Good News Needed

By: Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser

Sept. 11, a day of terror and dread, was, for most Americans, a day of television. We gathered in front of the ubiquitous box, staring at images of horror that were repeated again and again. But Sept. 12 belonged to newspapers, and reminded us why, even now, decades into the electronic era, newspapers remain so important. On the 12th, all across America, people who don’t normally read the paper bought a copy and devoured it.

We live in the television age, surrounded by other forms of electronic journalism, but newspapers still do most of the original reporting. In America’s towns and cities, the local newspaper sets the news agenda. A few major newspapers do the same for the national news media. Of all the participants in the news business, none is remotely as committed to covering news as the country’s daily papers.

This isn’t obvious to many Americans. Most people now say they get their news from TV, not newspapers, and many Americans misunderstand the vast differences between the way TV and newspapers report the news.

In fact, the world of news without newspapers would be something like a sleek convertible without an engine. TV news depends on newspapers, as its practitioners freely attest. Radio news is often lifted right out of the newspapers. Government officials and politicians understand the primacy of newspapers and regularly go to newspaper reporters first with important or complicated information. The news organizations maintained by newspapers are what make America’s free press meaningful.

Dan Rather of CBS News made this point last August, when he was reporting on the speech President Bush had just made announcing his decision to permit limited use of embryonic stem cells for medical research. “It’s the kind of subject that, frankly, radio and TV have difficulty with,” Rather told his viewers, “because it requires such depth into the complexities of it. So we can, with, I think, impunity, recommend that, if you’re really interested in this, you’ll want to read, in detail, one of the better newspapers tomorrow.”

The uniqueness of newspapers begins with the resources they devote to news, and the way they deploy those resources. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill “Research Triangle” in North Carolina provides a typical example. The most-watched TV news there is broadcast by WRAL-TV in Raleigh. The station has a reporting staff of 16; fewer than a dozen are in the field on an average working day. The News & Observer in Raleigh has 101 reporters on its staff, nearly all of them working locally. The gap is similar in every significant media market in the country.

A serious newspaper sees its mission as more than just covering public events; it wants to uncover hidden information. Of course, the search for information below the surface of events is pursued with varying degrees of determination, skill, and success at different papers. Bad newspapers do it poorly. But the majority of newspapers share the same sense of mission.

Most electronic journalists have a different mission. The networks and local TV stations have a few beat reporters, but most of their correspondents are generalists who report on events — things that happen, primarily things that can be photographed while happening.

The New York Times and The Washington Post each contain roughly 100,000 words a day. A typical NBC Nightly News broadcast contains 3,600 words.

TV and newspapers both perform vital public services, but they aren’t the same services. TV brings great events to the public, allows us all to participate vicariously in the making of history, allows us to “meet” and evaluate the government officials, celebrities, sports heroes, and such who dominate the public life of the country.

Newspapers — at least the better ones — are much more ambitious. Their public service is to bring a rich, detailed account of yesterday to their readers every day, an account that enables a citizen to remain in touch with numerous aspects of contemporary life in his or her community, country, and world.

Beyond that, a newspaper keeps watch on the powerful people in its immediate neighborhood, checking constantly for competence, honesty, candor, and all the qualities that citizens hope for in the people who run the institutions they depend on. Communities with good newspapers are actually better places to live because the paper performs these functions.

Downie is The Washington Post’s executive editor, and Kaiser is the paper’s associate editor and senior correspondent. This article was adapted from The News About the News: American Journalism in Peril, by Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser, and (c)2002 by them. Published this week by Alfred A. Knopf.

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