Hey, newspapers, quit whining!

The newspaper industry would be better prepared to deal with the unprecedented new competition it faces from online publishing if its leadership would quit peddling stereotypes and instead start looking at the Internet with a reporter’s eye.

The outgoing president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Dave Zeeck, attacked online publishers in a speech to the ASNE this week. Zeeck, the editor of the News-Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., recycled many of the tired arguments refuted in my commentary, Are blogs a ‘parasitic’ medium?, earlier this month.

From Zeeck’s speech:

“I’m told the blogosphere is going to eat our lunch. Well, the blogosphere, for the most part, spends its infinitely expanding gas talking about what we – newspapers – write, not what some blogger reported. If newspapers disappeared tomorrow it would be like pulling the fuel rods from a nuclear reactor: the lights would go out and the blogosphere wouldn’t produce a single BTU of intellectual heat.

“It’s the same with the Internet in general. When someone tells me they get their news from the Internet, I want to say: ‘Oh yeah? So, tell me again, how many reporters does Yahoo have at City Hall? How many correspondents from Google are risking their lives in Iraq?’

“People working for dot.coms go to jail for stock fraud or backdating options, not for disclosing important truths and protecting their confidential source?

“News on the Internet – news from real communities, new about real governments and real wars – comes from flesh-and-blood reporters. And they’re dispatched from our newsrooms, not the soulless zero-gravity of the Internet.”

What a load of clueless nonsense.

Zeeck falls into the typical news industry trap of viewing journalism as the exclusive work of company newsrooms. No, Google and Yahoo do not have huge news staffs. They are aggregators, providing the publicity, and increasingly, the advertising sales for a growing population of independent reporters. But the lack of a Gannett-sized online-only news business does not preclude the existence of thousands of independent online news publishers, many doing solid reporting.

Where’s the independent online journalist covering Iraq? Right here, and we just profiled him on OJR. Where are the indie online journalists covering city hall? There’s one of my former USC students doing just that over there, and here’s a slew of others.

While top mainstream news reporters are laughing off Washington corruption, a bunch of bloggers are exposing what appears to be the most corrupt administration since Nixon, if not in all of U.S. history.

You want to talk about shady business deals in the dot-com world? Okay, and shall we talk about the Tribune/Times Mirror tax deal while we are at it? I’m sure the name Conrad Black is familiar to many in ASNE, as well.

Credit Zeeck with this: “Journalism is important.” And the public craves the truth that great journalism provides. But journalism is best defined by its substance, not by who produces it. Ill-informed insults — “infinitely expanding gas,” if you will — are not journalism, even when they come from a newspaper editor.

Newspaper companies retain substantial assets — money, employees, brand names, community relationships — with which they can beat their new online competition. Instead of whining about and dismissing it at industry conferences, newspaper leaders ought instead to take a clear look at the blogs and websites which are luring their readers. Yes, there are too many “gasbags” in the media. Newspaper editors ought not join them.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. Good heavens, I can’t believe I forgot Josh Wolf.

    Zeeck said: “People working for dot.coms go to jail for stock fraud or backdating options, not for disclosing important truths and protecting their confidential source”

    The longest-incarcerated journalist in recent years is not a newspaper employee. He’s a video blogger: Josh Wolf, whose case OJR featured last year. So, yes, people working online do go to jail to protect journalism.

    Now, let’s contrast that case with the most prominent recent example of a newspaper reporter going to jail to protect the identity of a source: The New York Times’ Judith Miller, whose cozy relationship with the Bush administration and uncritical reporting of its cherry-picked WMD claims helped build public support for a disastrous war in Iraq.

    Miller went to jail to protect the identity of a now-convicted criminal who chose to comprise national security in order to attack a truthful critic of the administration’s bogus WMD claims. In short, she went to jail to protect — not uncover — government corruption.

    Not exactly a point in favor of the newspaper industry there.

  2. Brian Robinson says:

    As someone who has straddled the print/online worlds for a while, now, I’ll admit I’m already past being tired about this ridiculous print vs. online spat.

    What everyone has been getting away from is that it isn’t about the medium, it’s about the story. If journalism has been falling down on things at all, it’s not that it’s the MSM (another ridiculous term) doing things bad and the online/blog portion doing it better,it’s because EVERYONE has been getting away from the gumshoe part of the business.

    Regular journalism for whatever reasons has not been doing its proper job, and blogs certainly haven’t been plugging the gaps. So stories have been falling to the wayside.

    Print still has a powerful play and will for quite a while. Just look at the WPost’s Walter Reed story and its aftermath. Online/blogs also have a role, and for the best of them look to Josh Marshall at TPM and what went on there with the attorneys general.

    Online is coming on strong, and Niles is right to say that print journalists need to understand that is where the future lies. But he also needs to get down off his high horse and stop plugging the righteousness of blogs. TPM and a handful of others aside, they’ve got a long way to go yet before proving they are any substitute for traditional news outlets.

    Whatever this Brave New World actually ends up being — and no-one knowns that yet — the only good that will come from it is if the story regains its rightful place at the center. If that doesn’t happen, then all we get is an expanding universe of gasbags on all sides, and journalism loses.

    So please — give it a rest, already.

  3. Jeff Wilson says:

    I think he still has a point though. I would have very little to write about if it wasn’t for print journalists. There’s only so much I can cover with a full time job since I’m not making profit off my site.

    It is very satisfying, however, when my town’s journalists find a story on my site and can devote more resources to it and educate the public. That’s happened several times in just the last few months.

