All the news that's fit to print at a profit

THE BUSINESS OF JOURNALISM Edited by William Serrin The New Press 192 pp., $16.95

This book starts out with three strikes against it:

Strike 1: It is a collection of talks given at New York University's journalism school; speeches rarely translate well on paper.

Strike 2: The journalists who gave the speeches are not well known outside the craft. A few of them are not well known even inside the craft.

Strike 3: The topic is somewhat narrow and yet mushy - how journalism is losing its soul to the business types with little appreciation of newsroom culture.

Despite the strikes against it, "The Business of Journalism" succeeds admirably on several levels: Each chapter stands nicely on its own, allowing readers to dip in and out. Each chapter is surprisingly readable, given the genesis as a verbal presentation. Best of all, each chapter is amazingly candid. I have been a journalist since the mid-1960s, but I learned quite a bit from the book. The most important lessons revolve around what is covered by journalists, what is not covered by journalists, and why.

William Serrin, who pulled the book together, teaches journalism at NYU after a career covering labor issues at The New York Times. The harsh theme of his introduction is that because journalism is at bottom a business, it is a far less independent, courageous enterprise than its folklore suggests. Business considerations mean that in some newsrooms certain powerful people stay out of the spotlight when doing wrong, certain types of stories (about the homeless or hourly wage earners, for example) rarely if ever get published, and complicated stories might not be assigned because they take lots of time (and money) to do well.

In my favorite chapter of the bunch, "Excuses, Excuses: How Editors and Reporters Justify Ignoring Stories," E.R. Shipp discusses the subtle techniques she used to get her pieces in The New York Times, even when her editors were discouraging. Shipp had an especially difficult situation as a black woman determined not to be assigned only to "black issue" stories. She is now ombudsman at The Washington Post and a teacher of journalism at Columbia University.

Pat and Tom Gish, wife-husband publishers of the Mountain Eagle, a tiny newspaper in Kentucky, discuss how hard it has been to print the truth in a close-knit, beleaguered town where most residents have little desire to read about unpleasantness.

Ronnie Dugger, who used to edit the gutsy, unprofitable Texas Observer, focuses on how large media/entertainment conglomerates are discouraging independent thinking in the newsrooms they have purchased. This is a common theme today in journalism magazines, but Dugger goes beyond platitudes with compelling specifics.

James Warren, the Chicago Tribune's Washington correspondent, tells of becoming a pariah after exposing the conflicts of interest among big-name journalists who accept huge speaking/consulting fees from groups their news organizations are supposed to cover fearlessly.

Vanessa Williams, a Washington Post reporter who has served as National Association of Black Journalists president, explains how the failure of most newsrooms to diversify ethnically has led to a limited white-male perspective.

Sydney Schanberg decries lower standards that allow gossip to pass as news, then decries how most journalism organizations refuse to cover their own foibles and those of their colleagues. This is strong stuff coming from a justly celebrated reporter.

Jay Harris, publisher of muckraking magazine Mother Jones, is in the best position of the contributors to discuss the sometimes destructive nexus between profit and news. He is a businessman, not a journalist, who chose to work at a not-for-profit magazine so commercial considerations would be lessened.

John Leonard, long-time cultural critic at The New York Times and elsewhere, discusses the severe pressures to present a sugar-coated narrative about the American scene. Leonard is a pyrotechnic stylist whose pieces are always fun to read, even when they offend.

*Steve Weinberg has been a Washington correspondent for newspapers and magazines. He is currently revising 'The Reporter's Handbook: An Investigator's Guide to Documents and Techniques.'

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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