In Champaign-Urbana, the News-Gazette is in the business of selling a commodity, the “news.” That’s the way “corporate media” necessarily work in a capitalist economy. Where media are government-run, the government subsidizes, that is, pays the costs.
What determines matters is the bottom line.
Selling a commodity and calling it “news”
So, what does the newspaper product look like? What are its selling points? The News-Gazette consists of articles and ads organized into sections. Section A (news, including editorials, opinion columns, and letters to the editor). Section B (local news, including opinion columns). Section C (sports). Other sections appear at intervals during the week – health and family – and on Sundays – entertainment, business.
Dig deeper. Just because it looks like a newspaper, and uses certain journalistic conventions does not mean that it contains much news. Conventions like starting a story with a lead paragraph, progressively narrowing down and adding more and more detail.
But rather than assuming it is a newspaper because it ‘reads’ like one, think about how it is laid out. Think about what it leaves out as well as what it puts in.
The first, or news, section typically runs two or three local stories on the front page, and a couple of national or international stories on page 3. A non-news feature, “A Salute to Those Who Served,” runs invariably on page A-1.
On page 3, the paper has largely given up on comprehensive national coverage, but runs a roundup in the right-hand column, “Around the US.” “Dad fatally hurts zoo flamingo.” “Infant dies after being left in SUV.” ”Student stabs couple, bites face.” “Dolphin snatches woman’s iPad.” “Priest sentenced for sex tourism.” “Mother, boyfriend put child in dryer.”
Next comes an editorial page, expanded to a Commentary section on Sundays. For more than 75 years, the paper’s editorial line has been rightwing, consistently on the wrong side of history, as I documented in the June Public i.
“If it bleeds, it leads” — the single largest number of news stories by a single reporter is crime stories
Section two, local news, includes a few local and state stories, but focuses especially on crime. The single largest number of news stories by one reporter is crime stories. Crime is all over the News-Gazette. Besides the bylined crime stories, there are the crime stoppers articles – including their annual fundraiser featured on the society page — and police blotter write-ups. And don’t forget the mugshots, and surveillance camera stills. There is also the too-weird-to-be-true stories. The pupply cooked alive in the oven. The guy who tortured his girlfriend’s cat. ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ is the paper’s motto, and not only the News-Gazette’s. All manner of crime except white collar crime, which is conspicuously absent.
Crime in the News-Gazette is slanted. Crime reporting is unrepresentative of actual crimes committed, as I discussed at length in the April, 2016 Public i. Crime coverage slops over from local news to the front page. A murder trial gets detailed front-page coverage. The story the day after when the suspect is found not guilty runs in the second section. This happened twice in less than a month in late 2015.
Crime in the News-Gazette is geared to generate fear. It is implicitly about us good folks versus the ‘bad guys’ out there, and it plainly shows the ‘bad guys’ are primarily Black. In short, the News-Gazette applies the tried-and-true methods that Roger Ailes used to create Fox News’ “fear factory.”
Section three is sports. With its logo, “Consistently recognized among the nation’s best sports sections,” the paper clearly signals that it is the most important section. The largest number of pages, and the smallest amount of hard news content.
For years it has been about making lemonade out of lemons. ‘Giving it the ol’ college try’ is the sports section’s narrative, its story line. Consider: nearly every sports story can be written in one verb tense, the conditional. “With a few tweaks, Illini could contend on biggest stage” (April 4, 2015, my emphasis).
This is not to knock sports generally, not to knock Illinois in particular. Yet when you are so intent on making lemonade, you risk failing to call a lemon a lemon. The paper was almost the last news source to report, for example, on UI student athlete complaints concerning trainers and abusive coaches in 2015. In other words, as journalism it failed.
What else the paper says nearly nothing about is money in sports, except coaches’ salaries. It looks no more deeply into the economic realities of market-driven sports, and who profits than it probes outsized private sector CEO salaries. Rather than reporting on the intrinsic tension between education and sports, the paper argues that Illinois should admit every NCAA-eligible player, admissions standards be damned (Loren Tate on Al Kurtz show, WEFT, August 10, 2016).
Instead, the paper delivers locker room chatter, inside baseball, and lots and lots of box scores that we readers can relate to. Almost none of it newsworthy. And all of it packaged in shiny, morsel-sized featurettes. After each football game: “What happened,” “What It Means,” “What’s Next.” “Pigskin Predictions” (“top 50 countdown of preseason football rankings”). “Welcome Matt” (“sports editor Matt Daniels gets your morning kick-started with what to expect this week from The News-Gazette”).
“Sportsification”– the friendly takeover of the news sections by the sports section
The world according to the News-Gazette changes somewhat over time while remaining basically the same. Since 2014, for example, the paper has selected new editors and publisher.
