The Times for a change

Posted: May 10, 2005 12:00 AM

The New York Times, for reasons it clearly thought sufficient, buried the story on page six of the business section. I call for a timely exhumation. This is a good story. It matters to our honorable profession, the newspaper business.
Rocked by internal scandal two years back -- an arrogant Times management had promoted and protected an incompetent, mendacious black reporter named Jayson Blair -- our newspaper of record took a sudden interest in its own credibility. The topic had for some time deserved consideration. A longstanding Times tendency was that of looking down long Manhattan-ish noses at the non-Manhattan-ish doings of middle America, especially those involving conservatives. Either the Times was disdainful of what it saw or it just wasn't interested. There was some good middle ground -- just not nearly enough.

 A leader of American journalism, the Times needed to do better. Then came the Jayson Blair affair. Top editors lost their jobs. The Times, for maybe the first time ever, acted penitent. It hired an ombudsman to receive reader complaints and appraise news coverage. It started a study of its internal practices. The section C, page six story mentioned above tells how it all came out.

 Before I relate what the story relates, let me speak a word of professional admiration for the New York Times, a newspaper in which I immerse myself daily.

 Any great institution infuriates as well as delights. Every Sunday, I ask myself: Do I really need to scan Frank Rich's latest attempt to demonstrate why half the troubles of the world can be blamed on George W. Bush? Wasn't Rich a good enough drama critic? Did he have to go and become an all-purpose oracle? Still, for style and intelligence, no U.S. newspaper, saving only the estimable Wall Street Journal, matches the Times.

 What does the Times now say it must do? The 16-page report has 10 more or less commandments to editors and writers. Among these: better communication with readers, through a Times blog, easier e-mail access to reporters and editors and regular columns by the paper's top three editors; better coverage of "middle America, rural areas and religion"; a system for dealing with controversies over Times reporting; software to detect plagiarism; and less use of anonymous sources.

 Every bit of this, every particular, strikes me -- journalism prof as I have become -- as sound, sensible and in tune with present needs.

 How keenly in tune? Ah, we'll see, because journalism is morphing into something different than it has been. Audiences are changing, as are technologies. Less than 20 percent of young Americans read newspapers; the average age of a network news audience is 60. Where did everybody go? To blogs, those caustic, combative Internet diaries; to Internet newspaper sites; to Comedy Central for Jon Stewart's take on the news; to ... to nowhere in particular. News? Politics? Presidents? It matters? Aw, come on ... A considerable number of Americans seem not to care deeply about "the news" -- nor have the news' traditional purveyors yet figured out how to change their minds and inclinations.

 One likely step in the right direction is that of restoring faith in the news: its accuracy and reliability, the good faith of its narrators and its comparative impartiality. This is civics stuff -- dull and earnest-sounding, as lively as a hip hopper on Sominex. Stewart makes regular sport of Serious News, and the fans yuck it up. And yet, when all's said, the founders thought "civics stuff" important enough to enshrine in the First Amendment, the free speech, free press, free religion amendment.

 Can we believe those who bring us the news? Are they telling us the truth? That's maybe the central question here. If we can't believe them, the news bearers might as well go into piccolo-tuning or e-trading, for any good they now achieve. The Times management seemingly has a grip on this point. Let us hope for all our sakes they don't relax it. Their top 10 reform list points a great institution, and the profession it represents to many, in just the right direction. At last!