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News Is a Verb by Pete Hamill

News Is a Verb

News Is a Verb by Pete Hamill
Apr 20, 1998 | 112 Pages
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    Apr 20, 1998 | 112 Pages

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    Jan 05, 2011 | 112 Pages

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Author Essay

A Conversation with Pete Hamill
author of

Q:  Why did you choose NEWS IS A VERB as the title of this essay?

A:  Celebrity journalism today has extended far beyond entertainment to include sports, politics, and just about every other subject covered by the news media.  As a result true accomplishment has become marginal to recognition factor and the focus of most media attention–to the exclusion of virtually all other subjects–are ‘Big Names.’  NEWS IS A VERB is meant to suggest it’s perfectly okay to write about these people but only when they do something.  

Q: Why did you write this essay?  Is it really necessary for us to reexamine the state of newspapers today?  

A:  As we get to the end of this century we should be looking at different parts of American life and how they function.  This is particularly true of newspapers which have been a crucial component of our lives throughout the past hundred years but which are now perceived to be in great danger from alternate media, 24-hour news channels, talk radio, and the Internet.  Many papers have also suffered self-inflicted wounds from bitter, often irrational strikes, abrupt changes in ownership, sluggish adjustments to new technology, and failures to invest in modernization.  I’m saying don’t bury this medium yet.  In fact the need for a healthy vibrant press is being emphasized by coverage of the Monica Lewinsky story.  Newspapers have to be the verifiers of information in this country.  We can’t ever be first again with breaking news but we can make up for a lack of speed by being accurate.  Ironically, at a moment of great danger for newspapers, newspapers have been reminded of their role–and their reason for existence–in the strongest possible way.

Q:  Other journalists, columnists, and reporters have lamented the current state of news reporting and the unique difficulties faced by newspapers.  What’s different about this book?  

A:  This is not really a lament.  In fact I’m reasonably optimistic about the future.  Newspapers are perfectly positioned to take advantage of great opportunities.  There’s a huge potential audience of educated women that did not exist a century ago.  That audience is not being tapped, drawn upon, or properly served today.  There is also a unique opportunity to serve and report on the greatest immigrant wave this country has seen in one hundred years.  I’m saying newspapers are necessary and we should be optimistic about them.  There are also serious issues about newspapers and the newspaper business that need to be openly explored and discussed.

Q:  How has the meaning of the word ‘tabloid’ changed since you first started
working as a newspaperman in the 1960s?

A:  The word ‘tabloid’ originally described the size of a newspaper.  Today the word is often used as a derisive term to describe the quality of reporting.  What has changed most is the influence of the supermarket tabloids.  Although the same shape as a tabloid newspaper, the supermarket tabloids are really weekly magazines.  They are primarily in the entertainment business not the information business.  And they focus almost exclusively on one subject: celebrities in trouble.  Unfortunately the supermarket tabloid value system–which is based on conflict and a ‘gotcha’ kind of journalism–has spilled over into mainstream tabloids and broadsheets.  Supplemented by tabloid television this value system has helped contaminate all of the mainstream press.  

Q:  What other problems plague America’s newspapers today?

A:  The biggest problem is stagnant circulation.  Since 1970 the population of the country has increased by more than twenty percent while newspaper circulation has increased by only one percent.  Publishers have insisted we give readers what they want and do so by cheapening and coarsening their product.  The irony is that they still don’t get the readership they’re looking for.  Part of that crisis is due to competition from other media for the time ordinary citizens have to absorb information.  It’s unlikely someone who surfs the Internet for a couple of hours will then go out and buy a paper unless the paper convinces him he’s wasting his time by not doing so.  Competition from entertainment television is also ferocious.  We’re now the most entertained country in the history of mankind.  We watch an average of seven hours of television per day.  My sense is you don’t compete with that by trying to be that. You don’t turn newspapers into printed television.  You have to be something else.  This book is an exploration of that ‘something else.’

Q:  What role do the newspaper publishers play in all of this?  

A:  One of the problems is that we now have a lot of amateur publishers.  These are people who arrived at the heads of newspapers not by coming up through the newspaper’s ranks but through other business successes.  The problem is you can’t necessarily take the principles that work in one business and apply them to newspapers.  Newspapers have a mysterious emotionally driven quality.  It is that same quality that makes good baseball players into great baseball players.  And it’s also not something you find in the parking-lot or cereal business.

Q:  Are you suggesting that all publishers from outside journalism’s ranks are somehow lacking?  

A:  There are good publishers but the majority would be wise to let professional newspaper people run their newspapers.  There’s an assumption by many publishers that reporters–both men and women–have no interest in the business side of newspapers.  I think that’s preposterous.  They know if the paper’s making money they have a future and that more reporters can be hired to do more work and make the paper better. There has been a sense of that in every newspaper at which I’ve worked.  Many publishers also think because reporters work for low wages they must not have talent.  If they had talent, according to this way of thinking, they’d be employable elsewhere.  There’s a sense of vocation to the reporter’s craft that many journalists have but which publishers often sneer at or at least fail to respect.

Q:  What can be done about this problem?

