News media must offer same transparency they demand

As I write this, scores of employees at the San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley's daily newspaper, are sitting by their phones at home. They're waiting to learn, as pre-announced layoffs loom, whether they still have jobs.

As I write this, scores of employees at the San Jose Mercury News, Silicon Valley's daily newspaper, are sitting by their phones at home. They're waiting to learn, as pre-announced layoffs loom, whether they still have jobs.

I'm offended by this procedure, which is apparently designed to avoid face-to-face confrontations. This is partly personal, given that I still have many friends at the paper - one that, I must add, treated me extraordinarily well during the decade I worked there.

But the cluelessness the method highlights is hardly new in a business that loves to snicker at other newsmakers' miscues. The news media habitually mishandle their own PR.
 
When newspapers were local monopolies, they could get away with their arrogance, which included the quaint notion that selling advertising consisted of waiting for the phone to ring. Now that they're rapidly losing their market power, they're struggling in all kinds of ways, including how they explain what they're doing and why.
 
One of the most amusing PR foibles of newspapers, in a sick sort of way, has been the way they've explained their persistent downsizing as being good for readers, or at least not bad. Mercury News execs, who've been downsizing the operation a lot in the years since the '90s tech bubble burst, have made that argument more than once. Such reassurances, like those at countless other papers that have been shedding staff as fast as they can, are absurd on their face.
 
My favorite recent assertion of this kind came last week, from the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, one of the world's great papers. L. Gordon Crovitz, who like many other publishers is shrinking the size of the physical product, offered a transparently ridiculous explanation.
 
Slate's Jack Shafer, one of the nation's astute press critics, pounced quickly in his column. He wrote, "Instead of leveling with his readers about the reasons behind his paper's new slim profile - to save money - Crovitz insults their intelligence by claiming the change is for the ‘convenience' of readers."
 
Those readers, as Shafer noted, are some of the smartest businesspeople on the planet. They know why companies cut back because most of them have had to do it themselves at one time or another.
 
Many of them and their PR folks also know, from experience, that the news media pillory corporate executives, politicians, and their spokespeople when they offer transparently ridiculous explanations for wrongdoing or actions, even unavoidable ones, that cause pain.
 
The news media have a lot to learn about the transparency they request from everyone else. Too bad they don't call each other to account, as Shafer did with the Journal, much more routinely. Even if they don't, bloggers and other observers will nail hypocrisy when they see it.
 
Before issuing sneer-inducing PR, journalism organizations should ask themselves what the journalists in the newsroom would say if such a line had come from a local politician. If it would make the reporters' eyes roll, don't say it.
 
Dan Gillmor is the author of We the Media: Grass-roots Journalism By the People, For the People. He is also director of the Center for Citizen Media (www.citmedia.org).

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