These five suggestions could help the Hamilton Spectator begin to reverse the dangerous trend of putting marketing and consumerism ahead of journalism.
By Ryan McGreal
Published September 15, 2005
The editors at the Hamilton Spectator are very defensive about the ever-popular "sport" of trashing our city's only daily paper at every opportunity. However, there's just no denying that the so-called "Revolution" (and its more recent "Evolution") has turned at least as many people off the paper as it has turned on.
I conducted my own entirely unscientific poll of friends and acquaintances, and could not find a single person who likes the new direction. It turns out most newspaper readers, unlike many TV viewers, don't like to be treated like idiots.
How true are Chicago Tribune editor Jim Squires' words from 1993, that "the culture of the press has changed from that of an institution dedicated to the education of the public to that of its rival, television, which is dedicated to entertaining consumers for a profit."
Newspapers should be more than shills for new cars, bland suburban houses, and high-tech gadgets. News should be more than random violence, meaningless tragedy, and celebrity gossip. I understand that newspapers have to generate revenue, but Dana Robbins seems to think creating a welcome environment for sponsors comes before producing engaging, informative content that people want to read.
The newspaper is a unique medium with its own strengths: detailed local reportage, in-depth investigations, analysis from a variety of viewpoints, and the ability to host public debates at a pace slow enough to encourage reflection and thought, but fast enough to remain timely. The newspaper can help citizens to know themselves, each other, and the issues they need to consider as members of a public.
Unfortunately, the recent developments at the Spec have been away from solid reportage and toward third-rate magalog dreck. I'm not writing this because I love to hate our city's newspaper. I'd like nothing more than a great local daily with fair coverage and a variety of viewpoints, unencumbered by corporate interlocks and systemic conflicts of interest.
As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write, "At stake is whether, as citizens, we have access to independent information that makes it possible for us to take part in governing ourselves."
So: rather than rant and rave any more, I'd like to offer some constructive and practical advice for the editors at the Spec. With these changes, the editors can start to bring about a better newspaper that will attract more readers and improve its bottom line. This is not exhaustive by any stretch, but it represents a step in the right direction.
Put actual news on the front page. When the editorial team decides the most important event that happened yesterday is that sales of blue jeans are up (see the Spec on Friday, September 9, 2005), that's a strong indication the editor's scoop-o-meter needs to be re- calibrated.
Stop wasting Bill Dunphy. This talented columnist took a temporary gig and turned it into something vibrant, engaging, and dynamic - a taste of what this city could be. To dump him into marginal work just because Susan Clairmont returned from maternity leave is ridiculous - their styles are entirely different, and they cover different aspects of city life. I cannot believe there's no room for another city columnist, particularly one who has been so successful in carving out a popular niche, in the city's only daily paper.
Stop wasting Jeff Mahoney. It's rare to find a sharp eye, a wicked turn of phrase, and consistently funny humour in the same writer. As a humorist, he's on par with James Thurber, Erma Bombeck, and Robert Fulghum. As a columnist, he provides a healthy and warm-hearted counterbalance to Andrew Dreschel's party-line conservatism. Take him out of the entertainment ghetto and place him in city affairs, where his smart, funny, insightful writing can sink its teeth into real meat.
Bring back daily op-eds. People in a city love knowing what their neighbours think, and it provides a rare opportunity in today's media environment for real debates to take place in full sentences and in slow motion. It also provides a rare opportunity for people outside the media industry to communicate publicly on important issues. Finally, it's free content. What's not to like about that?
Understand that "balance" is not a journalistic value. Too many journalists seem to believe in looking at all news sources the same way, ignoring background, self-interest, and underlying structural conditions, and then sort of splitting the difference and calling it "balanced". If one side of a debate says the earth is round and the other side says the earth is flat, the objective reporter does not write, "Opinions differ on the shape of the earth," especially when a little independent research can determine the truth of the matter. The newsworthy aspect of the article might shift, then, to the reasons why one group is trying to argue the earth is flat. That kind of reporting can take journalism beyond what we might call press release one-upmanship.
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