'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

UPDATE: The Biz Buzz 

Throughout the 1990s, as newspapers replaced long time reporters with inexperienced ones, I used to tell my friends that we had entered the era of press release journalism. In other words, the stories written by inexperienced, poorly paid, overworked reporters increasingly read like press releases.

It wasn't intentional, though, at least as far as the reporters themselves were concerned. Most newspapers had adopted a business model that made the publication of such stories inevitable. Of course, we now know that elite papers like the New York Times and the Washington Post had moved in this direction as well, but they had hired reporters, like Judith Miller, for example, that had consciously decided to move in this direction for ideological reasons.

Yesterday, the Sacramento Bee sanctified this trend by hiring Cynthia Dell to replace Janis Heaphy as publisher. The Bee, as one of the flagship papers of the McClatchy chain, a respected regional one, had a history of trying to resist the encroachment of press release journalism, even if it imposed a stodgy writing style upon its reporters and copy editors, but now, with the financial catastrophe of its purchase of Knight-Ridder apparent, it too, has acquisced.

The Internet, and the opportunities that it purported presents for allegedly synergistic partnerships with major advertisers, opportunities celebrated by The Bee's new publisher, Dell, appears to pushing the trend to its logical extreme, the ulimately end point, the publication of press releases without an intermediary interpretation by the reporter.

Look at this "article" posted on The Bee's website today:

Sutter Health announced Tuesday that it has donated $737,000 to health programs in three Northern California communities.

The Effort, a Sacramento-based community clinic providing primary care, substance-abuse treatment and mental health services for the under-served, will receive $262,000, according to a Sutter news release.

Other grants went to Perinatal Health Project, a program working to improve the health of pregnant mothers in disadvantaged Northern California communities including in Yolo County, and to Operation Access, a group that coordinates free surgeries for uninsured Bay Area residents, the release said.

It is pretty obvious that the reporter, Dorsey Griffith, just summarized what he read in the release. Why, you might ask, is a Sutter Health press release being given such prominence, and by extension, credibility, through placement on the news tab of the website? Perhaps, the fact that Sutter Health is one of the most ubiquitous advertisers on The Bee's website just might have something to do with it.

Furthermore, consider the possibility that the mom's group created by The Bee, SacMomsClub, is proud to welcome Sutter Health as a partner has something to do with it as well. No wonder The Bee was critical of the efforts of the Service Employees' International Union to litigate alleged environmental disclosure deficiencies and impose community benefit guidelines in regard to a major expansion of one of Sutter's hospital facilities here.

They used to say that a good newspaper had no friends. The reverse is true as well. A mediocre one has too many, especially of the corporate kind. And liberals continue to wonder why many Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein had WMDs and assisted al-Qaeda.

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