FT’s Barber cuts to the heart of the press problem

October 13, 2008

Some interesting points from a weekend opinion piece by Financial Times Editor Lionel Barber.
Barber analyzed how the press — particularly in the United States — got to the miserable place that it’s in now. There are plenty of reasons having to do with business models and impatient Wall Street vultures, but Barber brought up an interesting idea: the mainstream media disenfranchised itself from the public’s trust as it became more cozy with its high-level sources — precisely at the time that the Internet started to annihilate the U.S. newspaper business model.

Barber relies on Michael Elliott, the British-born editor of Time’s international edition, to sum up the U.S. newspaper crisis:

A broken business model overly reliant on classified advertising revenue that has now moved online; a mistaken notion that post-1945 newspaper staffs of 800-plus journalists were the norm rather than a historical aberration; and, crucially, a stultifying failure to innovate because of the lack of competition.

(This last part, when applied to newsrooms, amounts to blaming the victim, Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi suggests in an American Journalism Review article out recently.)

Elliott suggests that the U.S. press could be more fun.

“The mainstream press in America is so conservative,” Elliott says. “Where are the DVD giveaways, where are the special promotions like in Britain? Look at the sports pages! They write about sport like they do City Hall. Where is the sense of fun?”

Barber himself strikes a serious note more typical of the FT’s own writing style when he cites media writer Eric Alterman’s view that bloggers often rely on readership to fact-check posted material, whereas newspapers try to get that out of the way before publishing:

As an editor myself, I find this prospect alarming – not so much because it threatens to put me (and many colleagues) out of a job but because it signals a departure from an honourable tradition in which professional journalists do their best – through a process of discovery relying on multiple sources – to establish something approaching a rough historical record.

Would a DVD giveaway would help?

(Photo: Reuters newsroom, quite a long time ago.)


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Robert – high level source coziness hasn’t been killing America’s local papers. Another case of lost ‘trust’ being advanced as a moral reason for decline. Has there ever been an industry so willing to paint its obscolescence in such terms?

Certainly the tobacco industry has taken a more robust approach…

Posted by Adrian Monck | Report as abusive

Sure – high-level sources scale to the size of your community, though. I’m sure Greensboro, NC and Royal Oak, MI have their own high-level sources, you know?
It’s an interesting point, and I can’t say if I endorse it or not – but it’s interesting to see the editorial chief of a big paper advance the notion.
PS – I liked your blog on my blog on John Ridding. We could conceivably great a black hole of compliments.

Posted by Robert MacMillan | Report as abusive