Will there be a USA Today tomorrow? My chat with their senior editor and VP of news was not encouraging 4/2/08Posted by Steve Boriss in Bias, USAToday.
Ken Paulson, the editor and senior vice president of news for USA Today, visited the campus of Washington University in St. Louis today, and I had the opportunity to hear his presentation and challenge his thinking both from the floor and in a pleasant chat afterwards. What I saw was, unfortunately, what I expected — an intelligent, successful, handsome, and charming senior Old Media figure who still cannot see what is now obvious to most Americans. So, I was not surprised to find myself rolling my eyes minutes after his speech began after he completely missed the lede about the steep declines in newsroom staffs and ad revenues, and went on to present the three biggest issues in journalism today as too much news of celebrities, arrogance, and use of confidential sources.
As American journalism’s designated “turd in the punchbowl,” I dutifully came up to the mic at the end of his talk, pointed out newspapers’ desperate fortunes, the fact that 2/3 of Americans believe they are biased despite their claims of objectivity, the remarkably low 18% of Americans who find newspapers highly believable, and asked whether he thought false claims of objectivity might also be considered to be a problem. For good measure I asked if he felt that “objective” American news was a superior model to London’s lively, partisan papers, which engage in debates to ferret out the truth. In return for my thankless task, I heard the usual insistence that his paper plays things straight down the middle, that an argument could be made that papers are right-wing because of their right-wing corporate owners (he couldn’t mean the NY Times’ Sulzberger’s and the WashPost Graham’s, could he?), that the images of all institutions — not just journalism — were being hurt by a more cynical public, and that conservatives are not drawn to jobs in journalism because they like things as they are.
Immediately after the session ended, I was approached by USA Today’s friendly Circulation Director Mark Elliott, who seemed quite sincere when he told me that he agreed with me. Well, when you think about it, of course he would. With a landslide margin of the public believing the media are biased, you would almost have to be a journalist these days, even at a newspaper, to believe that they are not — much less an individual who worriedly monitored the weakening pulse of the industry’s declining circulations. In my brief, one-on-one chat with Mr. Paulson later, he remained a cheerleader for newspapers — their present and their future. “Maybe I’m being naive,” he helpfully offered. Said the unhelpful turd, “Yes…you are.”