Tuesday, April 18, 2006

We need more Marcus Sterns

No fancy inside sources or attitude journalism for Marcus Stern, a reporter for Copley News Service. Just textbook journalism: an eye for spotting anomalies and the willingness to put in labor tracking down the cause. That's how Stern broke the Randy "Duke" Cunningham bribery scandal. And that work by Stern is how he won a Pulitzer Prize for Copley News Service and the San Diego Union-Tribune, sharing it with James Risen and Eric Lichtblau of the New York Times. Read all about it here.

Stern is also generous at sharing credit. In an interview with American Journalism Review, Stern pointed out that one interesting part of the story was broken by my paper, North County Times:

" 'But the irony is that one of the more delicious parts [of the Cunningham story] is the Duke-Stir,' the yacht that Wade owned and allowed Cunningham to live on rent-free when in Washington. 'That story was later broken by the North County Times' in San Diego County. 'I had a head start, and they still beat me on this story,' he chuckles, a little chagrined at being scooped."

Here is that story, by my colleague William Finn Bennett.

It is possible to become too obsessed with winning awards, but in this case Stern was simply being recognized for tenacious gumshoe journalism. As it should be the Pulitzer was a reward for good work, not a goal in itself.

And as for Lichtblau and Risen, it has not gone unnoticed that both formerly worked for the Los Angeles Times, which didn't win any Pulitzer.

The LA Times is still the dominant newspaper on the West Coast, with large residual institutional advantages. But it needs an owner that puts good journalism first. Its corporate parent, the Tribune Company, fell into the synergy trap of trying to turn its print geeks into multimedia stars. This is called repurposing content. Repurposing has been cynically defined as using someone's work in a different medium without paying for it.

I'll quote a few grafs from the synergy story:

"In addition to modernizing the newsroom, designers included a TV studio linked by fiber optic cable to CLTV, WGN-TV and WGN-AM, and they put it in the middle of the newsroom in the line of sight between the offices of Tyner and Managing Editor Ann Marie Lipinski. That as much as anything made a statement to the staff. Panels were built in seven other locations in Tribune Tower to plug in live camera and studio equipment. The installation includes a radio booth, two digital editing bays, digital video storage for easy sharing of content among the newspaper, the stations and the Internet Tribune, and a master control.

"Interestingly, when the walls were torn out and cable was being laid, capacity was built in for expansion and installation of technology that may not yet even be in development.

"From these facilities, which were dedicated in May 1998, live interviews, taped segments and full shows are created and distributed. Movie, theater, TV, music and restaurant critics record their reviews for TV packages. The Tribune's Good Eating section is turned into a weekly TV show on CLTV. Foreign correspondents report on the air from war zones. Tribune experts in all fields analyze news developments. Exclusive and enterprise stories are shared with broadcast partners to air the night before they are printed."

Most of this looks like fluff to my eye. Being a print geek, I would say that. But it's also changing the nature of the newspaper in a very fundamental way. That sounds good, hey, we're with new technology and all that. But it's not plunging into some bold new future. This is putting the newspaper's energies into television. The two entities can't be so easily hybridized -- and we've already got television.

While some print reporters take to this multimedia format, some very good reporters can't. Also, it's a distraction from the underlying business of finding and researching news. Note that the story I linked to in the graf above praises the idea of synergy in 2000, but it reads very differently in light of the Tribune Company's 2006 woes. (Meanwhile, the Tribune failed to rid itself of a blatant journalistic conflict of interest in its ownership of the Chicago Cubs, and provoked widespread resentment with its handling of the Los Angeles Times. That part of what I mean about distraction.)

Of course, in 2000, synergy was all the rage with the AOL takeover of Time Warner. We all know how that worked out, and I think for much the same reasons the Tribune Co., is getting hammered. It lost touch with its core businesses.

I am not saying all synergy is bad synergy. Part of the reason for this blog is to get me comfortable with more Web-intensive reporting. However, it's still writing. The skills of a print ink reporter can be easily transferred to printing electrons.

But for most reporters, it's a waste of time coaching them on how to appear on television, telling them what color tie looks good on camera, etc. They're better off doing what they were trained to do -- finding out stuff and reporting the news.

Just like Marcus Stern.

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