Thursday, July 17, 2008

Aloft in the Blogosphere

When I was starting out in journalism some three and a half decades ago, there was a clear dividing line, still, between what was news and what was advertising. Or there was, at least, between news and promotion. For someone with a writer’s mindset, that was a real comfort. That kind of healthy compartmentalization seemed so natural to me that I didn’t even think about it much at first, until I was placed on the international news desk of the small community paper I worked for, as assistant to the night editor, and came face to face with the simple reality of that division.

Every evening at around 6 p.m., someone from the advertising department would bring us a mock-up of the following day’s newspaper. This consisted of the entire 16, 20 or 24-page tabloid “book” of blank newsprint, with the six standard, empty columns printed on each page and with the ad spaces drawn in with ruler and black marker, so that we, who laid out the paper, would know where the “news holes” were. There were two of these mock-ups: one that the advertising department kept, which had the names of the advertisers written in on each ad space marked, and the other, for us on the night desk, in which the blank ad spaces were diagrammed, but from which the advertisers’ names were omitted.

I didn’t give this much thought either, other than realizing that our mock-up didn’t need to have the names on it because we only needed to know how much space we had to work with. But then one evening, when my boss was off sick and I, to my absolute terror, was left in charge of the night desk, when the guy from Advertising came in as usual, what he laid on the desk before me was a mock-up just like the one he kept for himself, with all of the advertisers’ names written in. When I glanced at the “book” and then looked somewhat inquisitively at him, he just grinned and said “Sorry, I screwed up and wrote the names on both of them today. Just ignore them.” So I returned his smile, shrugged and got down to work.

In a short while, however, the managing editor came over to the night desk with the material for the day’s editorial page. As usual, he was distracted, re-reading the editorial one last time as he walked and stopping at one desk or another to mark something out and write in a correction or two with the stub of a pencil as he made his way over to my end of the editorial bay. When he reached the night desk, he laid the typed pages down on my desk and tweaked the lines one more time with his pencil before finally looking up and saying, “Hi Dan. Everything all right? Sorry about your being left on your own tonight…” But then his eyes fell on the mock-up lying open in front of me with the names of the advertisers clearly marked on it. He narrowed his gaze, his expression grim, and suddenly seemed to go livid, shaking with rage. “Who gave you this?” he asked pointing at the offending pages. I told him and he said, “Let me borrow it.”

It wasn’t 20 minutes before the same fellow from Advertising was back with a new mock-up, properly drawn up with the spaces marked but with no names. The guy had his coat on, obviously on his way home, and looked daggers at me as he slapped the new “book” down on the desk in front of me. Then he turned on his heel and left without saying good night.

In those days the editor was also vice president of the publishing company for that paper and the president was also a newsman. That fact tended to keep the paper honest. Before I left the newspaper thirteen years later, management would be taken over by the head of advertising and owner of 40 percent of the share package and his attempts to dominate editorial policy by any means would become a motive for my resignation.

What was crystal clear to me back then was that advertising is a necessary part of mainstream newspaper and magazine publishing. For decades now, it has been impossible for print media to live off of their cover price. Advertising is, clearly, a good thing. Without it, print media would not be able to survive. And in fact, falling advertising revenues due to the growing influence of other types of media have thrust the vast majority of print media into a critical stage in which their survival, even in the immediate future, is quite obviously challenged. But the only way for the news media to preserve the objectivity that they must maintain if they are to call what they sell “news”, is for them to submit to the hard and fast rule that any true organ of the free press has two customers: the advertiser, who pays for the privilege of using the publication’s space in order to attract its readers to buy certain goods and services, and, principally, the reader, who comes to the media seeking objective information and objectively informed editorial opinion.

What is questionable and worthy of concern to anyone interested in the accuracy, impartiality and objectivity in news reporting, however, is the fading boundary witnessed progressively over the last couple of decades between promotion and information, between editorial commentary and political dogma, between clear viewpoint and intentional slant and between researched truth and subjective belief based on political and/or commercial convenience in broad sectors of the media.

On the brighter side of the media universe lies the new media. The Internet in general and the blogosphere in particular offer information-seekers and writers alike a new free-speech, free press forum that is mind-bogglingly vast. Critics will argue that the Web is loaded with misguided, ill-intentioned, scandalous and obscene material. But the biggest hole in their argument is precisely that: The Web is basically uncensorable. And while those who surf it must clearly become intelligent, discerning and sophisticated readers in order to weed out the rubbish and find the truly amazing array of sound, objective content available, this remains the most stunning advance in publishing since the Gutenberg printing press. As an old-school newsman, I am truly pleased to be starting this blog in order to become a small part of it.