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'The Vanishing Newspaper' and other takes on news and the news business

SHOWCASE | April 12, 2005

The current issue of Nieman Reports (Spring 2005) includes in-depth reviews of recent books by Phil Meyer, Bonnie M. Anderson, Robert McChesney and John Nichols, Dan Gillmor, Seymour Hersh, Geoffrey R. Stone, Seth Mnookin, Mark Bowden, and Sebastiao Salgado.

By Barry Sussman



Philip Meyer the innovator used social-science techniques to analyze rioters in Detroit for the Free Press in the 1960s and came up with very solid, unexpected findings. In the 70s he helped get funding for intensive summer classes for reporters and editors on opinion polling; I attended one such session and then became the Washington Post’s newsroom pollster for the next 12 years. So I just tip my hat and call Phil Meyer my daddy, as do others, I’m sure.


Daddy (Nieman fellow 1967) is now a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina (and a contributor to this Web site). A review of his recent book, "The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age," leads off the extensive section on books in the Spring 2005 issue of Nieman Reports. 


Reviewer Lou Ureneck (Nieman 1995), describes how "the momentum toward leaner staffs and smaller budgets" has led to continuing circulation decline and a situation in which "swaths of the public are uninformed about world and national events." The momentum "is so well established, and even accepted," Ureneck writes, "that the entire topic has become a little tired. It has come to feel like a settled issue, not unlike the annexation of Texas."


Now along comes daddy to butt heads with that momentum.


Writes Ureneck: "Brick by brick, number by number, Meyer builds his case for quality…He finds relationships between credibility and circulation, credibility and advertising rates, readability and circulation, staff size and circulation, and even positive copyeditor attitudes and circulation."


At one point Ureneck quotes Meyer on an elegant view of the newspaper business held by Hal Jurgensmeyer, a Knight Ridder executive in the 1970s. "A newspaper, in the Jurgensmeyer model, produces two kinds of influence: societal influence, which is not for sale and commercial influence, or influence on the consumer’s decision to buy, which is for sale. The beauty of this model is that it provides economic justification for excellence in journalism."


In  brief, here are other books reviewed:


Backing off of stories

"News Flash: Journalism, Infotainment, and the Bottom-Line Business of Broadcast News,"by Bonnie M. Anderson, reviewed by Rebecca MacKinnon.


Writes MacKinnon: "Anderson does not paint a pretty picture of American TV news. It is a world in which the obsessive focus on viewer ratings, the parent corporation’s quarterly earnings and stock prices have caused executives to completely lose sight—even lose interest—in the American public interest…She describes how management is so afraid of offending viewers or losing access that they often back off of controversial stories. She cites many specific examples."


Whose Media?

"Our Media, Not Theirs: The Democratic Struggle Against Corporate Media," by Robert W. McChesney and John Nichols; "We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People," by Dan Gillmor; both books reviewed by David DeJean.


DeJean on the McChesney/Nichols book: "Modern supernational media companies have the ability now to generate profits that go beyond those garnered by almost any entity in history (other than absolute monarchies) when they integrate journalism into a marketing machine for their other products, such as movies, books, TV networks and shows and licensing revenues. This has resulted in the creation of a "media system" that relies on the government and mainstream journalism as smoothly functioning, reliable components of a system built on three things: media concentration, corporate ownership, and unquestioning reliance on official sources."


"This system didn’t happen by accident and it isn’t working for the greater good."


As for the Gillmor book, DeJean writes: "Gillmor is less interested in Big Media’s causes than its cures, and he’s extremely upbeat about those: one cure, he writes has already been found, and it is the Internet…He is a true believer in the possibility that the Internet can save journalism."


Herbers on Hersh

"Chain of Command: The Road from 9/11 to Abu Ghraib," by Seymour Hersh, reviewed by John Herbers.


Writes Herbers: "Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this book, his eighth, is that it is based almost entirely on information leaked from present and former officials of the federal government, its military and intelligence agencies. It is all the more remarkable at a time when secrecy is on the increase in the Bush administration, when the federal Freedom of Information Act is being weakened, and when the use of unauthorized leaks in journalism generally has become more controversial."


Government secrecy

"Perilous Times: Free Speech in Wartime from the Sedition Act of 1798 to the War on Terrorism,"  by Geoffrey R. Stone, reviewed by Maggie Mulvihill.


"We should have been taught by history’s lessons that threats to our Constitutional principles—the building blocks of our democracy—should never be tolerated."


"Those lessons are masterfully sketched out by legal scholar Geoffrey R. Stone…At the same time, two recent reports have been released about the escalating threats to freedom of information and the press." (Mulvihill is referring here to a report by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), and one by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.)


"All of these writings—taken by themselves or considered together—make a strong case for why U.S. citizens and members of the press need to engage more vigorously in a struggle to renew the promise of our fundamental civil liberties if we are to maintain a self-governing democratic system."


Other reviews

In addition to these, Nieman Reports also has reviews of Seth Mnookin’s book on scandals at the New York Times in recent years, of a collection of pieces by Mark Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down," of alternate media documentaries on aspects of the Iraq war, including "WMD: Weapons of Mass Deception," produced by Danny Schechter  (Nieman 1978), and of a book of photos taken 20 years ago, depicting a famine in West Africa that killed a million people.



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