The Pilot Has Lost Its Way

The Pilot Has Lost Its Way

By Tom Robotham

I’ve loved journalism for as long as I can remember, and I suppose I have my father to thank for that. The New York Times was a daily presence in our house when I was growing up, and my father read it each morning with the concentration of a rabbi studying the Torah. But the Times was just a starting point. He read a wide variety of other periodicals as well—including I.F. Stones Weekly, a model of independent reporting in the 1960s. By example, and later through conversations about current affairs, my dad instilled in me the belief that journalism is an essential component of American society—and a noble profession.

Inspired by this idea, I joined the staff of the student newspaper shortly after I went off to college—and by junior year I’d become editor-in-chief. I learned more from that experience than from most of my classes, particularly after launching an editorial crusade against the college president’s “Five Year Plan”—a proposal that would have gutted many liberal arts programs. I can’t claim sole credit for defeating it—I was part of a loose alliance of other student activists and faculty members—but the president himself later told me that the paper’s coverage had influenced him. The experience reinforced my belief that journalism can make a difference—and inspired me to pursue it as a career.

When I told my father, he wholeheartedly approved and gave me a book for further inspiration: Tom Wicker’s memoir, On Press: A Top Reporter’s Reflections on American Journalism.

Wicker, a veteran reporter-turned-columnist for the Times, was one of the journalists whom my father most admired, and as I read the book I began to see why. Wicker’s passion for the work was palpable—but so, too, was his sense of responsibility to the community and the nation. “My belief is that the gravest threat to freedom of the press is not necessarily from public animosity or mistrust, legislative action or court decision….At least as great a threat, I believe, comes from the press itself—in its longing for a respectable place in the established political and economic order….”

 

MUCH HAS CHANGED in American journalism since Wicker wrote those words. The role of the daily newspaper, in particular, has been undermined by 24-hour cable news and the internet. As a result, many papers have folded—and those that survive are mere shells of what they once were. In an effort to maintain profit margins, publishers across the land have drastically cut back on staff and content.

Our own Virginian-Pilot is a case in point. For decades it was a highly respected paper. In the 1920s, for example, editor Louis Jaffe won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of editorials that persuaded then-governor Harry Byrd to support the first anti-lynching law in the South. Thirty years later, his successor, Lenoir Chambers, won the Pulitzer for a series of editorials on the conflict over school desegregation.

Throughout the 1980s and into the early ‘90s, the paper maintained a fine staff of investigative reporters, daily beat reporters, and feature writers. But a series of cutbacks over the last decade has eviscerated this once great institution.

Recently, the management took yet another step in that direction with a reformatting that consolidated the old main news and Hampton Roads sections. By the publisher’s own admission, it’s another cost-cutting measure. But the management has tried to put a positive spin on the most recent change by saying that it will sharpen focus on local news.

In and of itself, the decision to focus on local news is not a bad idea. But the first edition of the “new” Pilot, published on June 16, indicated that the management isn’t serious about this mission. The 16-page news section included eight local stories and 11 reprints, five of which were from The New York Times.

Given that the Times is widely available in Hampton Roads, both in print and online, the recycled stories are utterly redundant. The Daily Break—the Pilot’s entertainment section—was even flimsier: a mere six pages containing ONE locally written feature. The rest of the section was devoted to information and entertainment readily available elsewhere. The bulk of the Sports section was devoted to wire stories as well.

Why all the recycled wire stories?

Simple: It’s a lot cheaper and more efficient to reprint articles from national news organizations than it is to generate original stories.

Given staff cutbacks over the last few years, the editor may have little choice in the matter. But the manner in which those cutbacks have been made points to a more fundamental problem. During a recent interview on HearSay, a local talk show on WHRV-FM, editor Denis Finley said he’d had to make some “hard choices” in recent years, including the elimination of fulltime religion and higher-education reporters.

Why cut religion? host Cathy Lewis asked. After all, she pointed out, Hampton Roads is home to one of the most influential religious organizations in the country, Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network.

Market research, Finley responded. Religion coverage ranked very low among reader priorities, he said.

 

THAT KIND OF THINKING represents an abdication of responsibility. You can be damn sure that I.F. Stone didn’t conduct focus groups before deciding what to put in his newsletter. Nor did the editors of The New York Times, The New Yorker and other great American publications in their glory days. They saw themselves as professionals, whose job it was to tell readers what was important and why. Basing content on “what readers want,” is akin to basing a college literature on what students want. If I were to do so, I’d be teaching Harry Potter rather than William Faulkner and T.S. Eliot.

Pandering to the whims of “customers” is not only an abdication of responsibility; it doesn’t work. Publishing companies have been trying this approach for three decades, ever since armies of junior executives with freshly minted MBAs started infiltrating the industry. And where has it gotten them? It certainly hasn’t reversed the industry decline.

There are those, of course, who say the decline is inevitable regardless of what editors and publishers do. And there will likely come a time when printed newspapers go the way of the rotary phone.

But during that HearSay interview, the Pilot’s editor and publisher stated very clearly that they have no intention of abandoning the printed edition, or even cutting back on its frequency.

If they’re serious about this, they should do it right.

For one thing, they should stop crying poverty. The demise of newspapers may be inevitable down the road, but that day is a ways off yet. The problem is that the Pilot’s managers—like many newspaper publishers around the country—demand unrealistically high profit margins. They have repeatedly cut staff and pages in order to protect those margins. But the net result has been a steady erosion of quality, which has turned off a lot of readers. The cuts, in other words, are accelerating the paper’s demise, not ensuring its survival.

Another positive step, it seems to me, would be to jettison various specialty publications. Hampton Roads Growler, a supplement devoted to beer, features some good writers—but it is flimsy and shows no signs of growth. I’ve seen high school papers that looked more substantial. The same goes for Pulse, the Pilot’s weekly entertainment supplement. Why not kill those half-assed efforts and channel the resources into the main paper?

I’d also be willing to bet that there are cost-savings to be found in upper management salaries. They should be the first targets for reduction or elimination.

If the Pilot’s management were to take these steps, they could add at least a few more reporters and pages, scrap the wire-story reprints, and beef up local news coverage.

I’m not holding my breath, though. The mentality that led the Pilot to its current paltry state is too firmly entrenched. What a shame. A newspaper, Tom Wicker wrote in On Press, should reflect “the character of its community.” Indeed it should—and Hampton Roads deserves better.