I’m loving Frontline’s “News War” multipart documentary. Watching a 90-minute installment the other night on my local PBS station afforded me the opportunity to hear from John Carroll. Carroll, now at Harvard, was the editor of the Los Angeles Times and prior to that, the Baltimore Sun. The way he speaks about newspapers really resonates with me.
Here’s a small slice of his interview, care of the PBS website:
I estimate that roughly 85 percent of the original reporting that gets done in America gets done by newspapers. They’re the people who are going out and knocking on doors and rummaging through records and covering events and so on. And most of the other media that provide news to people are really recycling news that’s gathered by newspapers.
It is very evident that the new media, the media that are coming along with the Web, are investing almost nothing in original reporting. If newspapers fall by the wayside, who’s going to do the reporting? What will we know? Who will stand up [against] the government when the government, for example, nullifies a couple of generations of law and secretly decides to wiretap us? Who will go to the courthouse? Who will go the police station in all the towns across America and make sure that things are being done properly? Who will examine all the people who seek to become political officeholders in the United States?
On why people go into journalism in the first place:
I think journalists — good journalists — have always looked upon themselves as public servants. … I don’t know why they want to go into it. I don’t think it’s really the money. The money’s pretty bad unless you become a superstar. I think it’s a combination of things. For a certain type of person, … it’s just an exciting way to make a living. It’s an exciting job. It’s fun. It gives you an excuse to satisfy your curiosity, gives you a reason to ask people questions and talk with interesting people and see interesting things, … and you get paid for it. … Just the sheer entertainment and satisfaction of crafting a story and seeing it in the paper, that in itself is a reason to go into it.
Then when you sit back and you think, well, is there a larger purpose to it? Yes. I’ve been involved in stories that have actually done some good for people. You have, too, stories that may have saved lives, stories that have increased the quality of justice in America, stories that have enlightened the public in helping to exercise their vote with more pertinent information.
So in the reflective moments, you can say not only am I entertaining myself; I’m actually doing some good.
And here he is speaking to the economics of the newpaper business:
Wall Street and corporations are becoming disillusioned with owning newspapers. … They’re extremely profitable — they make barrels full of money — but they don’t grow much from year to year. Let me illustrate. … A typical newspaper makes a 20 percent operating margin. That’s roughly double what the typical Fortune 500 company makes. They’re very profitable. … This is true at the Los Angeles Times; it’s true at the Baltimore Sun, where I used to be editor; it’s true at the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky, which is a money-making machine. People think of this as a washed-up old business. It’s not.
It makes tons of money. But the owners are under great pressure to increase earning.
To sum up, journalism is a noble profession and the support beams of American democracy. Good reporters seek to reveal the truth and their actions turn a mean buck for the capitalists who organize them and distribute their work.