A:   There’s no general rule as to what will work in every city in America.  One thing we can do is start with certain basic principles, the most important of which is that most newspapers are edited for an entire community, not for a group of special readers or a particular class of people.  Publishers also need a better understanding of the communities they serve.  They can’t get that understanding by living in the suburbs of their cities.  Too many publishers and newspaper executives are separated–by the way they live–from the ordinary people who buy their newspaper.  Immensely wealthy publishers can’t find out what ordinary citizens are like through readership surveys and focus groups.  They have to get outside the building and rub shoulders with their readership on a day-to-day basis.  

We also have to combat the bureaucratization of newspapers which, in my opinion, hurts quality.  Editors are like a wonderful combination of orchestra conductor, teacher, top sergeant, and front-line fighting general.   If they are involved in nothing but meetings day after day–with lawyers, retail experts and advertisers–they’re not doing any of the jobs they should be doing and that in the long run hurts the product.  And because they get so separated from the dailiness of the daily newspaper they don’t know the strengths and weaknesses of the staff, or what should be done to remedy the weaknesses and support the strengths.  In a perfect world I would pass a law in newspaper offices that would limit people to one non-journalistic meeting per day.

Q:  Publishers of today’s tabloids often defend their reporting by saying they’re giving readers what they want.  What’s wrong with that?

A:  If they were giving readers what they really want they’d have more readers.  The fact is many publishers don’t understand what readers truly want.  We once did a readership survey which showed that seventy-six percent of readers wanted better coverage of education, seventy-five percent wanted more environmental reporting, then came crime, and then–with only thirty-six percent of the vote–celebrity news.  The publisher’s response was to question the validity of the poll by suggesting that people don’t say what they truly feel when being polled because they’re too embarrassed.  If that’s the case why waste money on polls?  Spend the money to hire more reporters.

Q:  Are you suggesting we banish coverage of celebrities?  

A:  Absolutely not.  I’m simply saying that that coverage needs to be journalism.  If you’re going to have celebrities or movie stars in your newspaper they must be covered the way we cover everything else.  Celebrity reporters, like all other reporters, need to have knowledge, opinions, and something to pass on to readers to help them understand how entertainment functions, what’s at stake, what it’s all about, and why they should care.    

Q:  Why do you consider the Lewinsky story a turning point in American journalism?  

A:  Because the first few weeks of news coverage were so obviously a departure from the way things used to be done and, in my opinion, should be done.  Those of us who had been around for a while just stepped back in horror as we watched the story unfold with breathless reporting of every rumor and innuendo.  Every dot was being connected even if the dots did not connect.  And it was all done in a climate in which the presumption of innocence was thrown right out the window.  The hysterical component of it all was appalling.  Young reporters on television were practically talking in italics.  And the word ‘impeachment’–which was only mentioned during the Watergate affair after many, many months of reporting and public hearings–was being tossed around within the first six or seven hours of coverage.  And it was all based on reports in which nobody had any facts.  You even had the Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News making mistakes of fact.  Apologies were forthcoming but by then those stories had flown around the country, been picked up by newspapers, and incorporated into the lurid mythology of the story.  The bottom line is that you cannot use the same tools for reporting on the President of the United States that you use for reporting on Joey Buttafuoco.

What was absent was a sense of skepticism, as opposed to cynicism, which needs to be at the heart of any reporting.  The two rules of thumb of investigative journalism are that if you want it to be true it usually isn’t, and in the first 24 hours of a big breaking story half the facts will be wrong.  With the Lewinsky/Clinton story healthy skepticism was nowhere to be found.

Q:  We hear and see opinion polls suggesting the American people are fed up with the way the newsmedia does it’s job but nothing changes.  Why not?

A:  Because there’s a natural refusal by newspaper people to believe they are part of the problem.  There’s also a certain amount of inertia that sets in.  Newspaper editors have an informal credo that is based on what they believe the people want.  I can’t believe they’re just ignoring the national response to the horrendous coverage of the Lewinsky story.  There’s probably a lot of discussions and debate going on about the lessons in all this.  But these are slow moving enterprises.  Many editors will simply think about it, draft questions, and then get another focus group together instead of trusting their own instincts and saying there are some things I won’t do to get a reader.  Unfortunately those editors who do see a need for change frequently have little power to make those changes because they don’t own the newspapers.

Q:  Of all the strategies you suggest for fixing problems facing newspapers which do you consider most important?  

A:   A recommitment to the basic function of a newspaper.  We’re in the truth business, and the knowledge business, not the entertainment business.  Serious stories can be entertaining but our primary task is not to be a diversion from life but a means by which people can better understand what it’s like to live in a city, this country, this world.  Commitment to the basic reason newspapers came into existence is crucial.  

Q:  What do you want readers to get out of this book?

A:  I want people to read this essay and think more about what newspapers mean to them and the reasons why they do, or do not, read newspapers.  I also want them to sit down, look at their local paper to see where its failures are, and write letters to the editor saying ‘Don’t give me anymore of this bullshit!  Give me a good paper and I’ll buy it every day of the week.’  As for those who are in the newspaper business I hope they’ll read this and say ‘Here’s another guy saying what I’m saying and feeling what I’m feeling.’  I hope they send a copy of this book–and any other suggestions they can think of–to their publishers with a note that says ‘Please read this, this is what we’re driving at.’

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