Archive for November, 2007

As newspapers seek profits, where are the prophets?

Tuesday, November 13th, 2007

November 03, 2007

This column was originally posted in 1999 in
The American Reporter
July 9, 1999

By Allan R. Andrews
American Reporter Correspondent

WASHINGTON – The words have become a mantra of modern journalism: “Keep the readers in mind; we work for our readers; we must give the readers what they want.”

I confess I sometimes take a cynical view of these admonitions, believing that for many in the newspaper business the term “reader” has become an acceptable euphemism for “sale,” as in “keep the sales in mind; we work for our sales.”

In fact, it’s become quite natural in the growing economic jargon of journalism to slip into speaking about “customers” instead of “readers.”

Quite recently, I heard a well-known newspaper designer making an eloquent plea for editors to keep readers in mind. His ringing personal charge in this direction was expressed when he said, “I am a slave to the customer.”

Well, that may be fine for designers working to satisfy corporate clients, but it’s a worrisome stance for an editor to be taking.

Surrounded by and pressured by the fiscal realities of the newspaper business, editors can be forgiven if they slip into a mentality that appeals not to intelligent readers but to units of the market subsumed as consumers (or customers, if you will).

Editors who slip may be forgiven. Editors who commit to such a mentality must be challenged at every turn.

In the business offices of many newspapers, the question of whether or not the newspaper (aka “the product”) is read becomes secondary to the question of whether or not the consumer has plunked down his or her money to carry off the product.

In the business of journalism, the product, like so many bars of soap or models of automobile, becomes generic; its packaging and marketing defines the mission of not only the business office but of the editorial staff.

Perhaps I speak for a minority, but I think modern journalism’s suspect credibility has less to do with our ethical lapses than with our mimicking of promoters and advertisers. We’ve barked so much about our product that we’ve fallen in with the snake-oil salesmen and the carnival con artists.

In our compulsive concern with “giving our readers what they want” we’ve redefined our readers as persons who do everything with a newspaper except read it.

Modern editors have begun to put more stock in the judgment of consumer focus groups than in the editorial judgment of their professional staff.

In a frightening irony, many modern editors are worrying more about readers they don’t have than concerning themselves with supplying the readers the publication does have.

I know the financial arguments against my case: Newspapers are losing circulation. We live in a visual age. Young people want pictures not words. The modern digital age of computers is sounding the death knell of the printed page. No customers, no advertisers; no advertisers, no newspaper. News is changing. It’s no longer gathered; it’s created, shaped and spun.

Which leads me to my premise, a perhaps overshadowed and forgotten premise, but the most important premise nevertheless: News is not a commodity! It is vital information to the defense and growth of pluralistic democracy.

Just as politicians alienate constituents when they begin to perceive the people merely as votes, so editors alienate readers once they begin to perceive readers as customers.

It is the job of newspaper advertising departments to go after readers the newspaper doesn’t have; it is the job of editors to educate and inform the readers a newspaper already has.

Faithful readers don’t want news as a commodity; they want good stories and reliable information.

Editors who allow their mentality to tilt toward customers who are not buying the paper are doing a disservice to established readers. A slave to the customer cannot be a servant of the reader. In trying to build circulation with gimmickry and condescension, many newspapers are taking faithful readers for granted and feeding them more style than substance.

My corollary is that while editors may determine what is news, they don’t do so in order to sell newspapers. The best editors work to inform and educate the public; they do it to keep the public from becoming the sorry and silent sheep that marketers, bureaucrats and manipulative politicians often assume them to be.

My argument flies in the face of the philosophy of modern corporate media moguls. I’m sorry if my premise represents a dying, minority view; it may well be that the editor’s voice has become a voice in a profit-wilderness.

Treating news as a commodity delivers such bastardized information categories as “celebrity journalism,” “sensational journalism,” and “news you can use.” It also turns over responsible editorial judgment and criticism to accountants, bookkeepers and amateur journalists.

It’s not newspapers that are threatened by our devouring “bottom-line” mentality; it is the very core of democracy that depends on the free flow of information that newspapers should be pressing for and providing.

