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Tough times for hard news, but good journalism goes on

By John Hughes / April 6, 2005



SALT LAKE CITY

Ted Koppel is leaving ABC, and this puts the future of his "Nightline" program in doubt as well as underlining the changing character of TV news and journalism in general.

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Mr. Koppel has been at ABC for 42 years, anchoring "Nightline" for 25 of them, creating a unique slot for serious network late-night journalism in a milieu where many late-night viewers get their "news" from the irreverent comic monologues of David Letterman and Jay Leno.

Where "Nightline" once captured a significant audience, its ratings are down as are the ratings for all TV network news programs. Their celebrity anchors are fading away. NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS's Dan Rather are gone and ABC's Peter Jennings, whose contract is up for renegotiation this year, may not be far behind.

While the TV cameras do a splendid job of capturing the immediacy and drama of breaking news, they cannot offer the depth and analysis afforded by newspapers. As Walter Cronkite once pointed out, all the words in a 30-minute prime-time TV newscast (22 minutes without the ads) would fill just about half a page of The New York Times.

Koppel's "Nightline" was a noble stab at providing news junkies with more substantive TV fare. Its eclipse - perhaps even demise - would be sad indeed. Koppel deserves our thanks for preserving it, and its quality, for so long.

It is not an easy time for network TV journalists who are serious about their craft. They are awash in "news" programs focusing on celebrities and the entertainment industry, and "soft" magazine-type stories that are a far cry from the hard-news coverage that made the network news divisions what they once were.

With the explosive growth of cable TV, there has been serious fragmentation of the TV audience, offering competition for the networks not only from cable news channels like CNN and Fox, but from specialized channels vying for viewers' time with everything from salacious court stories to dog shows, poker tournaments, and how-to programs on bathroom tile-laying and scrapbookmaking.

In the face of all this, TV network executives have cut back on newsroom budgets, laying off well-known faces now popping up on CNN, and paring travel funds - particularly for foreign coverage.

Print journalists are not without similar challenges. In addition to staff layoffs and budget cuts at a string of newspapers, there is a struggle to stem declining circulation at some and a fight to capture younger readers who have grown up clattering the keys of their computers to the accompaniment of the Internet's demanding voice rather than thumbing in more thoughtful fashion through newspapers.

Newspaper journalists are also absorbing the fallout from a number of sensational ethical scandals. Though they may have involved only a few shameless miscreants, they nevertheless cast doubt, albeit unfairly, upon the credibility of the journalistic profession as a whole.

Fabricated stories and plagiarism at major news organizations like The New York Times and USA Today have sullied journalism's image. Though Dan Rather was a TV journalist and not a newspaper reporter, his incredible professional lapse in the handling of CBS's election-eve "exposé" of President Bush's National Guard record has done little to diminish public suspicion that journalists with personal political agendas may tailor their reporting to fit.

All this might tempt one to think that journalism is on the ropes and that its practitioners are filled with despair. Happily, that is not the case. Over the years I have sat on the board that makes the final decisions on Pulitzer Prizes, and more recently on the juries that sift through the myriad entries from which the final nominations are made. The quality of spot-news coverage, investigative reporting, and commentary is astonishingly good. The readers are well served.

But it is not only at the big metropolitan newspapers with substantial resources that good journalism is being pursued.

Recently I was at a convention of my local state press association, where not only the dailies, but scores of weekly community newspapers were represented. Their commitment to producing good newspapers in the face of challenge is moving.

There are 80-hour weeks. It's tough making payroll. Their editors and reporters live in the midst of the people they write about. When they do their jobs properly it sometimes costs them a longtime friendship or loses a critical advertiser. They meet ethical problems each day. This is where a lot of tomorrow's journalists get their start.

In the business of disseminating information, technology and technique may change. But for many, good journalism is still a love affair that will not end.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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