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Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Masochism of News Management

David Simon's revenge on the Baltimore Sun continues to amaze those who follow these things.
Simon, the genius creator of HBO's "The Wire" is a former Sun reporter who clashed with news management, back in the 1980s. In today's Washington Post, he specifically accuses the Sun's editors specifically, (and has identified John Carroll and Bill Marimow) and journalism in general, of obsessing about awards at the expense of good, local journalism.

I have met Carroll and I have worked with and admire Marimow, so I think Simon's characterization of the two as villains is unfair and frankly misses the point.

Simon is right that newspapers and broadcasters in the 1980's and 90's sought to maximize audiences and profits, often at the civic expense of the audiences they tried to serve. As news became a commodity, media in general (with some notable exceptions) increasingly aimed to please shareholders instead of the readers, listeners and viewers. Journalism, more than any other area of endeavor, gives itself more awards than any other industry, including Hollywood. An indication, perhaps of journalism's shaky egoism.

But Simon is wrong that journalism's appeal has been blunted by the avarice of the news industry. The public still wants and needs good journalism and their appetite for reliable information continues to grow, in spite of Simon's lament.

Blogs and the people who read them are growing in size and influence. News organizations like NPR (where I once served as VP of News and subsequently as Ombudsman) have doubled their audience numbers over the past 10 years. The BBC now ranks among the fastest growing parts of American media. The number of people who read American newspapers either in their dead tree incarnation or on line continues to grow, even though daily paid circulation continues to ebb. News organizations are racing to the Internet to stanch the flow, and it's anyone's guess whether that will work. But the public's search for reliable and interesting forms of information keeps growing, almost in spite of financial pressures and the lack of a single business model that works in this new environment.

As a recovering manager, I think that people like Carroll and Marimow are to be commended, and not condemned as Simon has done. In speaking to a senior editorial manager at the Washington Post recently, he remarked that disgruntled, but talented employees like Simon frequently come back to haunt us. Management, unlike labor, is hamstrung by a sense of professional restraint in these food fights. Simon is free to barrack his bosses, but the bosses can't, won't and possibly shouldn't.

But as someone who had his share of both disgruntled and gruntled employees, let me say that the news business seems to attract its share of wonderfully talented people as well as more than its share of characters, oddballs and misfits.

My own motivation for moving from the shop floor into management was driven in part, by what I considered to be an appallingly low standard of management. At the same time that Simon was duking it out at the Baltimore Sun, I was an editor at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, in the radio division. I felt I was being managed by a group of hapless incompetants. The managing editor of this unit was a terrific journalist and perpetually beleaguered manager, Michael Enright who invited me to join management ranks to help him run CBC Radio News. I thought I might be at least, no less incompetant so I took him up on his offer. Enright has since gone on to on air excellence and left that managerial vale of tears behind.

I quickly discovered that being in management meant being the recipient of personal employee expectations. Frequently I would be asked by frustrated employees to "make my life whole." Being a manager may have its perks (usually overstated), but there are huge expectations from above and below that often verge on trying to replicate the loaves and fishes act of a early miraculous manager.

Management does create its own version of miracles, but news managers, in my experience are often terrible at celebrating their successes and usually more adept at presenting themselves as being constantly under the gun and in the crosshairs of unions, senior management and the emotional vortices of ambition, either their own and/or their employees.

Worse yet is the lack of support for newsroom management. Mentoring is all the rage for the staff, but support for middle management in news organizations from above is usually non-existent. This branch of an organization is usually the most disposable because there is always some other younger pup who thinks this juggling act with chainsaws is do-able.

Simon shows creative flair in "The Wire" at creating a Boschian universe, but his imagination fails him when he tries to show what really happens in a news organization.


  1. "Journalism, more than any other area of endeavor, gives itself more awards than any other industry, including Hollywood."

    I've often seen this stated as fact, but I can't ever remember seeing a source cited. How many awards does the news industry give itself? What industry ranks No. 2 and how many awards does that industry give?

    I'm not saying that the old chestnut is wrong, but I remain skeptical until those questions are answered.

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  4. Dear Mr. Robrish,

    First my apologies for misspelling your name. Anyone named "Dvorkin" should take more care. I have removed the offending posts.

    According to Google, there are 388,000 listings under "journalism awards," which is more honor than virtue in our profession than I could possibly have imagined.



  5. Quite all right, Mr. Dvorkin.

    Bear in mind that many journalism awards aren't given out by the news industry. The National Association of Ferret Lovers (if there is such a thing) is a lot more likely to give out an award for best news coverage of ferrets than, say, excellence in plumbing at animal shelters.

    I'm not disputing that there are a great many awards given by the industry, such as those from state newspaper associations and state broadcaster associations. Whether that number is excessive is a matter of opinion and I won't presume to argue that.