It is one of the more appalling hypocrisies of the journalism business that the people who report on others typically cannot abide being the focus of reporting themselves.
This is not universally true, of course. Many news people are happy to talk to other reporters who call them. But as a rule, the higher a journalist is in the hierarchy, the less inclined he or she is to cooperate with anyone who is so bold as to believe that news operations ought to be held to the same level of scrutiny as any other high-profile, important institution.
Consider the treatment Raleigh television station WRAL got when it dared to ask about pending staff cuts at the News & Observer:
Asked about layoffs, Felicia Gressette, vice president of marketing for the N&O who spoke on behalf of publisher Orage Quarles III, said, “We’re just not going to comment.”
When asked about other cost-cutting moves, Gressette noted: “Any changes will be announced in the N&O, not WRAL.com.”
Let me note that Gressette is a long-time journalist who a few years ago moved to the business side. Her contempt, not to mention the discourtesy to a fellow professional, is unmistakable in that exchange. It also pulls back the curtain on a mindset that is precisely at odds with two of the fundamental principles of the business.
The first is the belief by journalists that theirs is a business which exists for the good of, and as a stand-in for, the public. They believe their work is a vital cog in the workings of a democratic society. If that’s true, then the converse is likewise true: A community has a stake in its newspaper that is greater than the stake it might have in any other local business. Readers have the right to know what’s happening within that vital institution. If a newspaper wishes to treat its community as a partner in the democratic process, it should never disdainfully swat away legitimate questions about its operations and financial health.
In short, the N&O should decide how it prefers to be seen: as a public trust or simply as yet another business enterprise struggling to stay relevant. If it’s the first, then the N&O’s managers should suck it up and answer the public’s questions, regardless of who asks them or how impertinent they may seem. If it’s the other, then they should prepare themselves for the day when no one cares enough to even ask questions anymore.
The second principle is the news industry’s belief in the importance of a free flow of information. Journalists spend their careers doing battle with powerful people who think news is a commodity which can be controlled, and the public should only know things when they decide to tell them. Now we’ve reached that moment when the N&O baldly becomes one of those controllers of information. It’ll decide what you get to know, and when you get to know it.
The much-anticipated layoffs at the N&O, expected last week but delayed reportedly until this week, will be an opportunity for the paper’s management to treat readers as stakeholders, rather than sheep to be fed pablum.
Sadly, you should expect pablum.