It hurts to read Bill Wyman's blunt, sometimes savage piece on Five Key Reasons Why Newspapers Are Failing, but the veteran journalist says some things that need to be said. Unlike recent analyses that have mainly focused on the industry's business challenges, Wyman aims his guns squarely at the editors and reporters whom he believes fostered a culture of risk-aversion and self-absorption even as the need for change grew urgent. Although the piece is heavy on anecdotes and light on statistical evidence, we found ourselves nodding in agreement frequently as Wyman ticked off a list of editorial missteps.
Perhaps the most damning point in the 9,000-word opus is when the author lists headlines from a "recent" (actually, it was well over a year ago) features section of an unnamed local newspaper (actually, it was the Arizona Republic). They include: "Post office food drive," "Fight Crohn's and colitis," "Mom and Estában," "Healthful salsa non-guilty pleasure," and
"Great gifts for teachers." The point: "There was nothing there of remote interest [to] just about any sentient being. But that's not what the paper's editors were aiming for. The point is that there was nothing there that could possibly offend anyone."
Wyman hammers home this point repeatedly. In his view, advertisers and editors joined in an unholy alliance decades ago in which watchdog journalism was sacrificed to reliable and profitable ad contracts, stable circulation and don't-rock-the-boat blandness. As a consequence, the guiding principle in editorial departments changed from informing the public to offending as few people as possible. Causing a reader to cancel a subscription was the ultimate sin. Better to under-inform than to antagonize.
As a longtime arts critic, Wyman has some stories to back up the premise. He tells of one arts editor who instructed him to avoid negativity in reviews because readers didn't want to "hear bad things about their favorite artists over breakfast." Reviews sections in local papers are almost unfailing positive, or at worst blasé, he notes. Arts sections are filled out with snippets from those stanchions of informational blandness: Press releases.
"Let's be honest. Most newspapers in the U.S. aren't watchdogs Most papers are instead lapdogs, and the metaphorical lap they sit in isn't even that of powerful interests like their advertisers The real tyrant the papers served was the tender sensibilities of their readers," he writes.