Monday, January 7, 2008

Resolve to Pander

Posted By on Mon, Jan 7, 2008 at 1:11 PM

Yesterday, Mark Silverman, The Tennessean's vice president of content and audience development, who also serves as the paper's editor, regaled the paper's 32 readers about its resolutions for 2008. Typically, people make resolutions about admirable endeavors they haven't taken the time to do before, such as learn a new language, volunteer or eschew alcohol before noon. Silverman, though, didn't exactly set the bar high for his paper, and his mundane, corporate column deserves a bit of a rehash, if for no other reason than I don't have anything else to do here at the Nashville Scene just yet. So let's have a little fun (more after the jump): Silverman's first resolution is to “work harder than ever” to achieve fairness and balance. Do we need to make that a resolution? If anything, The Tennessean is so fair and so balanced that it rarely seems to go out of its way to do something aggressive. If Silverman were editing the paper in its glory days during the civil rights movement, would he have worked “harder than ever” to get Bull Connor's side of the story in the paper? More importantly, would he have cared at all about how readers felt about his paper's coverage? Silverman also resolves to “more aggressively hold institutions and their leaders accountable.” He files this under the label “watchdog reporting.” Why that and not investigative reporting? Is that term out of favor at Gannett? I don't think anyone thinks of Seymour Hersh as a watchdog reporter. I'm guessing that the term “investigative reporting” is out of vogue at Gannett since it applies to an instinctual, confrontational style of journalism that doesn't conform to the chain's demure approach. (As you may have guessed by now, I've learned exactly zero new tricks in my time away from Nashville, so get used to a steady stream of media criticism that conjures up images of Gannett's focus groups.) Silverman's resolution on “watchdog journalism” also includes this promise: “In addition to pointing out blame, we'll work with experts to suggest solutions.” Oh Jesus. When did journalism morph into consulting? Besides, The Tennessean's readers are not so dumb that they can't figure out the solution to the limited list of problems exposed by a good investigative story—stop stealing, lying, beating people up and giving government jobs to your second cousins. Silverman also resolves to do something about “content partnerships,” where he castrates himself by saying, “We will continue to encourage you to send us news, information, photos and videos that we can share with your neighbors in print and online.” Apparently, while I was gone, The Tennessean turned into the Green Hills News. (Thank you. Don't forget to try the fried cheese sticks.) Do we really want the editor of a metropolitan paper groveling this much before his readers? Should we just turn the entire paper over to them? I tried to count the number of guest columns in yesterday's Issues section and stopped at 400. Not to sound even older than my 35 years, but I miss the old days when we wrote a whole bunch of crap and you, dear reader, either read it or didn't. And that was it. Now journalism, particularly as practiced by The Tennessean, has become a dreary customer service job, where editors speak loudly and carry small sticks, wasting their days assuaging the feelings of their dwindling readership. Of course, I don't think that journalists should be flat-out rude, to you, dear reader. We just shouldn't obsess over what you think. But when you do have a question for us, it wouldn't hurt if we had some manners. Which brings us to another one of Silverman's resolutions: “transparent journalism.” Our advice to the VP of audience development is to quit pissing off the readers he has. When, for example, a news junkie wrote him in November wondering about how the paper's time stamps on its website are created (by the writers or by the editors or neither)—granted, the reader asserted that they seemed inauthentic—Silverman patronized the reader by responding, "Timestamps are a mechanical process here. News staffers do not create them. That's the way Web sites at large news organizations work." So far so good. Until he ended the email like this: "If you're worried about this, you might try getting a hobby."

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