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Why Do Journalists Mourn Russert So? Meet the New Press

Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. announces that he will step down. He is flanked by his assistant Patricia O'Shea, left, and Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth and CEO Donald Graham. Downie and Tim Russert, at right, symbolize some embattled journalistic traditions.
Washington Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. announces that he will step down. He is flanked by his assistant Patricia O'Shea, left, and Washington Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth and CEO Donald Graham. Downie and Tim Russert, at right, symbolize some embattled journalistic traditions. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 30, 2008

Scratch the surface of all those glittering tributes for Tim Russert and you might find an undercoating of journalistic insecurity.

The NBC analyst was hailed as a symbol of old-fashioned, carefully balanced, substance-driven reporting, an approach that, while not exactly extinct, often seems drowned out by today's loudmouth television culture.

But why was his passing depicted as the end of an era? What, after all, is stopping the networks from putting on other hour-long programs of sustained political interrogation, even if its practitioners are less skilled than Russert?

The answer is that news organizations are too often captives of the convenient. The networks still air their half-hour newscasts at 6:30, despite declining audiences, because trying an hour in prime time is deemed too risky. The cable networks lean toward loud and opinionated shows because such fare brings in the hard-core audience. Despite Russert's success, many producers today are terrified of boring the audience. Most interviews last six or seven minutes before it's time to move on to the next segment about Michelle Obama doing fist bumps on "The View."

While "Meet the Press" regularly managed to make news, television's dominance is being eroded by a YouTube ethos in which candidates, partisans and pundits can reach a growing audience online, no middleman required. That, too, has fueled the anxieties of the Old Media crowd.

And so the emotional farewells to Russert, which ultimately came to feel excessive, seemed rooted in journalism's crisis of confidence. Russert was a popular figure in a field whose practitioners are often mocked and derided, a credible commentator in a widely distrusted profession. Journalists of all stripes wanted to be associated with him, perhaps hoping a little of the magic dust would rub off.

Leonard Downie Jr.'s announcement last week that he is stepping down as The Washington Post's executive editor received zero attention on television, largely because he is not a news celebrity (and in fact avoids the limelight). But Downie, who took over The Post in 1991 -- the same year Russert became a Sunday morning host -- is arguably as important a media figure.

Every major story the paper broke, from secret CIA prisons to deplorable conditions at Walter Reed, from the Monica Lewinsky scandal to an intensive look at Dick Cheney's influence, bore Downie's imprint as a champion of investigative reporting. And, among other things, he was intimately involved in The Post's coverage of the last seven presidential campaigns.

As at most other papers, The Post's staff and circulation have been shrinking, giving Downie's retirement a nostalgic air. Is he a throwback to the days when the print press really mattered? Newspapers, like the networks, are swimming against a swelling tide, and many seem to be watering down the product.

Under its new owner, Sam Zell, the Tribune Co. earlier this month decreed a 12 percent cutback in content, meaning that the Los Angeles Times, for instance, will be serving up 82 fewer news pages each week. Tribune's Baltimore Sun announced last week it will cut 100 employees, in part through layoffs, and produce what publisher Tim Ryan called "a more concise newspaper with more local news" -- a euphemism for slashing news space.

Randy Michaels, the company's chief operating officer, said Tribune has begun measuring productivity by how much copy each journalist churns out -- and that the average Times reporter generates a mere 51 pages a year, compared with more than 300 apiece at the Sun and Hartford Courant. Perhaps no one has explained to him that writing in-depth stories -- say, prizewinning investigative pieces -- takes a bit more time.

Lee Abrams, hired from XM Satellite Radio as Tribune's chief innovation officer, has been cranking out colorful memos: "Newspapers strike me as being a little TOO NPR. I like NPR, and their shows like Morning Edition do well. But NPR can also be a bit elitist. . . . It's all about being INTELLIGENT . . . not intellectual.


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© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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