Wednesday, July 26, 2017

A journalistic tour de force

I believe I have just completed the best book I have ever read on journalism. It may be 18 years old but so much of what it contains relates to personal feelings on the craft of journalism and the management of the news product.

Given all that has happened in the last 20 years it is interesting to reflect on comments made by the writer Max Frankel in his book The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times.

The Times in this instance being The New York Times, the newspaper Frankel was fortunate enough to work for during all his working life, ending as the company's executive editor.

It may be that the latest generation of journalists will wonder at much of what Frankel describes in his story. They have worked only in the corporate model of the industry and sadly that is hardly a shining example of how best to maintain journalistic standards in the face of demands to turn a profit for the all important, yet faceless, institutional shareholders who were never concerned about the journalism side of the business – witness the downsizing of newspapers around the world.

Yet experience has shown the family model of ownership was the ideal in the news business and one of the reasons The New York Times has retained its standing is because it has maintained the family connections that made it such a significant player on the news stage.

Even in the face of digital pressures it has held its place, instituting a paywall, but not just offering their news service to subscribers. For one thing a quick flick of the keyboard can make every issue ever printed of the newspaper available to anyone who may be interested. That's one incentive to pay for the service, but there are others which an explore of their website will reveal.

It also allows the columns Frankel wrote in his retirement to be read at leisure, an example of his gravitas being applied to news production without having to be concerned with the process.

What makes Frankel's story all the more compelling is the background to his career, his exit from Nazi Germany as a schoolboy Jew just before the onset of war, the adaption to life in the United States and all that it had to offer and his advancement through the remainder of the 20th Century and all that it involved in news-gathering.

He knew the effects of the Holocaust, he knew also of the separation from his father who disappeared into the Russian gulags as the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time in Poland. The story of his father's existence in those years of separation are a sidebar to Frankel's story yet important all the same in helping explain his later actions in life.

"Those who would truly stop the presses and seal the frontiers of nations and knowledge reappear in every generation, with tempting philosophies and contempt for humanity."

Once completing University study and winning a place at the New York Times, Frankel moved through the ranks as a foreign correspondent in Europe, and spending enough time in Russia to lend a fascinating perspective to aspects of the Cold War. He worked in the newspaper's Washington bureau and then spent time back in the home office learning all that would be required of him in his executive editor's role.

For anyone with the slightest interest in the journalism of the 1950s-70s, Frankel's experiences are riveting: Cuba, the missile crisis, the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, Richard Nixon et al.

The New York Times famously won the right to publish the Pentagon Papers and Frankel was in the middle of the fight. He said of them:

The Pentagon Papers proved that every administration after World War II had enlarged America's commitment to the defense of South Vietnam and secretly intensified attacks on North Vietnam. Yet at every stage the government had hidden the true dimensions of the enterprise and its own abundant doubts about the prospects for success. Although by 1971 the terrible cost and length of the war were obvious, no one who believed that government was accountable to the governed could fail to recognize this history as explosive news: the government analysing and bemoaning two decades of its own Vietnam operations.

Frankel's understanding of the importance of the papers was borne out when court actions began and the ill-equipped New York Times lawyers, better suited to financial arguments with Wall Street, failed to grasp the occasion's significance. At a crucial stage in the proceedings, he addressed the lawyers with a memo outlining why the Times' case was so crucial and it played a key part in their successful argument. It also helped that the Judge hearing the case had worked in World War Two intelligence so had a clear grasp of what and what wasn't secret.

It was as the news industry began to change that the Times faced the same issues other newspapers around the world had to contend with. But such was the Times' view of its place in the world that it refused to react as so many others did. Frankel highlighted Times' boss Punch Sulzberger's attitude which was that the Times' raison d'etre was to practice great journalism.

It needed to make money – not to enrich the Sulzbergers or even the stockholders but because profits were the only guarantee of the paper's honesty, independence and survival. If mismanaged or misdirected, the paper could not look to any private fortune for rescue.

In moving into his executive role Frankel describes the challenges involved in moving the monolith that was the New York Times into new areas of thinking and operation. He described the battle he had in convincing colleagues that in the battle against television it was important that it wasn't television determining what was 'the news' of the day. The news of the day for the New York Times would be the news that it chose to define, or that it felt its readers needed or were interested in. As he put it, journalists believed they knew what the public needed to know whether or not they wanted to know it. But in reality they did not know what their readers wanted.

Frankel described how he received, almost by accident, results of an experiment that was like spying on readers. What was revealed were details that showed none of the readers read the paper in the way it was thought they did and, importantly, no two readers read the paper the same way.

Anyone who has been involved in endless think tanks trying to better their newspaper anywhere around the world would identify with this attitude. But Frankel said having absorbed all these challenges, it still took time for the realisation to occur that the new function of newspapers was to

…add unique value to widely available information. As much as news, we sold judgment and expertise. And that had far-reaching implications for every facet of newspapering.

And therein likes the crux as so many newspapers now struggle in comparison to the Times.

Judgment and expertise are expensive commodities. They require staff drawn from an elite talent pool plus training and experience and time for research and reflection. Above all they require a willingness to break with convention.

Other aspects of the news operation also come into Frankel's ambit: affirmative action in relation to equal pay for women, improved opportunities for minorities and coverage of the AIDS epidemic, and his description in the changes undertaken by the New York Times is a fascinating study in an organisation of its size. Equally interesting is the way in which Frankel realised, from his own refugee experience, what events in Hungary in 1989 meant, seeing much sooner than others the break-up about to occur in the Communist world.

As a closing gesture in his book, Frankel reflects on the realities facing journalism. Consider some of his thoughts:

+ The relentless pursuit of profit panders to commercial interests and causes informative news to be replaced with the inane.

+ The imbalance of power between earners and spenders has damaged news operations at all but a handful of American newspapers. The exceptions are obvious: instead of stockholder 'democracies' they remain limited monarchies. They are family papers, like The Times, whose founders did well by doing good and who managed against the odds to pass both their values and assets to succeeding generations…The families are not absolute rulers. They, too, must deliver dividends and ascending profit margins. But they can pursue a more distant and responsible vision of success than next month's bottom line.

+The most important function of the family monarch is to resolve the inevitable conflicts between Advertising and News and to protect journalistic values from commercial attack.

Finally, it is Frankel who offers a highly relevant passing thought in the days in which we find ourselves:

If I have learned from my times, I know something of the future: It will rain again, on the world and on The Times. Those who would truly stop the presses and seal the frontiers of nations and knowledge reappear in every generation, with tempting philosophies and contempt for humanity. By their press shall ye know them. They will cause new floods.

What is tragic in the news environment in which we live, is that the people in newspaper management, and industry investors, who have been responsible for the situation now facing the journalism craft will have no comprehension of the issues Frankel raises, nor will they care.

They will have no understanding of the loss of institutional intelligence in the coverage of so much that is important to the democratic existence that can only survive on knowledge. They will wonder why when advertisers finally abandon the sheets on which so little relevant news is published. And they will look at the diminished returns in their annual investment statements and wonder what might have gone wrong?

Enlightenment will be their final reward when the last bottom line has been rubbed out.

The Times of My Life and My Life with The Times by Max Frankel, Random House, New York, 1999