Readers (not journalists) decide what news is.

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To be honest, I don’t know much about The Day, or theday.com. Until today, I’d never heard of James H. Smith, who is, allegedly, a 42-year veteran of the news industry and member of the New England Newspaper Hall of Fame.

TheDay.com ran an excerpt from Mr. Smith’s induction into the Hall of Fame the other day — a forceful, though desperate, attempt to defend his former industry against the bloggers who’ve attempted to unseat true journalists from their position atop the summit of the Mount of Truth:

It is undeniable that new information technology, which is bestowing on us amazing communication tools like Twitter and Facebook, can promote democracy. But when cyberspace starts buzzing pejoratively about how a free and open society no longer needs a news media to tell it what the news is, democracy is endangered.

The bloggers who disparage Brian Williams or Diane Sawyerfor choosing what fits in a half hour of news or who say editors shouldn’t be the arbiters of what news is, can happily join the marketplace of ideas; but they can’t pretend to know the tenets of journalism as they blithely opine into a computer screen.

It is the job of journalists to decide what is news. It’s not the job of anyone else. Editors cannot let those who would denigrate the fundamental role of a free press in a democracy get away with such demagoguery. A professional press, printed, broadcast or cyberspaced, means a staff of dedicated news men and women with ethics codes, standards, education and training.

This is an interesting, but misguided, argument.

First, the lie: Journalists love to tell readers/viewers/listeners that bloggers are just pajama-clad whiners, gleefully hammering away at their keyboards without regard for the truth — all while popping pimples in the mirror and not showering. Bloggers are untrained, unethical, incapable of deciding what is interesting or necessary for the rest of us to read.

The truth is, many bloggers started blogs out of frustration, because the news media has lost its way. Many bloggers are, in fact, former journalists who have been displaced (thanks to newspapers and television programs that have done such a great job of retaining their audiences that they’re barely staying in business). Sure, there are bad apples. But there are plenty of those in “real” journalism, too.

And let’s look at the other part of the argument — the one where journalists decide “what’s news.”

Journalists don’t decide that at all. What they actually decide is what they’ll write about, and what they’ll print. But it is the READERS who decide what’s news — because only the READER can decide what they read.

Mr. Smith has managed to prove so eloquently why newspaper circulation is bleeding. Our newspapers and journalists are so far out of touch with readers that they can’t even see the readers’ value anymore. It isn’t new for the reader’s sake, but for the journalist’s sake. I’d argue that if journalists continue the path they’re on, they’ll be left talking only to themselves.

2 Responses to Readers (not journalists) decide what news is.

  • Josh says:

    But let’s also remember that many journalists, left to their own devices in a room isolated from readers/listeners/viewers and the surveys to which they contribute, would pick good, solid, important news stories. For most of them, it’s why they got into the business.

    But it’s the business thing that’s the problem.

    Most of us don’t want good, solid, important news stories. Cover pages, the top five minutes of news programs? OK. But most people would rather the rest of the paper/half hour news program/whatever contain soft features that make for interesting conversation (they could be about the price of corn or the Kardashians). We know that because those are the stories that get the highest ratings.

    So, you take a journalist or editor who would typically pick good stories and tell him or her, “cool, but we need to make money. so take that story about red meat and blow up the pink slime angle; people already know it’s a high protein food that can help with muscle recovery and you can get organic alternatives without the slime; death sells!”

    What we wind up with is great journalists doing mediocre stories, mediocre journalists doing popular stories, and a bunch of bloggers doing great journalism in their spare time because great journalism simply doesn’t pay the bills these days.

    • Daniel says:

      I don’t disagree with you, for the most part. I will say, though, that after a decade of hiring and firing “professional journalists,” I would question whether “most” of them have the nose for news you’re giving them credit for. Yes, there are some damn good journalists out there. There are also others who just plain don’t know — or will ever know — what real news is.

      I love the news. Truly. I particularly love investigative journalism. I loved crime and courts reporting. But I worked with plenty of journalists who just didn’t have the stomach for it. And honestly, I can count on one hand the number of really great natural journalists I’ve worked with over the years. They’re way harder to find that good bloggers, these days.

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