July 2008

We, like so many television viewers, were deeply saddened to learn of the passing of NBC's "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert last month. The reaction to his death was nothing short of amazing. Flags were flown at half-staff in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y., and TV networks devoted as much time to coverage of his death as they would if a world leader had passed away.

What made this man so remarkable? He was no politician, or statesman, no movie star. Why did millions feel as if they had lost someone who they loved as much as a member of their family? He was, after all, nothing more or less than a journalist doing his job.

It was his reputation. Built over 17 years of weekly broadcasting. He knew his stuff. Did his homework. Was fair and honest. The audience watched this for all those years, and came to the conclusion that here was the real thing. He was, most importantly, someone they could trust in confusing and even terrifying times.

It is this kind of trust that is the foundation of what is called in the industry, Goodwill. It is what journalists, anchor people, TV stations and newspapers represent to their audience.

A week before Russert died the Tribune Company, owners of the Chicago Tribune, in a desperate move to save their print editions, decreed that over 500 pages a week would be torn out of their chain of 20 newspapers, which includes the Los Angeles Times, the Orlando Sentinel and the Hartford Courant. Along with the page reduction, reporters would henceforth be judged on how many column inches they had contributed to the paper as a measure of their productivity.

Journalists are not used to having their work considered by the pound. In fact, they pride themselves on getting maximum information in a short space. I doubt that anyone at NBC was counting the words Tim Russert said on "Meet the Press."

The sad fact is that it is already too late to save the print editions of the Tribune Company. The news of the page cuts will soon enough be felt in every newsroom across the country.

This is why it is crucial that whatever goodwill the newspaper still has be reinforced and bolstered as it moves into its next evolution on the World Wide Web.

In our May editorial, "How Not to Shoot Newspaper Video," [http://www.digitaljournalist.org/issue0805/how-not-to-do-newspaper-video.html] we called on newspapers to understand the need for quality and good journalism as they retask their employees to move to shooting video. At our Platypus Workshops, we stress the need for professionalism and good storytelling skills as the new video journalists create their pieces. Unfortunately, there is a vociferous opposite trend, which is battling the concept of quality. Howard Owens, a self-proclaimed digital video guru and blogger about newspapers on the Web, in commenting on the editorial, essentially called this concept outmoded and unnecessary. His approach is to simply give journalists video cameras – it doesn't matter how good they are – and get those people out shooting any kind of video, then throw it up on the Web. In his opinion, viewers won't notice or care if it is good or not.

What he is saying is that the kind of traditions honored by people like Tim Russert are unnecessary in today's attention-deficit world. Well, that same idea also applies to the newspaper itself.

It is vital that publishers understand they have one last chance to hang onto and grow their audience before becoming totally irrelevant … as in GONE!

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