Monday, September 7, 2015

Revered editor would be aghast at today's newspaper

While reading a book about the 1960s civil rights movement, I came across the name of Claude Sitton, who earned his reputation as an unsurpassed reporter while covering civil rights in the South during that era and went on to be the legendary editor of the Raleigh News & Observer. The mention made me wonder what Sitton would think of the current N&O.

Sitton, whom I met but can't say I knew, had a reputation as a very serious, unstoppable pursuer of truth in the form of news. (Sitton died earlier this year.) His N&O scoured state government for scandal and wrongdoing, and his front pages were deadly serious. There were few examples of feel-good, touchy-feely, cute-kittens kinds of stories in the N&O of those days, and there was minimal coverage of routine crime of the sort many television newscasts emphasized — "if it bleeds, it leads." He was a champion of a free press, and his leadership showed why a free press was both a necessity and a rationale for constitutional protections for the news media.

Unfortunately, the N&O has veered from Sitton's example since he retired 25 years ago. The newspaper business has changed. The entire business model that served newspapers for two centuries — selling print advertising to support news reporting — has collapsed. Thousands of newspaper employees have been laid off. Just as damaging as the revenue loss has been a change in focus for many newspapers, including the N&O. Facing an inability to compete with broadcast and online news for immediacy and urgency, newspapers have shifted their focus to "softer" news — heart-tugging or whimsical stories that are not "big" news, but they're local, and they're not all over the Internet before they can get into print. A legion of newspaper consultants has insisted that soft, hyper-local news is the print newspaper's only hope for survival.

The N&O's latest redesign, which emphasizes color, subheads, and large, smiling pictures of the reporters, is an extension of this trend.

Sitton, I'm convinced, would have none of it. He wouldn't bury the infighting over the state budget or the refugee tragedy in eastern Europe deep inside the paper. He wouldn't make a cute story about a cemetery tour or a store covered in coffee mugs the dominant story on 1A. Call him a curmudgeon, but he knew why the Founding Fathers wanted to protect press freedom. It wasn't to make America safe for cute cat videos.

Like any newspaper editor, Sitton defended the First Amendment, which is under assault from the left (the influence of money in politics) and right (alleged liberal bias of the "mainstream media"). If all today's newspapers are going to do with their precious press freedom is to publish cute, hyper-local stories while ignoring their "watchdog" role in keeping local, state and federal government, as well as other powerful entities, such as corporations, universities, unions and the military honest, why have a First Amendment at all?

If repeal of the First Amendment were to come before Congress (and the states), would today's newspapers be able to defend freedom of the press by citing what a free press is doing to protect democracy and inform voters? I cringe at the thought.