Thursday, December 27, 2012

What I want to happen in newsrooms

This came to me in the shower, before I got the news of the last post, and before I wrote the post before that too.  In fact the plan was for this immediately to follow from "Plan for blizzards" so I'd come out of the shower, write that post about my day, and then have this fictitious monolog.  Didn't quite work out that way. I'll see what I can remember.


Scene: the main room of the paper of record for a county no one cares about.  It was just bought by someone who can afford to buy a paper with no expectation that there will be a return on the investment.  He's foreign to the local staff, from a different part of the country, with a different accent, and probably different religious and political views.  He's called everyone who works at the paper together for a company wide meeting.  He's about to give a speech.

"You're probably wondering why I bought this paper.  I'm not from around here, where I come from we'd say I'm 'from away' and you're not exactly nationally known.  That's why I bought this paper.  The rest of the country ignores you on the rare occasions they notice you exist.  That means two things.  First it's insulting.  You matter as much as any of them.  Second, it means that you're under the radar and that is a very powerful thing.

"Lasting change needs to come from the bottom up.  It needs to come from the places that people don't notice until it's so firmly rooted that it can't be ignored.  You can change the way news is told, and in so doing change everything.  That is why I bought this paper.  Because you have that power.

"So this is what we're going to do: we're going to tell the truth.  Whether we like the truth or not.  That means you have to know more about what you're talking about then the so-called experts discussing the topic because you need to be able to say when what they're saying is true and when it's false.

"If you're working a religious beat you need to know what the virgin birth is, what the immaculate conception is, and all of the differences between the two are.  You need to know the words contraception and abortifacient mean, the ways in which they are different, what the current position of various churches on each are, what they were a year ago, what they were five years ago, what they were 50 years ago.

"If you don't then someone who is misinformed, or lying, or both, can get away with lying to our readers and that I will not have.

"If someone uses a world you don't know hit the books, look it up, and find out what it means in every possible concept before you even think about writing an article.

"I don't care if you go with 'Trust but verify' or 'Trust no one' but the bottom line is we're not printing anything we haven't checked.

"Sometimes someone you would trust with your life will lie to you, sometimes someone you wouldn't trust with the time of day will tell the plain and simple truth.  In either case you won't know until you check, so everything gets checked.

"And in every case I want the truth right there, not three paragraphs later, not as a correction or an addendum, but right next to what was said.  If people tell the truth then, 'So and so said' quotation, 'Which is true,' if they lied then, 'So and so said,' quotation, 'which is a lie' Period. 'In fact the truth is' whatever the actual truth is.  Or you could reverse it, 'Even though the truth is' the actual truth, 'so and so lied and said,' quotation.  But from now on the actual truth gets put right next to the quotation.

"No he said she said.  'These are the facts, this is what people said' and the 'what people said' includes every true thing being verified as true immediately and every false thing called out as false immediately.  In the same sentence as the quote.

"No matter how much we hate the person telling the truth or like the person who is lying.

"Basically, every section is going to be held to the same standards as the Sports Page.  If the headline on the sports page was, "Yankees supporters say they won the game, Red Sox supporters say they won the game," without telling what the actual score was that writer would be fired before the issue went to print.  The truth is every bit as straightforward as the score of a game and I want our readers to know that they're getting as much truth when report on anything else as they are when we report the score of a game in the Sports Section.

"From now on every single thing we print is checked.  We don't settle for reporting both sides of a story, we dig down and report the actual facts, then tell people those facts, what each side got right, and what each side got wrong."

Or something like that.


  1. That's an interesting idea. I'd love to see someone try it. I think they might run into trouble with "lie." "Lie" implies intent, which could be libel. "Not true" would be safer. We actually do have publications like this, to some degree, in the form of scientific journals. However, they are not under the misapprehension that they have access to some kind of objective truth. Everything, EVERYTHING, has a measure of uncertainty. Everything has error bars. Scientists are just more honest about publishing theirs.

  2. I've been reading Ben Goldacre's books Bad Science and Bad Pharma and (especially after the last one) am somewhat disillusioned about scientific journals. That said, this is still a wonderful idea. I'd love to see it happen.


  3. Who would pay for it?

    People don't pay for good quality news even when it's offered; they pay for celebrity pablum.

    And of course no advertiser would touch it.

  4. "Who would pay for it?"

    That's why, in part, you need the instigator to be someone who can afford to take the loss if the whole thing goes under.

    If there is a market for it, that market is pretty damn deprived right now, so it's hard to gauge the market. I something isn't being offered then no one is paying for it which makes it look like the market is zero, which it may be, or it may be that no one is paying for it because they can't. There's nothing for them to buy so they can't buy anything.


    And this is aside from the fact that once upon a time newsrooms were expected to operate at a loss. They were something you did because it was worth doing, the rest of the company was there to pay for doing it.

    Also aside from the fact that right now there are plenty of profitable papers out there it's just that they're owned by companies who are heavily in debt which means that on their own they'd be fine but when combined with the debt of their owners they're constantly being pushed to cut back, which results in fewer sales, which results in more push to cut back.