Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Press savvy? Here's an ancient manifesto

    I’ve long admired Jay Rosen’s thinking about the pernicious effect of what he's brilliantly labeled “The Church of the Savvy” in journalism. He elaborated on his thoughts about press ideology in a long, important post at PressThink today.
    I realized in reading it how often I had shared his perceptions, even as a young reporter in Alaska in the early 1970s. Here are some thoughts about that:

    I lost patience with the dominant paradigm a long time ago. Though we doubtless practiced it more than we needed to through my many years as editor of the Anchorage Daily News, I believed then and later felt confirmed in knowing there was a better way. Left largely to ourselves gthere in the great white north, we could often avoid the curse of savvy in those days, and I’d argue our unvarnished, honest and transparent reporting was a key factor in winning the Alaska Newspaper War.
    In the mid-1970s I left the Daily News within months of winning the Public Service Pulitzer in order to start an alternative weekly paper. A year into that effort, I wrote a long manifesto to our small staff, encouraging us to abandon the last vestiges of respectable, “savvy” journalism. I have a copy still:
    “This newspaper ... has become too goddamned respectable. We have somehow lost track of the original spirit with which it was launched. We’re trying to be all things to all people, to offer ‘responsible’ coverage and find a blend of contents that will satisfy some kind of ‘general readership.’
    “That’s nonsense ... If we reduce the Advocate to some kind of mythical common denominator, we’re spitting in the faces of those ‘educated, active and influential readers’ we talk so much about. We’re also saying something pretty degrading about ourselves.
    “So, fuck the average reader; he doesn’t exist anyhow, and if he does let him read the (Anchorage) Times. We’re doing something more important and exciting at the Advocate….
    “When pressed, we often revert to the formulas that produced exactly the kinds of newspapers we are all running away from: Keep yourself out of the story. Balance criticism with a favorable quote. Be objective. Two sides to every story …
    “From here on out, let’s pull out the stops. If we err, let it be on the side of excess. If we are irresponsible, let’s be irresponsible to something besides our consciences....”

Then I quoted the manifesto we had published in our first edition just about a year before. I am still proud of it more than 30 years later:

“We do not intend ever to view ourselves as part of the establishment. Too often, newspapers confuse their role with that of an official government process. They become weighted down with chains of artificial respectability and become just another cautious, sterile institution.”

Posted via email from edge & flow

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