I’m not attacking newspapers as businesses. That’s why newspapers have advertising, marketing and circulation departments. I’m attacking editors who surrender their editorial vision for the sake of customers.

An editor’s calling is to keep the prophets among us in view, not the profits.

We lose with ‘News You Can Use’

Wednesday, November 7th, 2007

November 7, 2007

By Allan R. Andrews
American Reporter Correspondent

WASHINGTON – In a world enamored with McNews and Infotainment, there has emerged among many of the nation’s editors a subtle conviction that readers must be given “news they can use” if the newspaper is to survive as an alternative to headline scanning news on television.

This seemingly harmless and pragmatic argument and slogan is a danger to freedom of the press and an unwitting ally of forces that would control our lives.

Of what “use” to readers is news that Serbs and Kosovars are mercilessly killing each other?

Of what use to readers is news that a world leader in Africa has died or that an angry man with a gun went on a rampage in Atlanta or that three promising people perished in a private plane crash?

The cold truth is that news is not something we use except as we recognize, as John Donne reminded humankind a few centuries ago, “No man (or woman) is an island.”

We don’t use the news that 45 people died when a cross-country train ran off a track or that more than 20,000 residents of a distant country died in a killer earthquake.

What these words do is challenge our comfort zones and remind us of the frailty of human existence.

Such stories should arouse compassion in us and move us to acts of charity for the unfortunate victims of disaster and crime.

Much news is in this category. We report the horrors of war in a faint hope that future wars can be averted.

News of railroad accidents and airplane crashes alerts us to human error that can cost lives and motivates us to urge regulations that will guard against such errors.

There’s an old journalistic claim that news is anything that threatens one’s life or one’s pocketbook.

Those advocating news-you-can-use buy this argument and reduce journalism to two motives: to increase one’s lifespan or to increase one’s income. Read the news and live! Read the news and get rich!

But threats to life and wallet don’t exhaust the definition of news. Much news threatens the heart. Much news stretches the narrow mind.

Much news lifts our level of anxiety for those we love. Much news alerts me to those who threaten my freedom of inquiry, my freedom of movement, or my freedom to pursue a life of joy and peace.

When I read of neo-Nazism or rampant ethnic cleansing, I’m reminded how important it is for me to defend the open airing of ideas and opinions and to provide a voice for the oppressed and disestablished.

The genius of democracy is that the majority is compelled morally to defend the rights of the minority.

When I read of elected officials caught with their hands in the till, I’m reminded that my being free in a democracy means more than chanting “We’re number one” at a basketball game or doing everything I can to grab a deduction on my income taxes.

Democracy means the citizenry is responsible for its leaders; much that threatens democracy seeks to turn this responsibility on its head.

You don’t owe your president, senator, representative, mayor, or county commissioner anything; they owe you, and the press is your eyes and ears – your lifeline – to their behavior and policy making, seeking to make sure they pay what they owe.

Sure you can use news to make money, but quite frankly if you’re reading the newspaper to keep track of your investments, you’re about two days behind the market and have probably already lost your chance to get in or out as you wish.

Most of what you read in the news is out of the ordinary – hardly “useable.” It just isn’t news to say that 5000 airplanes crossed the country last week without incident or that 8 million New Yorkers went to work yesterday and came home without being shot at.

I regard editors who advocate a news-you-can-use approach to journalism as unwitting bedfellows to those who abhor and attack a free press. Their view smacks of commercialism influenced more by MBAs and PR gurus than by the First Amendment. Their view equates news with a consumer product that can be collected, dressed up with color and pictures, packaged, promoted and profiteered: When it stops selling, it can be upgraded.

If I write like an idealist, I’ve been understood, because American journalism is rooted in an ideal.

News-you-can-use is based on pragmatism, which is exactly the logic and motive behind arguments that favor ethnic cleansing, suppression of the news for national security or government intervention in the media.

News-you-can-useism sees news not as ideas and actions demanding reflection and thought but as a breakfast cereal of the mind that can be sweetened, packaged, delivered, and consumed.

News-you-can-use is a notion developed in business schools, not in newsrooms. It owes its genius to heartless accountants and bottom-line barkers not to courageous and crusading editors.