    I would say, in general, this debate is just getting started. Media and news will never become like the FUD movie EPIC 2014 and there will always be a demand for men and women who can sort out facts, talk to people, and write stories. Who cares if it’s on paper or a screen?

    I think the LA Times is doing a great job online. They are combining blogs with their usual great reporting. LATimes.com is my number 1 news site.

  4. I’m looking at my personal http://roblimo.com Web site — what some might call a “blog” — and I see 15 posts since Jan 1, 2007.

    11 of them are videos, and they are all videos I shot and edited myself, not snippets I grabbed from TV shows.

    Four posts are text. And of those four, only one links to or references a newspaper story.

    I don’t need to leech off others’ reporting. I am perfectly capable of coming up with my own, original material, thank you.

  5. Eh, he makes a few valid points. This issue in large part is trust, and frankly, something that has an NYT stamp on it (used to be/is still/can be again) worth a great deal. Yes, there are Web-only resources with sterling cred, but finding them is more difficult, especially for neophyte Internauts.

    Meanwhile, “Memo to kettle, from pot, RE: You’re black.” Soulless zero gravity? Aside from being an awesome bandname, it sounds more descriptive of the droves of administration-parroting coverage clones that got us into this mess in the first place…and surprise, they work at the biggest papers on the planet.

    How about this? Big papers keep doing solid, big-budget reporting that requires international desk coordination and embedded reporters and things of that nature, bloggers and grassroots Web reporters keep analyzing and breaking stuff that the big boys didn’t/couldn’t bother with or comprehend and it ALL ENDS UP ON THE WEB WHERE EVERYBODY READS IT ANYWAY.

  6. The Best thing bloggers can do is questioning something that is taken for granted by the common people.

    By birth, people are ready to believe something PRINTED to be the truth! And newspapers exploit this weakness. Yes they DO.

    At least the same trust factor is not built for online editions – and as long as the trust is not built, we are safe.

    I have an active blog but still I said all these things. Don’t you think that I have something more than Mr. Zeeck to be proud of!

  7. By and large, I agree with Niles.

    Broad-brush criticism of online outfits that offer news and discussion adds little to the conversation these days. I believe it is true that enterprising reporters drive the news, and that they always will. But to imply that those reporters have to be sitting in a cubicle farm on the national desk to be effective is per se ridiculous.

    Having said that, I have worked at larger papers and understand where the attitude originates. Reporters and editors are besieged by partisan keyboard jockeys, whose shrill attacks on their work lead to a bunker mentality. Technology has also introduced more competition into an already competitive field. Couple that with the idea that most reporters and editors are not particularly computer savvy, and that the companies they work for have failed to produce a clear strategy for the troops to rally around, and it becomes clear why the fangs come out when the topic shifts to online journalism.

    But I don

  8. william doolittle says:

    I have been in conventional journalism with large and small newspapers for 55 years. Just retired. First. Now I’m starting my own web newspaper covering my local community. Not one story will be from the daily here. There are tons of great stories, they don’t bother with. My bet is they will be stealing from me. As a former daily newspaper reporter, editor, publisher and owner, I can say with authority that 4/5ths of the problems facing newspapers today are the demands for 20-30 percent pretax profit on gross. The average for American business does seven percent. If dailies would settle for that margin there would be plenty left to put out good newspapers. Greed, not the net, has gravely wounded most newspapers. Greed used to be a sin, now it is a virtue. If the owners were to do stop demanding unconscionable profits, the threat from the internet would be greatly diminished. It will not happen. Just as with the decline of railroads, the vultures are gathering. The poor quality of community newspapers in this country is a scandal, and the internet had nothing to do with that. The were terrible long before the net. It won’t be long before a big web portal begins set up its own newsroom, and judging from the present state of print newspapers (with exceptions) they will find easy pickings. “The fault , dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves. . . ”

  9. Patrick Murphy says:

    The parasitic relationship between blogs and MSM seems no different than the parasitic relationship between MSM and business and government flacks, er, communications specialists.

    The plain truth is that businesses (including entertainment and sports businesses) and governments (federal, state, local) need channels to disseminate news as well as advertising. They’ll use the most effective channels they can find.

  10. Tom Grubisich says:

    Editor Zeeck said some dumb things in his rambling (i.e. unedited) speech. But, refreshingly, he also said newspapers must build new and better connections with their communities. One way would be for papers to team their reporters with community members who could be additional eyes and ears for what’s happening, and report — and videograph — what they see and hear. Greater LA has about 325 communities. The LA Times can’t cover all those communities and their 17 million people with its local staff, but it could cover them on the Latimes.com site with a combination of mentor reporters working with public-spirited locals.

  11. What Zeek’s forgetting about most of the blogosphere is that when it links to a news story, it’s driving traffic back to that newspaper’s website.


    Further, the commentary on the news is conversation. It’s the same kind of conversation that might happen at a diner, or a gas station, or in someone’s kitchen or in a bar. Only the conversation’s inviting friends from all over the place, not just one’s geographic area, to be part of it. It’s not original reporting. It’s not meant to be original reporting. The perception that it’s original reporting is coming from somewhere outside the thinking of the majority of the blogosphere…Maybe it comes from from former journlists who are now blogging.

    But not necessarily from most bloggers. Pew told us that in 2006, when it found that only about 30% of bloggers thought they were doing original reporting…

    All blogging isn not journalism. All blogging isn’t even “citizen journalism.” Lots of blogging is open conversation. The Journalism Industry should care less about the tiny blogger and more about the disgruntled journalist or media person who goes out and starts his/her own little media empire using blog software…

    and then goes around calling him/herself a blogger. That’s a whole different animal.