly. Today, few media observers want to talk about the 66 percent of the news business that does not reside in the newsroom.

The drive to increase readership, to drive page views, is leading to some terrible decisions. Today, the editors of The Washington Post allowed their website to become a magnet for hate speech, keeping the comments open on the story of the murder of three University of North Carolina students and watching as comment after comment spewed hatred – for Muslims, liberals, conservatives, gun owners, atheists, you name it. Over 1,400 comments have appeared and the editors of the paper sat there watching their page views go up. This, one supposes, is considered successful digital publishing by the paper today. (Fox News, CNN and the NYT wisely did not open up their stories to comments.)

Update: The WaPo has finally ended the madness and closed comments on their story, thank you.

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