Breach of Faith: A Crisis of Coverage in the Age of Corporate Newspapering
Gene Roberts, editor in chief; Thomas Kunkel, general editor
Sept. 30, 2012
When I began reading this book, I knew it was a collection of essays examining the effects of concentrated corporate ownership on American newspapers. I didn’t know that, for me, it could almost be subtitled “Explaining My Career.” I think the same could hold true for thousands of other journalists who have worked in newsrooms across this country in the last several decades.
The book is the second volume of reports generated by the Project on the State of the American Newspaper. Few people could be more qualified to oversee such a project than Roberts, who served as executive editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer during a period in which the paper won seventeen Pulitzer Prizes –– and who left that paper because of reductions in the paper’s staffing that he could not support. 1
Each chapter explains another facet of the changes that have helped weaken, transform, and, in some cases, shutter daily papers in the United States, beginning in the 1980s. At paper after paper, government and international news have been downplayed, and the papers have moved from providing substance toward what one reviewer called “glossy news lite.” 2
The writing is professional and, for the most part, objective. But the picture it paints is nonetheless rather horrifying –– rather like explaining in detail to soldiers who have been through a bloody war how it was fought on the basis of misinformation, greed, and reasons having little to do with the themes of patriotism and duty that drew the soldiers to enlist.
Perhaps the most striking bit of evidence of that failure of mission came from a newspaper analyst looking at the Knight Ridder newspaper chain’s performance. The chain’s “historic culture,” Lauren Rich Fine said, “has been one of producing Pulitzer Prizes instead of profits, and while we think that culture is hard to change, it does seem to be happening.” 3
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, I was first capitol bureau chief and then a Washington correspondent for the Austin American-Statesman, which had recently been purchased by the Cox Newspapers chain. At the state capitol, I had to fight the newsroom higher-ups who were convinced that during the legislative session, the state reporters were padding their overtime. By the end of the first week, I was able to show them that wasn’t true. The top editors clearly had little idea what it took to cover a legislative session, especially for multiple Texas newspapers.
The Cox mantra was that the paper was spending too much time covering government and not enough time covering people. I could never understand it –– what the legislature did affected people in every way from providing funding for their children’s schools to deciding how much it cost to bury their dead. But Breach of Faith clears up that question: Like too many other news executives in the country, my editors had swallowed the questionable premise that readers wanted more “local” news and less coverage of government at every level from the statehouse on up.
The same thing happened a couple of years later when I joined Cox’s Washington bureau, during an exciting time (or so I thought) when a group of conservative, mostly Southern, Democrats held the balance of power on many important issues. My editors quickly told me I was filing too much copy: They really didn’t care that much about Washington.
At The Dallas Morning News in the early 1990s, many things were different: International and government news was valued, as was investigative reporting. But even then, in what now seems to me to have been a golden age of journalism, the corporate culture created deep dissatisfaction in the newsroom.
When a sheriff sued the News over award-winning stories that I and two colleagues had written about the effects of the drug war on South Texas, the reporters had to get separate counsel, in order to make sure our sources were protected. One of my colleagues on the story, David Hanners, quoted Jim Sheehan, then president of Belo Corp., which owned the News, as saying, “This company can protect sources or it can protect shareholders. Given that choice, you can rest assured this company will always fall on the side of the shareholder.” 4
In short, again and again my professional experiences have tracked what the writers here have reported: That too many editors were convinced that state, national, and international news weren’t much in demand by readers anymore, and that investments in staff and training should be cut. And they were brought to those conclusions by focus groups and reader surveys –– even though the book makes a strong case that those findings were often erroneously described and have proved quite questionable.
For instance, the idea that readers want shorter stories overall is a myth, said researcher Christine Urban. “For twenty-four years we’ve been finding this,” she said, “and I can’t imagine why it isn’t obvious.” 5
The sources of the information and anecdotes in the essays are hard to fault: The writers sought out reporters and editors at many levels at different kinds of papers to interview, along with the researchers and corporate managers who had been studying and carving on those papers for many years.
Clearly, the book struck a chord with journalists. Frank Blethen, publisher of the Seattle Times, wrote in Nieman Reports that the changes described in the book paralleled what he had seen at the Charlotte Observer earlier in his career.
Breach of Faith, he wrote, “speaks volumes about what is wrong with our industry today and why concentration of newspaper ownership and Wall Street control is ultimately incapable of providing the community connection and journalism essential to an independent press and the survival of democracy.” 6
Unfortunately, the rate of change in the news business has been so rapid that much of the material in the book reads more like history than a comment on the current state of affairs. The editors have provided updates in each section that, for the most part, show that the problems they wrote about have continued. The internet, social media, economic downturn, and continued consolidation of news media ownership have only exacerbated most of the trends the book details. But it is fascinating history nonetheless and one that I would recommend to anyone considering –– or in the midst of –– a newspaper career, or who cares about what happens to the institution that is so critical to our world.
References (Chicago Style)
1. Roberts biography, The Investigating Power Project, American University, accessed Sept. 30, 2012 from http://www.investigatingpower.org/journalist/gene-roberts.
2. Vicki Gervickas, ForeWord Reviews [journal online], Jan-Feb 2003, accessed Sept. 28, 2012 from https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/breach-of-faith/.
3. Charles Layton, “What Do Readers Really Want?” in Breach of Faith: A Crisis of Coverage in the Age of Corporate Newspapering, ed. Gene Roberts and Tom Kunkel (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002), 141.
4. Craig Flournoy, “Revolution at Dallas’ Daily,” D Magazine, 1 June 2004, accessed Sept. 28, 2012 from http://www.dmagazine.com/Home/2004/06/01/Revolution_at_Dallas_Daily.aspx.
5. Frank Blethen, “The Consequences of Corporate Ownership,” Nieman Reports, winter 2002, accessed Sept. 27, 2012 from http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/article/101416/The-Consequences-of-Corporate-Ownership.aspx.
6. Layton, 124.