By this late hour, I’m guessing you’ve heard the news: the planet’s best-selling English-language newspaper is no more.
Amid accusations that News of the World reporters hacked into the phone systems of terrorism victims, crime victims and celebrities in the hopes of digging up dirt, media mogul Rupert Murdoch shuttered the London-based paper, effective July 10.
Journalists connected to the publication and its parent company, News Corporation, are resigning, or getting sacked, or, in some cases, facing arrest, but the accusations don’t stop there. Britain’s top police official, Sir Paul Stephens, resigned in the wake of allegations that he paid operatives from News Corporation for information. London police commissioner John Yates soon followed.
No wonder then, that as the drama unfolds, those connected with World are scurrying to distance themselves from it.
Rupert Murdoch’s son, James Murdoch, for one, said the paper’s reputation had been “sullied” by the “inhuman” tactics.
“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake,” Napoleon Bonaparte once advised. I’m guessing he wasn’t cozy with too many reporters: the World’s competitors are reacting to the news of it demise with a schadenfreude bordering on outright glee.
“Goodbye, cruel World,” trumpeted London’s Telegraph newspaper in a recent headline. (Knowing journalists, I’d wager they’ve been sitting on that headline for months.)
The whole mess has me wondering if there aren’t a few lessons a small town paper can cull from a breach of this magnitude, however distant.
And about that: it’s not nearly as distant as we’d like to think. Freedom of the press is uniquely enshrined in the U.S. constitution, yes, but Murdoch’s holdings are also impressive on our side of the pond: Fox television, The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post.
To my mind, the scandal shines a searchlight on a dilemma facing all newspapers: how do you maximize efficiency without sacrificing quality when budgets are tight, attention spans are short, and distrust of the media abounds?
I’ve found that newspaper readers, like newspaper reporters, are a skeptical bunch, and prone to high standards. They don’t like excuses, and they don’t abide mistakes, whether of the small or large variety. (And I don’t blame them. Fear for misspelling a name is my constant niggling companion.)
These high standards keep us at the Gazette on our toes, for as journalists, we find ourselves in the odd position of producing directly measurable output. Either we went out and interviewed people and wrote stories and proofread them, or we didn’t, and, either way, the publisher, as well as every single person who happens to pick up the paper in a given two weeks, is going to know either way in approximately three minutes.
This never-ending performance review shakes out to quality control in the most exacting sense, but it also presents a constant (and sort of terrifying) challenge.
As Cannon Beach’s only local news source, the Gazette has got to do a little more than your average arts and entertainment publication. Arts may be our focus, but lately, readers have been asking for more hard news coverage in addition. In return, I’ve been pondering questions of balance and speed.
My stubborn mantra these days is “Right beats fast.” But in a world populated with 24-hour news cycles, you don’t really get to choose one or the other anymore. Not entirely.
So how do you do more in one place without doing less someplace else? Which shortcuts are smart strategies for getting good news out fast, and which compromise the quality of the product? Too little digging and you leave the readers with more questions than they had to start. Too much and you skew the picture, not to mention run out of time. Which stories are capable of enlarging readers’ worlds, and which will do little more than titillate?
It’s a constant teeter-totter act, and as the World’s untimely end illustrates, it an exercise that is easily thrown completely off kilter, to sometimes disastrous consequences.
These are big questions for such a little paper to ponder. And ponder we will. But not right now. See, I’ve got a second mantra: “Proofread before philosophizing.” Let’s leave it at that.