FRIED LIGHT: An eye for an eyeball

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By Roger Snodgrass

With a stiff upper lip, the man talked about all the competition for people’s eyeballs these days.

“We’re not just competing with competitors,” he lamented, stepping around bunches of boxes of printed matter the other day. “It’s not just all the other print out there, it’s e-mail and the Internet, television and cable, CDs and DVDs and all the rest.”

Sounds kind of like somebody in the newspaper business, doesn’t it?

But no, it was a used-bookstore owner in Albuquerque moving his inventory to a third location in three years. A little beaten up, doing most of the work all by himself lately, but not depressed.

“You’re seeing the last days of this kind of store,” he said with a kind of proud resignation, not about to call it quits.

Robin Martin, owner and publisher of the Santa Fe New Mexican made a similar observation recently, kicking off a training seminar, attended by three journalists from the Monitor among about 60 newspaper people from the region.

“We’re not competing so much with each other any more as we are with everything else that is going on in people’s lives,” she said.

That was the reason the New Mexican, with additional support from the Associated Press Managing Editors, decided to open the workshop to the newspaper community in general. There may be competitive juices about a particular story, but it’s safe to say, we’re in the new war for survival together.

The Saturday-morning session led by Doug Haddix of Investigative Reporters and Editors was about two things, watch dogging and bulletproofing. A watchdog’s job is to watch the powerful and bark like heck when they’re prowling around. At a time when those in authority have led the public so far astray, it is heartening to be a part of what is at least an opposite force, if not always an equal one.

“In the face of doubt, openness prevails,” states a presidential memorandum issued on the day after the Inauguration. “The government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears."

This is music to the ears of journalists. We don’t always know, but intend to find out, how much serial incompetence and corruption have gone on behind the stonewall. At the same time, there is a lot to be said within newspapers about bulletproofing – the skills for getting a story right.

A research paper by Scott Maier at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication received a lot of attention by journalists awhile back. Among a number of incredible disclosures, his study found that fewer than 2 percent of factual mistakes in a sample of 10 metropolitan newspapers were corrected. Three primary news sources asked to review each of 1,220 stories found 3,660 errors of fact, one each per story. Worse, there were only 23 corrections printed.

Newspapers, Haddix said, citing such breakdowns need to get their facts straight. We were also instructed, and this may come as a surprise to some people, that reporters and editors need to work as hard trying to disprove embarrassing charges, as they do trying to prove them.

A remarkable exhibition on Renaissance Journalism that just closed at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., reminded visitors that 350 years ago London journalists were in the thick of things contending with revolutionary events and shaping public opinion in new ways, inventing formats and conventions like columns and headlines still central to the business today.

It’s no secret that newspapers have seen better times. The secret is, we get up every day and try to make sense of it all.