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Not All Content Is Created Equal

By Ben L. Kaufman · July 4th, 2007 · Media, Myself & I
A thoughtful correspondent faults my harsh assessment of The Enquirer's credulous May 20 embrace of the Creation Museum. Among his targets is my decision to ignore the interaction among readers in the paper's letters, columns, op-ed contributions and Web sites, known in the trade as "user content." Because Enquirer staff doesn't produce them, I don't consider them relevant to my critique.

That doesn't mean they're irrelevant to the paper or our communities. I am old media in a new media age, but there is ground for agreement. Start with this: The first task of any commercial news medium is to bring audiences to its advertisers. That pays for staff. The new conventional wisdom says readers are migrating to the Internet, stripping ads from papers. That means less money, fewer staff, even more impoverished news columns.

Newspapers, among them The Enquirer, increasingly are focusing resources on their Web pages and Internet products. That's smart. As eyes turn to Enquirer Internet sites, advertisers follow. Whether those ads will sustain or rebuild the news-gathering staff is unclear.

I'm a paying subscriber to three daily papers. I read another dozen online plus other news sites and pay nothing. My every click, however, is recorded and used to lure ads. It's the 21st century complement to newspaper circulation.

Which returns me to my critic. The Enquirer encourages public response like that provoked by the Creation Museum. That reader content doesn't replace solid reporting and authoritative editorials, but it brings eyeballs to print and Internet advertisers. Without that income, as my critic noted, no one is going to produce the journalism our communities require and the best people at The Enquirer want to provide.

Unlike those public contributors, Enquirer staff work still might be appraised for accuracy, balance, fairness and savvy whether in "the paper" or on its Web sites. That was the sole subject of my column, and the paper's sprawling May 20 enterprise fell short.

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Curmudgeon notes:
· The federal appeals court in Cincinnati affirmed Judge Susan Dlott's order limiting federal agents' access to e-mails stored with Internet Service Providers (ISPs). That's a big deal. In potentially involves the Fourth Amendment protection of our privacy and the application of the Stored Communications Act to our e-mails. Moreover, courts nationally can use the 3-0 Cincinnati appellate ruling.

Enquirer editors buried business reporter Jim McNair's story on the bottom of an inside page. The Post put the story on Page 1. NPR teased and reported it on one of its two major daily newscasts.

Since anyone's e-mail could be affected by the court ruling, it has broad reader appeal, as does the new judicial limit on pervasive snooping by Bush agents. It belonged on Page 1.

A day later The Enquirer carried federal court reporter Dan Horn's longer story, but it too was inside the paper.

· A good man died the other day. John Caldwell was The Enquirer's only ombudsman, a respected and veteran editor who responded directly to readers' concerns, tried to get errors and imbalance corrected and wrote a column explaining the paper to readers from 1976 to 1987. Few dailies risk such independent voices. He was gentle, bright, devoted to his craft and a joy as a colleague.

· MWW is back. The latest Missing White Woman is attractive, young and pregnant. Cincinnati news media devote unwarranted attention to this Canton, Ohio, story without explaining why it matters to us.

· Editors once stripped verbosity from news stories. Pencils eliminated "at this point in time" and "window of opportunity." We have finite space and time to tell our stories. Verbosity means less information. Those editors have followed their pencils into oblivion. "Delete" buttons rarely exorcise "paid a visit," Easter "Sunday," "on the ground," "in the line of duty," "prerecorded" or "preplanned" and "advance planning ahead for the future."

· The Business Courier's special June 15 report on the University of Cincinnati's budget problems, by Dan Monk and Tom Demeropolis, is as far from a feel-good college feature as local journalism can get. The Enquirer's effort 12 days later doesn't measure up and leaves too many questions unanswered.

· Must reads: In the June 16 Cincinnati Post, managing editor Mark Neikirk puts a face on tolerance and decency in an editorial-page column, "Time for a little courage." That same day, a Page 1 Post story by the Wall Street Journal describes a Tristate man's loving way to provide dignified, long-term support for his brain-damaged adult brother. On June 25, Howard Wilkinson begins to make up for The Enquirer's willful ignorance of local war wounded with his story on PTSD and care available from local Veterans Affairs centers. The June 26 New York Times Science section is devoted to the evolution of the Theory of Evolution. Finally, the June 28 op-ed column by Oscar Robertson urges a kinder fate for young players who don't make it in the NBA draft.

· News tip: Ask why Cincinnati Park Board wants a restaurant across from Good Sam in Burnet Woods to increase numbers "using" the park. If it's cheap, the park will be spoiled by uninviting French fry stink and litter. If it's pricey, how many more people will it attract while destroying green space for eatery and parking? And who needs another place to eat so close to Ludlow Avenue?

· Does anyone seriously doubt that networks bid up to $700,000 for first after-jail interview with Paris Hilton? Apparently, news stories embarrassed TV execs into putting away checkbooks even as they insist they don't pay for news, only for production help and materials. Beware the Pinocchio Syndrome.

Ben L. Kaufman teaches journalism ethics at Northern Kentucky University.


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