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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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"BRAGGING RIGHTS: Ever watch ESPN? They OWN sports. Tiger Woods has a hangnail and they will have the exclusive report. Newspapers need to live in that world a little more. Not sensational . . . but a little swagger . . . I still see stories that, well, are kind of obscure. (aka boring)."

It's hard to argue with the notion that newspapers need more mass appeal and a bit more self-promotion. But one man's boring story is another's effort at government accountability. And it can be a short slide from catchy slogans to plain old dumbing down.

One Tribune paper, the Orlando Sentinel, launched a redesign last week that makes USA Today look like the Financial Times. The front page is dominated by big photos, big graphics and a strip across the top with blurbs about inside stories, often featuring some celebrity. Each day there are three stories -- some as short as three paragraphs -- and sometimes one of them is an opinion column, complete with the writer's picture. Rather than run a full news story on an agreement for the state of Florida to buy a huge chunk of Everglades land from U.S. Sugar Corp., the Sentinel's front page carried a Mike Thomas column praising the deal. And there are info-tidbits: A story on lightning season ran next to bullet points on staying safe.

The approach jazzes things up, but also makes the Sentinel look like a magazine that swoons over eye-catching art and brevity. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but if newspapers merely imitate online sites, the Web already does it better.

Still, at least it's an attempt to shake things up. The last thing embattled journalists should do is remain mired in the past, dreaming of the glories of Russert's heyday.

Hungry for an Audience

The voice is unmistakable: "Hi, I'm Chris Matthews, and let's play 'Hardball.' " But the recorded phone message quickly turns into an animated sales pitch:

"Please join me at MUFSO. . . . Take back your restaurant. It's a must-attend event for the savvy food operator. . . . Let's face it, this is the conference for the restaurant industry. You don't want to miss it, especially this year, with so much at stake."

Yes, Matthews is not only speaking at the October gathering of the Multi-Unit Foodservice Operators in Prince George's County, but he is lending his voice to try to drum up a crowd.

A spokesman says Matthews isn't violating NBC's ban on accepting speaking fees from corporations and trade associations that lobby the government because he donates such fees to charity.

Footnote: According to ProPublica, the new nonprofit outfit devoted to investigative reporting, several Washington journalists have accepted fees from al-Hurra, the federally funded Arabic news service. Among those receiving $100 to $1,500 per interview are Roll Call's Mort Kondracke, Mother Jones's David Corn, Bill Sammon of the Washington Examiner and Bill Gertz and Joseph Curl of the Washington Times. Roll Call and Corn said they saw no conflict; Times Editor John Solomon says the paper's new ethics code bars such payments.


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