Sunday, February 13, 2011

On giving your head a shake

There are those who believe I don't like newspapers because I often blog on published stuff that I see as downright shoddy. Those folk are wrong.

Recently a columnist for The London Free Press mocking those who use the Internet as a research tool wrote, "if you do more Internet 'research', you'll also discover 'experts'. . ." With less than 10 words and four quotation marks Ian Gillespie mounted a full frontal attack on the perceived foe of the newspaper industry: The Internet. With those quotation marks he questioned the validity of Internet research and the knowledge of those experts found on the Internet — at least the research and experts not in agreement with the clearly well thought out views of reporter Gillespie.

And what is the source of a lot of the information on the Internet? Newspapers. And who are the experts being quoted? Newspaper writers. And because of the way the Internet works, it is not uncommon for the ideas expressed by newspaper writers to be picked up, repackaged and republished online by someone else who may not properly credit the source, but that is a whole other post.

Years ago newspapers flogged what was fanned into a major story: UFFI (urea formaldehyde foam insulation.) I covered a lot of UFFI stories at the time and took a bigger than usual interest in the stories as I had had UFFI blown into the exterior walls of my home.

The media — newspapers, television, magazines — all got the story wrong. They also got the story right. But the correct story was buried in the back pages of papers or hidden in articles in the Home sections of newspapers. (If any reporter wants to argue this point, I still have some of hard copy from those days. Some day I may blog on the UFFI story and run pictures backing up my position.)

One reason why the UFFI story was, and still is, so poorly reported is that papers do not pay enough attention to what is in the newspaper. The well-known investigative journalist I.F. Stone knew this. He broke some very big stories not by having WikiLeaks style informers but by simply reading daily papers very carefully with an eye for the details being missed by what is now called the Main Stream Media (MSM.)

Back in the early '70s I worked at a small, northern Ontario newspaper, the family-owned Sault Daily Star (now called  just the Sault Star.) That little paper had a newsroom of more than 50 editorial employees. Today, thanks to massive cutbacks endured under the ownership of both Sun Media and Quebecor, the mighty London Free Press has a newsroom about the size of the Sault Star's from 40 years ago.

Newspapers are bit full of themselves — puffed up with self-importance. But this is to be expected. How could they function if they didn't have almost unbridled confidence? And, to some extent, their big egos are not misplaced. Newspaper folk, including Ian Gillespie, are awfully bright people.

But sometimes they are blinded by their very own brightness. This is why it is so important to have lots of folk, especially thoughtful editors, working in a newsroom. The Free Press, like so many papers, has slashed the number of editors.

Ian advised those who disagreed with him on fluoridation to "C’mon folks. Give your head a shake." This is what good, feisty editors do to reporters. They give cocky reporters a head-shaking.

A solid library staff is also a prerequisite for a good newsroom. The once incredible Free Press library is now just a memory; It's functions now handled out of Toronto.

Ironically, when Ian Gillespie needs to do some research, he must use the Internet.

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