Sam's club: Journalism to churnalism

by Heidi Dawley, Media Life

If you didn't know Sam Zell made his fortune in the especially rough and tumble end of real estate, you'd figure it out shortly after he opened his mouth. He speaks in language his pr people are choosing to describe as colorful. That's to say he talks dirty, given to discussing women's parts quite publicly, jocularly, and using words one would not expect to hear from a paper's new owner meeting the reporting staff for the first time.

Zell, who recently took over Tribune Co., matters these days because he's a new kind of newspaper owner, of the sort that has a lot of journalists worried. Their worry is that he will trim costs even closer to the bone at the once-proud Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, among others in his portfolio, pulling out profits even if it's at the risk of killing these papers.

Smaller editorial staffs means more writing--call it typing--and less real reporting, or what one British journalist is calling churnalism. (Take out the journ of journalism, pop in churn, and that's what you've got.)

He is Nick Davies, a longtime investigative reporter who writes for Britain's respected Guardian newspaper, and in his new book “Flat Earth News” he contends that nowadays most journalists in much of the developed world are in the business of recycling stories fed to them by the public relations industry and the news wires.

They are churning out stories, and Davies argues that's led to news that's full of untruths and propaganda.

It's not due to laziness or dishonesty on the part of journalists, he contends, but budget cuts. There's no time for digging out original stories or fact checking.

In fact, as Davies points out, this has been going on for some time, over decades in fact, as media companies fell under the control of big corporations and out from the control of old-style newspaper proprietors.

Which is to say that Zell may be the new breed of newspaper owner, but the old breed was of much the same ilk, even if they talked sweeter.

“Churnalism is the most important single example of the way in which commercialization has invaded and undermined newsrooms,” Davies tells Media Life. “We had taken away from us our most precious working asset as a journalist, time.”

Some argue the old-style newspaper proprietors presided over a golden age of journalism. Davies is not among them. Those old-style proprietors had their own agendas, often having to do with slanting the news to please certain patrons or serve political causes.

But even then, Davies argues, they gave reporters the time to work on the far larger number of stories that were honest. Their reporters had the time to call in at police stations, attend government meetings, the courts too, and stop by local watering holes to find out what was really going on.

Nowadays, reporters don't get around nearly as much, spending more time at their desks, tied to their phones. More stories means more stories where the facts are fed to them, or lifted from the wires. Often they are not even fact checked.

To prove his point, Davies commissioned Cardiff University’s journalism department to do a study on the state of the industry.

The study looked at all domestic news stories over a two-week period from five British newspapers, including the quality papers--the Times of London, the Daily Telegraph, the Independent, the Guardian--and one mid-market paper, the Daily Mail.

The researchers looked at 2,207 stories.

They also had the Guardian news desk send along all of the material--such as press releases and wire stories--that the journalists had access to during that period.

The survey found that 80 percent of the stories in these papers--some of the most prestigious in the country--were wholly or mainly or partly based on information from pr departments or wire stories. The researchers weren’t sure on the origins of another 8 percent of the stories.

Only 12 percent were clearly original.

Further, the researchers found that when stories hinged on a specific fact, there was clear evidence that fact was checked in only 12 percent of stories.

The study also found that staffing levels on British papers are now slightly lower than they were 20 years ago, yet there is three times more editorial space, or the amount of space in any given day that's set aside for stories.

“Corporations that want to make money have made changes that mean that instead of occasionally getting a story wrong, I am arguing that we are structurally set up for this to happen,” says Davies.

It's the worst sort of wrong, too. It's not just that the facts are off, it's that the whole story is just plain wrong, which is to say flat earth news, reporting that contradicts all facts and all reason but becomes accepted by the sheer persistence of those who need it to be so.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey