By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

“Frontline” on the future of news

I thought last night’s installment of “Frontline”‘s excellent “News War” series was the strongest yet. The first two parts focused on the so-called reporter’s privilege — the rapidly eroding right of journalists not to disclose their confidential sources or turn over their notes, photos, video footage and the like if called before a grand jury or a judge. Important stuff, but a little esoteric. Last night’s 90-minute installment, by contrast, was about the future.

My only complaint is that it rambled. Framing the story as some sort of dual narrative encompassing both the rise of new media and the fate of the Los Angeles Times was awkward, though both tales are worth telling. Especially good was Dean Baquet, who left as editor of the LA Times last November rather than follow orders from his budget-slashing overlords at the Tribune Co. Baquet, recently hired as Washington bureau chief at the New York Times, came across as a real human being — unlike the LA Times’ bloodless new publisher, David Hiller. (Check out Hiller’s attempt at pre-broadcast spin, reported by Kevin Roderick in LA Observed.)

Baquet’s predecessor in Los Angeles, John Carroll, pointed out a crucial fact: Most of the serious reporting in this country is done by newspaper journalists. If the newspaper business is in trouble, who will do the kind of public-service journalism that we need to govern ourselves?

Though it rambled, it rambled at a sprightly pace. Reporter/producer Lowell Bergman isn’t afraid to use silence to his advantage, forcing his interview subjects to fill the empty space. At times, it seems, Bergman is able to squeeze out good stuff simply by raising a reproachful eyebrow.

I do wish the new-media story hadn’t been subsumed by the drama over the LA Times. Bloggerman Jeff Jarvis was his usual pugnacious self in countering Nicholas Lemann‘s dismissal of blogs as “church newsletters,” telling Lemann (through Bergman) that the future will be marked by professional and amateur journalists working together. It’s a crucial point, but Bergman didn’t follow up. I doubt anyone who isn’t already following the rise of “open-source journalism” would have even known what Jarvis was talking about.

The bottom line, according to Bergman and the folks he interviewed, is the bottom line. Though newspapers remain profitable, they are being gutted because of Wall Street’s ever-rising demands for even greater profits. Combined with a belief among financial analysts that the Web will kill off the print side in the not-too-distant future, the newspaper business has become engulfed by a sense of crisis even as it continues to crank out annual profits in the range of 20 percent.

Bergman was unable to suggest much of a solution other than to highlight a few well-known alternatives, such as the St. Petersburg Times (owned by a nonprofit foundation, the Poynter Institute), and National Public Radio (a nonprofit funded mainly through listener contributions, corporate underwriting and the late Joan Kroc).

But he was certainly asking the right questions.

Update: Jeff Jarvis reacts in his usual laid-back manner, writing that Bergman and company “played the themes we have heard again and again, as if on a Top 40 radio station: tsk-tsking the tackiness, fretting about the news that the big guys are sure we need, evil Wall Street, looney citizens. I could sit down and fisk, as we say, all its cheap shots and lazy analysis and incomplete reporting but, frankly, I don’t find it worth the effort.”

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  1. Anonymous

    The ray of hope came in the form of that guy who was doing the online stuff for the Washington Post; he came from a paper (I don’t remember) somewhere where he revamped their online offerings to include heavy use of video and a concentration on “hyper” local news and local sports (“We cover youth leagues like we’re covering the Yankess” or something like that, he said). It seemed like a great idea that actually works. I found it sad to see all the foreign bureau closings, but I have to say, if the way it’s headed (according to a lot of the people interviewed in the documentary) is for “hyper” local coverage instead of national and international news (which you can get from the wires, the “big three” remaining national news outlets, etc.), then I don’t think that’s such a bad tradeoff. I also liked hearing the guy at the end who said he looks forward to the day when someone with deep pockets (Dan Kennedy, maybe?;-)) ponies up $5-$10 million to launch a local, purely online paper without all the production and distribution strings attached. If the ads don’t follow, then we’re all doomed anyway–can’t hurt to try. So sign me up.

  2. Neil

    Nothing’s on TV of interest to me for weeks, then two things are on at the same time. If only there were a device of some kind…Bergman’s documentary is great though I agree Part 3 meandered. The loss of the concept of news as public service, and in particular thinking that it’s enough to have only three outlets for international news is amazing to me. At 10 I switched to Bob Woodruff’s special about recovering from traumatic brain injury (TBI). A remarkable story and not just about him. In the second half they broadened the scope into the general issue of how the VA is handling the treatment of veterans with this injury. Similar to the Washington Post’s recent expose about conditions at Walter Reed, the situation of injured vets is an underreported story. Woodruff asked a vet’s advocate why this was, the guy said reporting the issue would make the true cost of the war more obvious, affecting the political situation, new recruitment, etc. Support the troops indeed. Basically tying back into the earlier parts of Bergman’s series. Woodruff’s recovery is amazing, and ABC did a good job of using it without exploiting it.

