Tuesday, February 5, 2008

F&$@ your covering important issues

Sara Fajardo, an Orlando Sentinel photographer, received an F-bomb for asking about journalism's obligation to inform communities about social issues and political detritus. Tribune Co.'s new Chief Executive Sam Zell delivered the F-bomb in what would have been an otherwise interesting exchange on the state of the news.

Here's the exchange.


"What readers want are puppy dogs," Fajardo said, alluding to soft feature stories. "We also need to inform the community."

"I'm sorry," Zell responded. "But you're giving me the classic, what I would call, journalistic arrogance by deciding that puppies don't count. I don't know anything about puppies. What I'm interested in is how can we generate additional interest in our products and additional revenue so we can make our product better and better and hopefully we get to the point where our revenue is so significant that we can do puppies and Iraq. Fuck you."

UW alumnus and Chicago Tribune columnist, Phil Rosenthal, pointed out how Zell's response raises questions about his ability to respect the Tribune Co.'s new value on questioning authority. If journalists are going to ask him his views on creating awareness as well as revenue. Will they always be told to fuck off?

The audience applauded Zell's response, as he was bringing up a good point. Journalists may have to cater to public whim, reporting on fluff events that the public wants, in order to bring in enough revenue to do investigative pieces, cover social/political problems.

But the point was lost when he acted like a belligerent drunk.

Perhaps a better thought that could have come out of this is that journalists must consider how they report rather than on what. Newspapers cover fluff, but is that what the public really wants?

Perhaps newspapers should consider writing with a more lively tone. Objectivity is a good thing, but perhaps it stifles analysis and can lead to the mind-numbing "he said, she said" story. I don't mean leaving some points of view out, but stories sometimes don't distinguish between which perspective holds more water given evidence.

Perhaps the solution for newspapers is interactive online media. Hyperlinks, videos, and blogs/forums allow the reader to see an event or issue first hand, and comment on it instead of just reading and believing. I know many alternative weeklies, e-magazines, small progressive newspapers, and professional blogs who've done this well...

Recently fired L.A. Times editor Jim O'Shea commented on the state of mass journalism much more eloquently as he made his way out of the door:
"The current system relies too heavily on voodoo economics and not enough on the creativity and resourcefulness of journalists," he said, Too often "we've been dismissed as budgetary adolescents who can't be trusted to conserve our resources."

However, O'Shea also wrote how Zell is a smart businessman who would likely come around to see his point of view...

15 comments:

Bonnie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bonnie said...

I want puppies!!!!
(Just kidding. F%#$ puppies! LOL Cats!)

Anonymous said...

How many spoonfuls of sugar to help the medicine of news go down?

Manning Pynn

PUBLIC EDITOR

February 10, 2008
Click here to find out more!

Sam Zell, the $6 billion man who just bought the reins of the Sentinel's parent company, came to town a little more than a week ago to share his view of where this newspaper is headed -- and what you, as a reader, can expect.

In a parking-lot tent, under a "YOU Own This Place Now!" banner, he told employees that riches lay ahead if they would cut through red tape, innovate and give readers what they want. His frequent use of words you won't see in this newspaper -- at least, not yet -- delighted the crowd and seemed to encourage the breaking of antiquated rules.

Zell was on a roll when staff photographer Sara Fajardo stepped up to ask a question about the part journalism would play in this new order.

Responding to his comment about focusing "on what our readers want and, therefore, generates more revenue," she said, "What readers want are puppy dogs . . . ," referring to soft features as opposed to hard news, and noted, "We also need to inform the community."

Zell broke in to brand her comments "journalistic arrogance." Then, as he ended his short rebuke, he stepped back from the lectern and directed an obscenity at her.

Few heard it at the time, and it was a day or two later before it was noticed on a video recording of the event -- which soon showed up on the Internet.

Zell's spokeswoman, Terry Holt, told the Los Angeles Times -- like the Sentinel, part of Tribune Company -- last week that it was Fajardo's "sarcastic tone" and her turning her back on him as he was speaking, not her question, that prompted his vulgarism.

If that's what happened, it escaped Sentinel Publisher Kathy Waltz's notice. Seated next to Zell on the dais, she saw Fajardo "shaking her head, shrugging her shoulders and walking away. There was applause from the audience to Sam's response, which is why many of us did not hear Sam swear at her. That is also why it appeared to me that his response was over, and it did not appear to me that Sara left while Sam was still talking. Sam apparently saw it differently."

Waltz noted, "Much of Sam's answer was his view on being able to afford to do both 'soft' stories and serious, public-service journalism. All of that was appropriate, and I agree with that goal. The invective he used toward the employee was inappropriate in my view."

Editor Charlotte Hall had a similar view: "I feel the obscenity Sam directed at Sara was not appropriate, and I've never known Sara to be arrogant. . . . Some of the other statements during the presentation, about the importance of content and the reader, as well as the principle of making local decisions locally, should be heartening to journalists. Unfortunately, they have been obscured by the final comment to Sara."

Then there is Fajardo, who has not spoken publicly about the exchange. "It was not my intention to offend him," she told me. "I thought that he had finished his statement, and so I left the microphone so the next person could ask their question."

Asked what she had been trying to say when Zell broke in, she said, "I was trying to affirm that I understood what he meant about revenue and that, as a journalist, I understand the need for soft news. It's important, but sometimes a newspaper has to question authority and question things that are happening in the community and cause us to be unpopular and cause us to lose advertisers, and where does he stand on that?"

I've asked him, but I have yet to receive a reply. That's not necessarily indicative of a refusal to comment. Zell has asked all Tribune employees to e-mail him, as I did. He may not have gotten to the inquiry.

Fajardo, with whom Zell also has not spoken, said she was "a little perplexed" by his reaction to her questioning, but journalists aren't typically shocked by that kind of language. They get it with regularity from people who don't like what appears -- or is anticipated -- in print.

What appears in print, of course, is the real issue.

Puppy dogs -- and a wide variety of features and amusements -- are the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down. In the past year that spoon has grown larger. Although the appropriate ratio is debatable, a certain amount of sweetener is necessary to the health -- and continued existence -- of the business.

The medicine, of course, is the serious news, the government news, etc. that may not excite or even please readers, or bring "hits" to the Sentinel's Web site, but it forms the core of the newspaper's reason for being -- its mission.

The United States Constitution doesn't protect the press so that newspapers can generate revenue. It does so to ensure that citizens always will have independent monitors of their government.

Filling that need does not indicate arrogance. It's necessary to Americans' way of life.

B. Broeren said...

Dear Anonymous,

I thought the points in your article were great, and Zell had a good point as well before he muffled a "Fuck you." However, I'd appreciate it if you could just link the story next time, and let me know who you are.

Thanks

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