Saturday, January 5, 2008

The scourge of nitwitness news

Just before the "do-not-call list" kicked in I received a solicitation to subscribe to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

When I declined the offer, the pleasant young lady who called surprised me by asking why.

I told her: "Well, when I was younger the Milwaukee Journal was considered one of the top ten newspapers in the nation. In Wisconsin, it has statewide influence. Now it's a shadow of its former self. There is very little in-depth reporting and there are many places in Wisconsin where you can't even buy it."

"You're not the first person to tell me that," she sighed.

The dumbing down of journalism didn't start or end with the state's largest newspaper, of course, or even the Kenosha News which gets well-deserved brickbats (and an occasional compliment) here.

The problem is that most of the media has dumbed down and forsaken its traditional role in our society.

Even the Chicago Tribune has turned its back on its former credo: “A newspaper is an institution created by modern civilization which relates the news of the day, leads and informs public opinion, fosters commerce and industry, and creates a check upon government that no constitution has ever been able to provide."

Today, newspapers and radio stations seem to worry more about Paris Hilton and Britney Spears than what really matters in a community. Real editorial content is down along with the experience level of the reporters.

It wasn't always this way.

Not all that long ago newspapermen looked down on their electronic journalism colleagues because we just reported the headline while you had to turn to a newspaper to get the real story.

We used to respond that when we reported a story it was news but by the time it showed up in print it was history. Now you watch CNN to get the in-depth story.

Electronic journalism has also fallen into the toilet and, in many places, flushed away.

Take WLIP in Kenosha which once had four full-time reporters who covered the police beat, city council, county board, school board, etc. They were out in the community every day just as their colleagues at radio stations large and small throughout the country.

Not so now. The Federal Communication Commission deregulated broadcasting to eliminate the requirement to broadcast local news and further went from allowing one person or entity to own but a few stations to permitting congolmerate broadcast owners who have no interest in serving the communities where their stations are licensed.

Today, WLIP has no reporters in the community and its "local" news consists of an announcer reading the Kenosha News on the air. (In fact, many days I don't even look at the newspaper until later in the day because the top stories have been condensed on WLIP's 7 a.m. newscast.

Weekends? Forget about it. No weekend local news on WLIP, period.

Another FCC rule change abandoned the requirement that someone had to physically man the station when it was on the air. Thus, if a tornado warning is issued at night, there's a good shot you might not hear it or else it will be broadcast just once by an automatic computer override.

In the "old days" radio shined by its immediacy and service to the community.

When I worked at WSPD in Toledo -- for decades one of the nation's most respected stations -- it was not uncommon for employees to head into work on their own when bad weather appeared. Seems Toledoans used to take tornado warnings lightly until one struck on a Palm Sunday and killed four people. After that we considered it our duty to be there.

Turn on your TV and you'll see the once-respectable WTMJ in Milwaukee talking about "some guys" who robbed a bank as part of its "if it bleeds it leads" brand of journalism. That's a vast departure from the days when their reporters would be on regular beats (I recall sitting beside Melodie Wilson at many school board meetings which WTMJ pretty much ignores these days).

Today, for the most part we get airheads and nitwits writing our newspapers and on radio and television. In fairness, not everyone wants to be purveyors of "nitwitness news" but it's because their editors and managers don't insist (or even care about) the highest standards of journalism. As experienced reporters retire they're replaced with inexpensive rookies often supervised by those who rely on direction from corporate bean counters and/or media consultants.

Don't take my word for it. Go to the library. Search the internet. Find some old newspapers or listen to an old news broadcast. Today's fancy equipments and graphics weren't available then but the quality and quantity of the writing was light years ahead of today.

There's another villain, to be sure. It is, as Pogo said, the situation of "We have met the enemy and he is us."

We get mediocrity because we tolerate it. And then it feeds on itself.

Take the Kenosha News as an example.

Yes, there have been some good changes in the past few years. More sports and regional coverage, for example, and occasional editorials on matters of local interest.

But even though this is a one newspaper town the News had competition from reporters at WLIP and, at one time, the former WAXO. Without competition the Kenosha News today can sit on a story for a couple of days and nobody notices. Shame on them.

So the "nitwitness newsies" as I call them get banged up on here and I can guarantee you there will be more criticism as newspapers and broacasters turn their backs on their traditional roles in the community. In some respects, it's now up to bloggers and citizen journalists to fill in the gaps.

Finally, it's interesting how the media likes to bang up on others but gets really testy when the tables are turned. (We used to joke about how TV and radio stations should have newspaper critics!) As journalism continues on the downward spiral they ought to get used to it.


Lou Rugani said...

Caught your blog. Haven't read off the local daily once in my almost-seventeen years of doing the Sunday Mid-Day


=Lou Rugani=

RAG said...

Glad to hear that, Lou, but, in all fairness WLIP still is nowhere near the radio station it used to be. When you go from an award-winning four-person news staff to what little there is now, that's inexcusable. Not your fault, my friend, and I know you try to do your best, but you are just one person.

This is a large community with a lot of news to cover which WLIP does not. Plus, the two advantages to radio, immediacy and actuality, were given up by WLIP years ago.