From an Ex-Paperboy: News Delivery Is Not Reporting

E-mail Print PDF

From an Ex-Paperboy: News Delivery Is Not Reporting

By Mort Rosenblum

TUCSON - Any ex-paperboy knows delivering news is a noble calling. I dreaded those dawn bike rides with Mr. Ward's Doberman in slobbering pursuit and that old lady's fury when I plastered her petunias. But I loved the news business.

Only later, when growling editors replaced dogs, irate readers packed AK-47s, and simplicity grew complex in a wider world, I saw the difference between delivering news and reporting it.

Today we are far beyond the printed word. Newspapers may fade away. Yet we still approach journalism - "the media" -- from the standpoint of paperboys.

Delivery may come at the speed of light, but it is still no more than process. What counts in a safe, stable world is the care and feeding of actual reporters.

Now any citizen can commit journalism, and this is a wondrous thing. No longer, as A.J. Liebling wrote, is freedom of the press restricted to those who own one. This is also scary as hell. Simply owning a scalpel does not equip you to remove a gall bladder. And even with med school behind you, you cannot operate from an ocean away.

In Liebling's day, our worldview was shaped by a few gutsy, resourceful reporters, what one of them dubbed "a little bunch of madmen." Today, correspondents can jet to unruly places that took weeks to reach. But not enough do.

When the Washington Post closes even its domestic bureaus, what are the chances for foreign coverage?

Reporting global news is expensive and dangerous. It is far easier to package words and images scrounged from others and then focus on how best to market them.

In much of the mainstream, generic "content" is sprayed around ads like roofing foam. When Henry Luce founded Time his masthead listed seasoned pros in bureaus on six continents. We knew each story's source. Look now, no correspondents' names appear in the magazine.

The trend is "hyperlocal," stories near home. Television networks tune out the world. I checked NBC's Today during the Pakistan floods - as "hyperlocal" as news gets if you consider the implications. I heard only that Korean leader Kim Jung Il was visiting China. Or maybe he ordered Chinese takeout; it went by too quickly.

Alternative outlets are a mixed bag. Some are excellent; many get things disastrously wrong. Limited in scope, few are able to report far-off effervescence while there is still time to avert crisis.

In this vacuum, we turn to a patchwork of well-intentioned amateurs who often miss the point and skilled manipulators who twist reality to their own purpose.

Too many editors accept canned Pentagon "war reporting" and ready-to-go packages from aid agencies or private companies.

Corporate philanthropists like Google and Microsoft may mean well. But journalists, not journalism, must be free. If consumers pay, reporters are not compromised.

We need to do better across the board - urgently, desperately -- at every level.

Societies get the news coverage they deserve. Our endless national debate is not about "the media" but rather its target: all of us. Demand something better and pay the cost. Go viral. Get mad as hell and don't take it anymore.

In the long-term, we need an education system that teaches kids why it matters to care. Meantime, we badly need more madmen and madwomen out watching the real world.

One urgent priority is to equip journalism schools with the resources many lack, public or private, to teach real reporting. Money should be spent on students and professors, not fancy news-crawl marquees on building.

Beyond the paperboy techniques, students must learn the essence: ethics, true fairness and balance, cultural contexts. As insidious corporate and government influence eats away at editorial judgment, the greater this need.

If you can afford it, give. If not, militate. Be sure that legislators and civil servants understand the dangers of letting the world's sole superpower go blind.

True, we already spend billions on vital causes like fighting poverty and hunger. Yet much of it is wasted. You can't do the right thing if you don't know what that is.

We have so many other causes. Sure, the Feline Society needs a hairball wing. I like cats. But I'd rather support real news coverage of our overheated planet, at war with itself and fast learning Chinese while hoarding euros.

Another priority is to support journalists who report reliably firsthand -- and to shun those who don't. It is easy to tell the difference. Look for up-close datelines. Compare reporting with other sources over time.

If journalism is different from "communications," journalists are communicators. Like playwrights, they have to bring a message home across cultural bridges. The educated elite are only one target. Shakespeare filled a lot of cheap seats at the Globe Theater.

As a paperboy, I admired colleagues who were deft at getting the news onto front porches. As a reporter, I realized that didn't really matter. The challenge was to get the paper's message through the door.


Read more from Mort's Notebook