If they had newspapers in ancient Rome, they would have advocated news-you-can-use to go along with the bread and circuses that kept the population happy and ignorant.

Allan Roy Andrews is the former editor and weekly columnist of Pacific Stars and Stripes in Tokyo, Japan. He most recently served as Publicity and Web site Coordinator for the Annapolis Area Christian School in Maryland.

This column is a slightly altered and updated version of a column that appeared originally on April 3, 1994, in Pacific Sunday Magazine, published in Tokyo, Japan, by Pacific Stars and Stripes.

Relaxation in high-achievement high schools

Saturday, November 3rd, 2007

November 03, 2007

Too much stress in high school:
Achieving at a hidden cost

By Allan R. Andrews

I’ve added to my list of people I admire the principal of Needham High School in an affluent suburb of Boston, Mr. Paul Richards.

According to a story in The New York Times last month (“Less Homework, More Yoga, From a Principal Who Hates Stress,” by Sara Rimer, October 29, 2007, ), the principal is attempting to change a high-powered high-school culture built on high achievement by advocating–the story’s headline tells us–“less homework, more yoga.”

Mr. Richards wants Needham’s students to be trained in relaxation techniques, and he doesn’t want it done in an extracurricular fashion. Relaxation should be part of the culture and curriculum.

The principal is suggesting regular yoga classes, and he is urging teachers to schedule weekends and holidays when students are totally free from having to do homework! He’s suggesting the school hire relaxation consultants.

The startling revelation of the story, however, is that Richards’ efforts have met strident criticism. As part of his culture-changing approach, he stopped publishing honor rolls in the local newspaper at the end of marking periods, suggesting the lists had been turned into an accountability issue by some parents.

As a result, Richards and Needham High School have been accused by none other than Rush Limbaugh of coddling students in order to be politically correct. Jay Leno, who lives off news-story-induced humor, mocked the school for its stance, and Richards has been the recipient of hate mail from across the country.

Richards argues that he’s not trying to change the elements of high school that encourage achievement but simply wants to get there in a healthier manner. He insists there is an irony in the students’ responses: they say they appreciate the relaxation time because it helps them catch up on schoolwork.

Richards, who holds a doctorate and has made himself something of an expert in research on stress, argues that many students are so stressed about grades, test scores, and getting into prestigious colleges that they can’t engage with life at school. He told The Times such students “are being held hostage to the culture.”

A key point from his stress research that Richards emphasizes is this: while a certain amount of stress is necessary for learning and growth, too much of it interferes with students’ learning and their maturation.

David Smokler, an English teacher at Needham High School, buys into the principal’s call for a change of culture. He told The Times, “The culture has always been about rigor,” but the principal is trying “to make sure it’s not just about rigor for rigor’s sake, but that it’s meaningful throughout the school.”

Since I removed myself from a newsroom about a decade ago and stepped into the classroom of a private high school, I’ve struggled to understand what is amiss in American high schools (and make no mistake, I consider high school teaching to be the most difficult job I’ve ever had–and the most rewarding.)

Paul Richards and thinkers like him have begun to convince me that the problem is not necessarily a “school” problem as much as a “culture” problem.

The sad side of the story, of course, is that so many teachers, administrators, parents, educational planners—as well as Congressmen—have bought into the achievement-at-any-cost culture.

A former colleague of mine, Steve Larson, who spent more than a decade as a private school superintendent before returning to teaching, used to say often, “We’re doing lots of achieving, but we’re not teaching the imagination.”

Steve and I had lots of conversations about maintaining rigor while encouraging relaxation though we may not have used that phraseology. We also agreed such a program was an uphill battle, not because of student resistance, but because of the misunderstandings of colleagues, administrators and parents; indeed, because of a gross misunderstanding of the nature and meaning of educating adolescent minds.

I found it heartwarming and telling that when Steve decided to leave our school after just a few years and move his family south, he was voted by his colleagues as faculty person of the year, an honor traditionally reserved for faculty who were long-term employees of the institution.

Apparently, somewhere, there’s still an appreciation for relaxation.

Be at leisure, my friends.