East of the Alleghenies

A few days ago, I was reading The Week magazine, which bills itself as presenting the best of U.S. and international media. It occurred to me, as I turned its pages, that I was often seeing the same references for articles.

I decided to review the May issues for the sources quoted for content. Soon, it became clear that most of the sources were East Coast oriented, especially reflecting the New York City-Washington axis, where one in five journalists are now said to live and work.

The incestual nature of this coverage is disturbing to me. In four editions of The Week from May 3, 2019 to May 24, 2019, the New York Times was used 45 times for source material, The Washington Post 43 times, the Wall Street Journal 33 times and Bloomberg News 15 times. In addition, stories from 15 newspapers along the Atlantic coast from Boston to Miami where used for material.

These media outlets are all east of the Alleghenies. So, what does The Week report from publications in “fly over country” between the mountain chain and the West Coast? Not much. While there were 96 references from New York City news outlets alone, there were only 13 publications, beginning in Chicago and ending in Phoenix, cited for stories for the entire month. Material from west coast newspapers was used 11 times, nine of those from the Los Angeles Times.

The same pattern exists in news, cultural and opinion magazines, either in print or on line, used by The Week for material. To name a few – the New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Nation, The Federalist and the National Review. They are also written and published in the New York-Washington corridor, mainly New York. In May, the only general interest magazine published outside of New York or Washington that was used was Atlanta Magazine in the South.

Taking everything in, The Week reflects a concentration of media power and thought. But the same concentration of geographical power and thought extends into the cable news and over-the-air television networks, all of whom have their headquarters in New York and their broadcast studios in New York and Washington.

We are one country. But we are a big country with regional diversity. National news and political opinion outlets should reflect those differences in our character more than they do now and not be so provincial.

So, it goes!

Will iPads Save Newspapers?

As I write about in my book, newspapers are having a tough time of it in the digital age. It’s hard to make a profit in old established ways and publishers are scratching their heads over how to keep readers from drifting away into new technologies. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is the latest to come up with a plan to save itself as its circulation and advertising revenues decline. If readers will pay the current subscription rate of $36 a month, they will get a free iPad to view a digital version.

Walter Hussman, the paper’s publisher, explained it all to the Hope, Arkansas, Rotary Club, according to the Associated Press, where he said the paper’s daily pages will be available with “an easy-to-use” app than can be downloaded on the tablet.

The 200 year old paper, headquartered in Little Rock with 106 newsroom employees, has been running at a loss for the last two years. By the end of this year, only a Sunday edition will be circulated in print form. The iPad is a gamble, but in a test in Blytheville (population 14,000) 70 percent of the 200 subscribers there converted and even a new subscriber was picked up.

Two other publications have tried versions of tablets, according to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The Philadelphia Inquirer sold Android tablets to readers for $100 in 2011 if they would subscribe to the paper for two years at $9.99 a month. The Montreal, Canada, La Presse began a free tablet app in 2013 and eventually discontinued printing a daily edition. Since then, the paper has morphed into a nonprofit organization.

So, it goes!

May a newspaper become a nonprofit “community asset”?

Fighting for its survival, the Salt Lake City Tribune hopes to do just that by seeking federal approval from the IRS to become a nonprofit 501 (c)(3) organization sustained by tax free donations large and small. IT’S A FIRST. But, falling circulation and drastic drops in advertising revenues in the newspaper business in the digital age is forcing innovative thinking by private publishers. In this case, Paul Huntsman. If the move is successful, the 148 year old Salt Lake City Tribune would change from a privately owned business to one controlled by a public board. The Tribune would be designated a “community asset.”

This, of course, raises an interesting question about editorials, a long tradition in newspaper publishing. Editorials take a position, usually ones dictated by a private owner. Also, could an organization supported by tax free donations endorse candidates for public office as newspapers do presently? Like other newspapers, the staff of the Salt Lake City Tribune is dwindling. Currently, it numbers 60, down from 148 in 2011. There is another daily paper in Salt Lake City, The Deseret News, the oldest newspaper in Utah. So, if the Tribune went belly up, there still would be a daily newspaper in Salt Lake City. This could be a factor in any IRS decision. Let’s see what happens.

A Bit About Facts and Truth

There’s lots of anguish these days over journalists sidestepping facts in favor of their own views in reporting news.  As I write in my book, without facts truth becomes ever more elusive. In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal about him, Robert Caro, LBJ’s biographer, had this to say:

“We live in an age where facts are somehow being denigrated, like there aren’t any facts,” he said. “What’s true is there isn’t one truth. But there are a hell of a lot facts, and the more time I spent in the Johnson library, the more facts I got. The more facts you get, the closer you come to whatever truth there is.”

Caro’s comments are worth pondering in our current fractured cultural and political landscape.  Unfortunately, many journalists no longer make any claims of objectivity. Theirs is a subjective viewpoint, usually with a social or political purpose. When I was an active journalist, I always thought that “good getting” of facts was paramount in covering a story.  Cable channels with their “breaking news” droning along through the hours certainly contributes to our dilemma, especially those darn talking heads who forever stray from facts.

Sometimes, even the way facts are presented may be frustrating.  When I covered LBJ, he absorbed news and current events like a blotter. He had Associated Press and United Press teletypes in the Oval Office and he watched them closely. I recall one day when he held an impromptu press conference at his desk. Back then the pressroom, off of the public entrance to the West Wing Lobby, was small, and there wasn’t space for everybody. The United Press’s telephone was in a phone booth just inside the lobby entrance door. I watched with fascination as LBJ strode through the lobby to the booth within minutes after the press conference was over. He rapped his knuckles loudly on the folding glass door to get the attention of Al Spivak as he dictated to his office.

“You’ve got the wrong lead, Al.” the president shouted. “Your lead is all wrong.”

Obviously, he’d seen the first few paragraphs of Spivak’s copy move on the United Press wire. He wasn’t disputing the facts in the story, they were his own facts, but the president disagreed with how they were being presented. Now, that’s perplexing! How did Spivak handle it? He turned his head away and continued his dictation. When he finished, Spivak unfolded the booth door and spoke:  

“Yes, Mr. President?”

“Never Mind,” Johnson replied.

And that’s a fact. 

I never intended to write a memoir…

An old friend, Gertrude Terry, is responsible. She asked me to join a writing group in her home once a week. She had this caveat: I had to work on a memoir or I couldn’t come. Her stipulation seemed a fair exchange to enjoy her company along with the company of other writers.

I wish that I had kept a daily journal. A journal would be a ready point of reference. At 90+ years of age, I have a few notes jotted down from time to time and a couple of scrapbooks that my father pasted up with clippings of stories I covered as a journalist. But, I never kept a journal and that I regret. The downside of that negligence is that I’m stuck with mainly memory that whispers my own history back to me. The fear in such a circumstance is that I will remember nothing of importance and everything is, as Margaret Mitchell wrote, gone with the wind.

Everybody has constants as they move through life season after season, year after year, boundaries that anchor and shape thoughts and actions. A philosophy is developed by which to live, a tenacity to absorb blows, grace under pressure, forgiving in victory. When you reach 90+ years of age, as I have, you become a linchpin with the past. I remember people and events I saw as a journalist–those titans of politics and giants of business who are unknown to younger people. These recollections mean something to me, the part I played, but perhaps not to the young. They are busy accumulating memories of their own, hopefully to pass on someday.

Gertrude Terry and Russ Freeburg ~ Arcadia Bluffs, MI – August 2015