News Is a Verb: Journalism at the End of the Twentieth Century

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News is a Verb: Journalism at the End of the Twentieth Century. Pete Hamill. New York: The Ballantine Publishing Group, 1998. 102 pp. $8.95 pbk.

Pete Hamill makes an impassioned plea for community-oriented newspapers, and does so in a way that may lift the heart of every advertiser: cover the local scene well, he argues, and people will respond by reading newspapers more than ever. The people benefit from better news coverage, the advertisers benefit from more customers, and newspapers benefit by being able to stay in business.

But Hamill is no corporate shill; he's had nearly forty years experience as a newspaperman, including recent stints as editor-in-chief at New York's top tabloids, the Post and the Daily News. He argues that city newspapers have lost touch with the daily concerns of readers, and that they are struggling because they are giving short shrift to two core constituencies: women and immigrants.

This slim book is appealing because it's not an academic tract carefully and dispassionately documenting the reasons for newspapers' slow demise; Hamill has done his research, but doesn't let it cramp his style. Referring to the increasing power of MBAs in news organizations, he includes a footnote and a pointer to Doug Underwood's excellent book, MBAs in the Newsroom, but gets right to his point: "They [the MBAs] slide and pare and trim in the name of the holy bottom line, extol the virtues of 'reader-driven' journalism, and in the process witlessly reduce the possibilities for long-range growth... These are all important factors,but believe one factor is more important than all others: content. With the usual honorable exceptions, newspapers are getting dumber."

The author argues that "newspapers are not, or shouldn't be" part of the entertainment industry and that they "exist to provide the citizenry with truth." This may sound oldfashioned, Hamill admits, but it makes good journalistic and business sense to adhere to these principles. Publishers shouldn't interfere directly in editorial decisions, or indirectly influence coverage by cutting budgets and staff in important areas. These bad business decisions may save money in the short term, but "In the end, of course, the readers wise up. They know that the reason their newspaper feels thin is because it is thin."

Hamill makes an interesting analogy when he compares newspapers to Mexican zocalos, the main plazas of Mexican towns where people from all walks of life come to gather on every evening. Newspapers should strive to be an ink-on-paper version of the zocalo, with news geared to a general audience. How can the print press attain this? Simple, writes Hamill: require top editors to live within city limits, where they can "learn by osmosis" their readers' concerns.

Hamill also questions the ongoing sensationalization of news. He argues that readers don't expect sensational news every day; they expect "Steadiness, truthfulness, and reliability. . . Good newspapers are spouses, not lovers. …