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By Simon, Paul | Editor & Publisher, November 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

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Simon, Paul, Editor & Publisher


THE PANDERING TRAP

Former senator/publisher says profits can't drive the news

The sun is setting on the days of family-owned newspapers and radio and television stations. I wish that were not so. More and more people who make the decisions about the number of news personnel and other matters are business types, with limited experience, if any, on the news side. Most of these corporations are publicly held, and those in charge of these corporations understandably want to please the stockholders.

If the newspaper or television station is making a 15 percent profit, they want to boost it to 16 percent. I have sympathy for an appetite to make money but not for the all-consuming zeal that looks only at the short term. I once published small, weekly newspapers, 13 of them in four printing plants. I wanted my newspapers to make money or they would fold. I also knew that if those newspapers served their communities well, the communities would prosper, and in the long run, so would the newspapers. I can't prove that formula works, but my strong impression is that it does.

Pulitzer prizes are nice, but I sense they're not as important to most of today's CEOs as the profit margin, though they know that a good reputation adds to marketability. So news treatment by reporters, who are spread too thin, tends to be superficial. Personal scandals and controversies that would not have made the news 30 or 40 years ago often are the big news items. "It's what the public wants," we're told.

This excessive attention to the trivial, to the scintillating, is not good for the nation and is not responsible journalism.

The following incident illustrates the point so well. During my service in the state legislature, Paul Douglas, a great U.S. senator and my political mentor, called and asked me to introduce a resolution in the Illinois General Assembly urging the U.S. Congress to make the corn tassel the national flower. He would then introduce the measure in the Senate.

Because of my great admiration for him, I said yes. But as I reflected on it, I really did not want to do it. That night, I called the senator and asked, "Are you sure you want me to introduce a resolution on the corn tassel?" The professor-turned-senator laughed and responded with a lecture that taught me something about politics and journalism.

"Paul," he said, "if you want to stay in public office you have to get media attention. The substantial things you do generally will not get attention unless they are involved in a major controversy. …

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