It was a year of goodbyes – some noble, some less so – as journalism’s old guard departed from the spotlight. And it was a year when some of media’s biggest institutions started thinking, in earnest, about reinvention.
Dan Rather took his colorful metaphors and erratic temperament from CBS in March, his reputation marred by a flawed report about President Bush and the National Guard. Peter Jennings, suave and substantive, died tragically of lung cancer in August.
Ted Koppel, who brought wit and heft to late-night news, left ABC’s “Nightline” in November, headed for less grueling work at HBO. Aaron Brown, CN’s cerebral everyman, was dropped, mid-contract, that same month, when the cable network anointed Anderson Cooper as its passionate marquee face.
The print side saw its departures as well – most notably Judith Miller, longtime national security writer for the New York Times, who left the paper last month amid concerns that she skirted journalistic standards to protect her high-placed sources.
And John Carroll, respected editor of the Los Angeles Times, left his paper in July, in part out of dismay over impending budget cuts. He had reason to be dour. At newspapers around the country, staffers far less famed and well compensated have been leaving this year, taking buyouts or suffering layoffs, as the newspaper industry struggled to adjust to a multimedia age.
“It’s a transitional year,” says Alex Jones, director of Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy. “And we’re going to be in transition for longer than a year.”
The new guard, on many levels, will look different from the old. Already, TV has moved toward formats that are flashier, faster, more personality-driven. “Nightline,” once a showcase for Koppel’s incisive interviews, now has a three-person anchor crew, one-third of which is unctuous Michael Jackson documentarian Martin Bashir. “ABC World News Tonight” replaced Jennings with two anchors, Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff. CN’s new “NewsNight,” with Cooper at the helm, is swifter, slicker, and more likely to be anchored from the field. And in “The Situation Room,” CNN has Wolf Blitzer delivers his newscast before a bank of plasma TVs.
CBS, meanwhile, is in highly publicized talks to replace Rather with Katie Couric, who has a hard news background but a history, too, of celebrity smoochfests and badminton stunts.
It’s all about style, speed, and an unending urge to give viewers more than just the facts, and newspapers are struggling to deliver the same things. But print editions only come out once a day – and print circulation is nearly universally slipping. So papers are paying increasing attention to their websites, delivering layered content in the space where many readers seek it first.
The trouble, of course, is that readers have come to expect that content for free. And in an era of craigslist.org, they want their classified ads free, too.
Eventually, Jones predicts, newspapers will find a model that makes Web advertising profitable. This year, experiments began in earnest: In September, the New York Times introduced its TimesSelect service, charging readers for premium content online. By this month, subscriptions had reached 330,000 (although that number included some print subscribers).
It is one indication, perhaps, that journalism has a saving grace: People — even cynical people with blogs — want news and analysis from trusted sources.
And this year, both journalists and the public were invigorated by the oldest motivating force around: a juicy story. It came in the form of Hurricane Katrina, the worst natural disaster in the country’s history. And it proved that journalists could slip, with ease, into the classic role of watchdog.
“Some journalists just got mad and let their anger be expressed. It turns out, that’s appropriate,” said Robert Lichter, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Media and Public Affairs. “The great advantage of American journalism is that it has the power to move the public.”
There were harrowing reports from the field, as rescue efforts and aid efforts failed a city’s most desperate residents. There were challenges to authority – the most famous, perhaps, from CN’s Cooper, who cut through Senator Mary Landrieu’s politician-speak in an emotional interview. There was self-policing, as newspapers examined, with integrity, why some early reports from New Orleans exaggerated mayhem and deaths.
And there were even signs that, in the publishing world, a few leaders still care about newspapers as civic institutions. The Times-Picayune of New Orleans heroically published in exile, online, just after the storm. And the newspaper’s parent company, controlled by the Newhouse family, decided to preserve jobs at the paper indefinitely, despite circulation declines.
Journalism, at its best, commands respect. (So do journalists who put their lives on the line; more have been killed in the Iraq conflict, by now, than died in the Vietnam War.)
And respect was also due when the field’s biggest modern mystery was solved this year, as Deep Throat — the secret source who was key to the Washington Post’s Watergate reporting — revealed his identify as former FBI second-in-command Mark Felt. The announcement came anticlimactically, in a Vanity Fair story in May, amid suggestions that Felt is now a shadow of his old, smart self.
But Felt was, rightly, hailed as a hero. And Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and their editors at the Post did heroic things, as well, protecting their source and reporting the truth. It was a fitting and well-timed reminder: Journalism helps democracy work. There’s no flashier way to put it.