Seekers of the truth

2010-03-12 00:00

BECAUSE this is my second- last column as editor of The Witness, seeing that I step down at the end of this month to take up an editorial management position, I would like to say something about journalism and the state in which it finds itself today, and to pay tribute to my colleagues.

As editor of The Witness over the past 15 years, I have regularly been asked by different groups to speak to them about journalism. Whenever I do this, I emphasise that while a newspaper is a product, like many others, it is by its very nature a different and complex product that has a specific role to play in society. That to tell the truth, to act independently and to minimise harm is the mantra of every serious journalist indicates that there is an ethical foundation that underlies the commercial necessity to make an acceptable profit.

In his memoir of his editorship of London’s Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings recounts a brief but telling interaction between himself and Conrad Black, the newspaper’s then owner, which casts into stark relief this different way of seeing. Having become aware of an enrichment scheme about which he had reservations, Hastings questioned Black and received the following rebuke: “Max, I am a capitalist and you’re a seeker of the truth”.

In this instance it is worth noting that Black is now in a Florida prison serving a six-and-a-half- year sentence for fraud, while Hastings was knighted for his services to journalism and is today one of Britain’s top military historians.

That telling glimpse of the workings of one of Britain’s major newspapers demonstrates the crucial difference in priorities between those managers who are responsible for the profits and the journalists who see themselves as answering to a higher calling. Because of this, newsrooms in newspapers have traditionally operated at some remove from the rest of the company, although in recent years financial pressures have led to greater management intrusion into what was previously editorial’s preserve. In recessionary times, cutbacks are demanded, yet, as journalists are only too aware, jettisoning certain contributors could well be a false economy.

In broadsheets (i.e. generally speaking, serious newspapers), one of the primary reasons for these cutbacks is the loss of advertising revenue and readers to the Internet. To compensate, newspaper companies have had to run their operations as tightly as possible to maintain the profits demanded by their shareholders. And it should be said that in the past, when editors held greater sway, there were occasions on various titles when misguided decisions, often driven by the highest ideals and best intentions, proved financially damaging.

While the circulations of most broadsheets have softened, the tabloids, on the other hand, with their emphasis on racy articles about crime and sex, directed at readers who don’t necessarily have computers, are in a more healthy state. In their “if it bleeds, it leads” set of priorities, there is no place for so-called worthy stories even if they should be told.

A local example of the gulf between the “ethical editorial” faction and the “profit-driven corporate” faction occurred on a Sunday paper several years ago. Thanks to a tip-off from the public, the editorial department of the newspaper was alerted that the frozen chickens being sold by a major supermarket chain were in fact past their sell-by date. When the chain got wind of the story it approached the newspaper’s management and threatened to withdraw all its advertising if the editorial department went ahead with publication. As the supermarket chain was a huge client, worth many millions a year, the managers were concerned and tried to dissuade the editor from publishing the story. The editor resisted and said that he would resign rather than conceal the truth.

After much anguish, the managers backed off and the story was published. Despite its threats, the supermarket chain apparently continued to advertise with the paper, presumably because it would have lost face had it withdrawn, and because the advertising was beneficial to its sales.

Traditionalists fondly recall a golden age when great newspapers were owned by wealthy families with an understanding of their unique role rather than by companies concerned largely with profits. The reason for this is that in many instances the press barons not only had deep pockets but also relished the power and influence that their newspapers gave them. Because they could in effect hold governments to account, the owners generously resourced their editorial departments to enable news teams to do their job most effectively. But when the dynasties sold out to entrepreneurs whose primary motive was to make money, great papers often unravelled.

An example of this is the Los Angeles Times, one of the United State’s premier newspapers, and for generations the property of the Chandler family. A firm believer that “the newsroom is the heartbeat of the business”, Otis Chandler, the last in the family line to be at the controls, was asked what pleasure he derived from owning a newspaper. He replied: “It’s the opportunity it gives you to do important things to improve this planet Earth.”

But when the flagship title on the U.S. west coast was sold in 2000, and taken over by a succession of entrepreneurs who saw the newspaper primarily as a business, a meltdown followed: editorial staff numbers were decimated to maximise profits, which led to lesser coverage and lower circulation and more losses and more bloodletting.

South African newspapers may not have been so dramatically affected, although the sword fell recently on Business Day’s elegant and informative Weekender because it couldn’t be sustained by advertising. Yet this harsh reality of survival of the fittest is not limited to newspapers, being the code of a world in which everyone has somehow to make their way.

Nevertheless, what kind of a world would it be if each person thought only of himself or herself? Who would give a voice to the voiceless? Who would challenge the powerful if they abuse their power? Who would publicise the cause of the environment? Who would hold to account a collapsed municipality that is so sodden with corruption and inefficiency and political interference that its ratepayers can’t be served? Who would look beyond money to the greater good?

Whether on newspapers or in society at large, there is only one answer to the questions above, and that is: the seekers of the truth.

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