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Yellow Journalism

June 23, 2009
Courtesy of The Economist

Photo illustration courtesy of The Economist

I wonder what William Randolph Hearst would think about the notion of blogging. Would Ernest Hemingway have traded his typewriter for a laptop with a super fast wireless connection to update his loyal readers with his latest musings…

Went to the cellar. Drank three liters of wine. I lost all track of time. Stopped by Sloppy Joe’s. Had a conversation with some guy, called himself Danny. He showed me the contents of his knapsack. They included an elephant tusk, British pounds, swatches of fabric woven from the Incas and a withered photograph of him as a young boy, sitting in the front seat of his father’s Hudson Hornet. After that, I headed home to pet the cats.

I’ve been thinking about journalism a lot lately. I guess you could say that I’ve been a part of the industry since birth – my father was a print journalist – a reporter in the Army and later a public affairs officer. I loved hearing him talk about covering 1967’s Six- Day War or transporting high-profile prisoners to Ft. Leavenworth. I just knew that I would eventually follow suit. And I did. I graduated in 2000 with my B.S. in Broadcast from the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas (on the six-year plan).

I remember my father saying how broadcast was the next step in the industry (it sounds archaic to even say less than a decade later). So, in theory, print bred broadcast (TV and radio), which bred online, which bred blogs. And so it goes.

And now, the progenitor is dying. The Boston Globe, reportedly losing $1 million a week; the same newspaper that won a Pulitzer for exposing clergy abuse just six years ago. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune filing for bankruptcy. Seattle’s 146-year-old Post-Intelligencer and Denver’s Rocky Mountain News folding its print editions. And there isn’t enough space in this article to explain how distraught I am about how the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s staffing cuts are impacting people I care about. Nor is there enough space to begin to list all the magazines whose ink is dry.

Now, we’re all forced to think about the industry whether we want to or not. We’ve all been impacted by it – readers, journalists, cities and towns. So what happened? When did it happen? What was the tipping point? The Sunday mornings leisurely spent sipping coffee and sifting through the style section – no more. Those simple days we all took for granted. There’s still something about the tactile feel of a newspaper (ink smudges and all) that’s transporting. And that smell…

I do not know when these newspapers and magazines will cease to exist, or what the ripple effects will be, but I imagine that journalism professors will try to figure this out for years to come. And I suspect, like much in life, there will be no clear answer. If I had to guess, millions of stars aligned in the wrong direction. Those stars could include any of the following – corporations buying up the teeny mom and pop papers to form huge conglomerate media entities that include print, radio, television, and the vast sea of alternative media outlets…in short, too many choices. Or maybe it’s just simply put that the general public opted for Perez over The Post.

What happened to the days when the one rogue reporter broke the big story? And by the big story I’m not talking about Monica Lewinsky’s funk evidence dress (thanks Matt Drudge), or OMG, did you hear that when Laura Bush was 16, while driving, she accidentally ran a stop sign, which ultimately killed one of her childhood friends. Way to crack open that Midland, Texas public record.

We’re in such a race to the finish; we forgot the purpose of informing the public. I have always thought of journalism as a service industry, where you provide people the right to information; to no mater what, do your job – in crisis, in calm, in whatever situation you’re thrown into. And right now, we cannot afford to do that, because if you’re not first, you’re nothing. Forget being right. Seriously. We woke the beast and it wasn’t by poking it with a really long stick, it was by slowly strolling up a half-inch from its ear and SCREAMING into it.

But, those big stories are being broken, maybe just in a different way. We must remember that. They are all around us, these investigative Gonzos…Bethany McLean, who in 2001, was brave enough to investigate and report a piece for Fortune called “Is Enron Overpriced?” We all know the outcome and the economy is still reeling in the residue from that question. Or what about Seymour Hersh’s New Yorker piece that blew the lid off Abu Ghraib? I was working at CNN at the time and distinctly remember scrolling through the still photo footage thinking to myself that I was pretty certain I was going throw up from the horror of what I was seeing (and also realizing I needed to get a MUCH thicker skin).

Now, I wonder if the places these said reporters work can even cut them a check that will clear.  And I wonder in today’s fast, first, fluff, where do these headlines go?

I’ve buried the lead. I’ve danced a little jig around it. Which is, Yellow Journalism is back, baby. That term coined during the Spanish-American war in the 1890’s, gave birth to sensationalized journalism. And the two behind it were already mentioned in this piece – newspaper owners, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. So, maybe the shock and awe wouldn’t bother those boys as much as I first suspected, because even then, it was created to sell millions of papers. Whatever mutation or cycle of Yellow Journalism we’re onto now, it’s most certainly reared its ugly head. It isn’t going anywhere. I’m terrified. And feel really dirty. All the while knowing a long, hot shower will do nothing to clean it up.