  3. Heather B

    The guy anonymous mentions is from Lawrence, Kansas, I believe, also the birthplace of Joomla, from what I understand, and he was involved in developing it. I agree he was an exciting highlight of the Frontline piece and I wanted to hear more from him.It would have been compelling indeed if the piece had come back around to Jarvis’s points where the Poynter Institute was mentioned; it would have been nice to see a segue from there into some mention of (if that wasn’t covered in the first segment, which I missed).Anyway, the piece was one of the more exciting/validating “mainstream” acknowledgments of recent trends as I’ve seen lately. I was especially gratified to see the attempt to lay out, and hear from the horse’s mouth, some of the Tribune drama.

  4. Jerry

    The program’s finest moment was when Bergman put Hiller on the record (complete with terminal pregnant pause) as declaring that the shareholders’ interests come first. Period. No waffling.

  5. Anonymous

    His name is Rob Curley. You can see his work at I saw him at a conference last fall, and his work at Lawrence and Naples, Fla., is inspiring. What no one said on FrontLine: Curley’s methods haven’t made money, yet.

  6. Anonymous

    Regarding the first paragraph of Dan’s post, I’m puzzled. I last studied the law relating to privilege in regards evidence over 30 years ago, but I don’t recall there having been a “reporters privilege.” There was the spousal privilege, the priest-penitent privilege, the therapist-patient privilege, and various (but not numerous) other privileges, but no reporter-source privilege. There have been some efforts in some jurisdictions to enact statutes to impliment a reporter-source privilege, but that hasn’t gone very far, and certainly not at the federal level.Hence, my question: in what ways have the right of journalists not to disclose their confidential sources, etc., been eroded? As far as I can tell, absent statute, the right never existed. Also, as far as I can tell, the confidentiality is based on two things, (i) an implied contract between the reporter and the source not to divulge the name of the soures, and (ii) a possible 4th amendment search&seizure issue, which could probably easily be overcome with a search warrant.–raj

  7. Dan Kennedy

    Raj: In Branzburg v. Hayes (1972), the Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that there was no reporter’s privilege. Potter Stewart, in his dissent, proposed that judges engage in a balancing test before forcing reporters to give up their sources or turn over their notes.Lewis Powell, who voted with the majority, wrote an “enigmatic concurring decision” (Stewart’s words) that could be interpreted as endorsing some sort of balancing test. Media lawyers feasted off that for 30 years, and judges were inclined to go along.In recent years, though, judges have been more likely to observe that Powell actually voted with the majority and against any sort of reporter’s privilege.This Ann Althouse post explains it pretty well.

  8. Kevin Price

    I watched the show too and felt inspired to write about it myself immediately after at I’m a big believer in competition and traditional needed the challenge that has come from the web in general and blogs in particular. The thing I despise about newspaper is the false front of objectivity that isn’t necessary with a blog.

  9. Ron Davison

    I can’t really sympathize with Bergman’s concern for newspapers. They still have a profit margin of about 20%, down from 40 to 60%. They are monopolies. And they think that they’re entitled to that? The real point is not to worry about newspapers or radio or blogging. The real question is how best to support people who we need to investigate and report on our churches, banks, governments and corporations without being subject to the rule of any of those big powers.

  10. Neil

    About the “false front of objectivity”–I realize this is a common refrain, but never got it. Kevin’s blog entry refers to the “mask of so-called ‘media standards'”. There’s a resentment to those who would strive for objectivity, because apparently it can never be more than a pretense, and implies some guardianship of the truth by aloof, snobby (ie, “liberal”) institutions. It may be difficult or even impossible to achieve, but striving at least for objectivity seems to me a hallmark of a true journalist, regardless of the medium. Seems to me a media standard, as opposed to a “media standard”.Compare with the objection by conservatives to “moral relativism”. If you think there is an absolute morality against which to measure human behavior then likewise you should think there is an objective truth against which to determine the starting point. The distinction between, these are the plain facts as best we can determine, and this is what we think about the facts, is a valid one to maintain. Blogs give everybody a forum to do the latter, but somebody still should be striving to determine the former. It’s not all just a matter of spin.

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