THE BUSINESS OF JOURNALISM Edited by William Serrin The New Press 192 pp., $16.95
This book starts out with three strikes against it:
Strike 1: It is a collection of talks given at New York University's journalism school; speeches rarely translate well on paper.
Strike 2: The journalists who gave the speeches are not well known outside the craft. A few of them are not well known even inside the craft.
Strike 3: The topic is somewhat narrow and yet mushy - how journalism is losing its soul to the business types with little appreciation of newsroom culture.
Despite the strikes against it, "The Business of Journalism" succeeds admirably on several levels: Each chapter stands nicely on its own, allowing readers to dip in and out. Each chapter is surprisingly readable, given the genesis as a verbal presentation. Best of all, each chapter is amazingly candid. I have been a journalist since the mid-1960s, but I learned quite a bit from the book. The most important lessons revolve around what is covered by journalists, what is not covered by journalists, and why.
William Serrin, who pulled the book together, teaches journalism at NYU after a career covering labor issues at The New York Times. The harsh theme of his introduction is that because journalism is at bottom a business, it is a far less independent, courageous enterprise than its folklore suggests. Business considerations mean that in some newsrooms certain powerful people stay out of the spotlight when doing wrong, certain types of stories (about the homeless or hourly wage earners, for example) rarely if ever get published, and complicated stories might not be assigned because they take lots of time (and money) to do well.
In my favorite chapter of the bunch, "Excuses, Excuses: How Editors and Reporters Justify Ignoring Stories," E.R. Shipp discusses the subtle techniques she used to get her pieces in The New York Times, even when her editors were discouraging. Shipp had an especially difficult situation as a black woman determined not to be assigned only to "black issue" stories. She is now ombudsman at The Washington Post and a teacher of journalism at Columbia University. …