Everyday Semiotics

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Now this is just fucking stupid

I heard about this last night on the CBC show As it Happens which, if you're not already privy, is the best thing on radio.

Listen here (Real Audio format). The interview is at the last third of the file.

Also, read the AP story below.

Newark Pays Paper to Print Only Good News
Monday October 24, 11:20 pm ET
Newark, N.J., Paying Weekly Newspaper $100,000 to Print Only Good News About City

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) -- Call it pay for praise, greenbacks for good news, bucks for beneficial publicity. The Newark City Council has awarded the Newark Weekly News a $100,000 no-bid contract to publish positive news about the city.

Howard Scott, who owns Newark Weekly News, pitched the idea to the city council, which unanimously approved the idea earlier this month.

"Do we have critical reporters on staff? No. Do we have investigative reporters? No," Scott said. "Our niche is the good stuff. People have come to know it, and they love it."

Under the contract, the paper will work with the city's public information office to spread positive aspects of the city.

The paper can only generate stories based on leads from the council and the mayor's office.

John O'Brien, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, said it was bad public policy to use tax dollars this way.

"The press role is supposed to be that of a watchdog," O'Brien said.
And so the twain shall meet....

Now, as a weekly newspaper reporter myself, I find myself having a thing or four to say about this. Get comfy, this could be a long post.

Without knowing anything about the Newark Weekly News' circulation numbers or ad banks, I can imagine that the paper will soon loose most of its readers and, subsequently, advertisers. A community paper's only saving grace, in my experience, is its ability to focus just breifly enough on what this or that official says or does (focusing less breifly if that official says or does something controversial or corrupt), and its willingness listen to or seek out the man on the street, the working class, or whatever makes up the community's "silent majority."

With this deal, the Newark paper is essentially putting itself in a hermetically sealed chamber inside the city offices, turning a deaf ear to Joe Sixpack who's house burned down or Little Jimmy who wrote a novel for his fifth grade English project.

It's simply unimaginable that a paper would work only on stories sanctioned by city officials and still call itself a newspaper. It is at best an official newsletter, at worst propaganda, and fishwrap either way.

Thank goodness somebody breathed word of this to the outside press, because I'm sure you'd never read about the $100,000 payoff within the pages of the Newark Weekly News. In the scope of a city budget the size of Newark's, that's probably a fairly insubstantial amount. But I'll riff for a line or two on the standard line of what else that money could have been used for anyway.

Human services probably tops the list. I'll bet whatever free or reduced costs clinics the city has could have used a bit of that cash for flu shots, to name just one supply currently in high demand. One thing I constantly hear about is how local government-operated health services are constantly scrapping for cash, since state and federal governments are continually downshifting costs. And what about addiction treatment centers, which could reduce human suffering, crime, and the strain on law enforcement personnel?

A blessing that could be counted here, on the other hand, is the fact that the city council didn't approve that money to give themselves free health insurance coverage, or fancy swiveling and reclining high-backed chairs for their chambers.

Supposedly this idea was hatched by the Newark Weekly News' editor. In a way it's fairly shrewd.

A journalist's relationship with government officials can never be totally easy. Even if a reporter and a city manager are on good terms and meet up for lunch every now and then and give each other fishing tips after the regular business is out of the way, something can come up that places them at odds. And government officials, no matter how high or low on the totem pole they are, HATE bad press. Everybody does, it's natural. Anybody would want to crawl under their desk knowing that everybody in the city is reading about their thoughtless outburst the evening before at a council meeting.

This usually makes bad blood between the official and the press, which can sometimes lead to animosity and actually get in the way of decent journalism. If one has a vendetta against the other, the reporter or the government shirt, and that's effecting the stories printed, then nobody is really being served (except two peoples' egos).

I can imagine not only the Newark City Council going for this hook line and sinker, but also the city manager, mayor, public works director, and possibly even the planners sitting in the back of the council chambers, all giving the thumbs-up. Meanwhile, the Newark Weekly News gets a bunch of softball stories complete with canned quotes and shallow interviews. Not a lot of work, so the editor doesn't have to stay up late editing, the reporters don't have to wear themselves ragged chasing leads, and the whole crew can go on a fishing trip with the Ward 4 councilor over the weekend.

And it's guaranteed income for the paper. Who could argue with that?

Curious, though, that there's no mention of a vote of the citizenry on this. $100,000 seems like a big enough appropriation to warrant some kind of referendum, don't you think?

Well, I suppose if the people of Newark don't like it, they can just stop reading the paper -- and continue being the silent majority, without a voice at city hall OR in the newspaper, since the two are now one.