The chief change has been “sportsification,” the friendly takeover of the news sections by the sports section. Newly appointed executive editor Jim Rossow had been sports editor since 1996. Newly-named news editor Jeff D’Alessio covered UI men’s basketball 1994-2001. He then went on to the Sporting News 2000-2002, Florida Today sports editor 2002-2004, Atlanta Journal-Constitution 2004-2008, including as deputy sports editor, then back to the Sporting News 2008-2014, before returning to Champaign.
Back when he was sports editor in 2008, Rossow came up with “12 days (and stories) of Christmas,” “12 of his favorite [sports] stories that ran in the past five years.” Flashforward to 2015, and now-editor Rossow commissioned his stable of reporters for “12 stories of Christmas 2015,” including “The Power of PJs” and “Nun traded fisticuffs for happy habit.”
Sportsification at the News-Gazette has meant spreading the sports section’s gimmicky featurettes to the rest of the paper instead of reporting more news and doing it better. For his 2015 “50 Ways to Engage Our Readers,” Rossow “asked everyone to come up with their own feature.”
In the last two years at the News-Gazette, this make-work scheme has generated a slew of featurettes including the following. “The Health Reporter Is In.” “Ask Mimi.” “A Salute To Those Who Served.” “Spotlighting Service.” “Teacher of the Week.” “What’s in a name?” “Where Am I?” “Who lives here?” “Clergy Corner” (“What’s the one hymn that gives pastors goose bumps whenever their choir belts it out?”).
Several are simply lists, or more accurately, “listicles” reminiscent of Rossow’s “50 Ways.” D’Alessio’s “Big Ten.” “Go Figure” (“A numerical look at headlines”). “By the Numbers.” “Frank’s Five.” “The Future Five.” “Just 1 Question.”
“Featurettes” — virtually devoid of news value — are placeholders for news never delivered
Such human interest, reader-oriented featurettes have infected papers nationally desperate to shore up their bottom line. At best, they are human interest stories. At worst, they are tabloid features, replete with the focus of tabloid journalism on crime, sex, and celebrities. But what is gained in revenue is lost in news.
Eight years ago Chicago Jewish billionnaire Sam Zell bought the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Orlando Sentinel. Zell spoke to nervous Sentinel staffers in 2008.
Zell: “My attitude on journalism is very simple. I want to make enough money so I can afford you. It’s really that simple. Okay? You need to, in effect, help me by being a journalist that focuses on what our readers want and therefore, generates more revenue.”
Sentinel photographer Sara Fajardo: “But what readers want are puppy dogs, and I mean, we also need to inform the community…”
Zell: “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I can’t – you know, you’re giving me the classic, what I would call journalistic arrogance of deciding that puppies don’t count. Hopefully we get to the point where our revenue is so significant that we can do puppies and Iraq. Okay? Fuck you.”
I think that’s pretty clear.
For featurettes are in fact ‘space wasters.’ Devoid of news value, they mostly take up space. They are placeholders for news never delivered.
Taking up space, grabbing our attention, these space wasting featurettes convey the world according to the News-Gazette more clearly, more explicitly than more straightforward news stories. The intention is that we identify with, feel good about ourselves and our Lake Wobegon community in the cornfields, that we feel trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. And buy the paper.
This is the world according to the News-Gazette.
Featurettes increasingly swamp “hard” news, they drive actual news out. Still more disturbing, these “soft” news featurettes tend to reproduce the status quo, already conservative, rather than reporting news that challenges readers, pushes them out of their comfort zones.
By definition, featurettes do not present or discuss issues. Featurettes avoid talking about politics. Politics is evacuated explicitly, but politics is still present implicitly. The ideological work that featurettes perform is to uphold the status quo. But this is done indirectly and dishonestly.
On the front page, for example, “A Salute to Those Who Served” implicitly devalues those who did not by simply excluding them. Vets fought in wars; implicitly, the featurette is pro-military, pro-war. In the News-Gazette‘s world, war critics, antiwar protestors, and conscientious objectors, are all by definition non-persons. They literally do not count; they are airbrushed out.
This is not to knock the military. Some wars need to be fought. But Vietnam? Iraq? Those are debatable… so let’s have a discussion, a debate. But the News-Gazette refuses to present more than one side. It has never met a war it didn’t like, so end of story. With “A Salute to Those Who Served” the paper disserves the broader community. And in the process, it contributes to the gradual corrosion of our increasingly militaristic, militarized society and body politic.
Another featurette, “Clergy Corner,” is to date Christian only. Islam, Judaism — to name only the other major monotheisms – apparently do not qualify.
How exactly do they get us to buy what they are selling?
Human interest stories are supposed to make us feel good. We are also meant to feel other things. The cheap thrill of recognition. Titillation. The voyeurism of dirty laundry.
These treacly human interest bromides make us feel good,.. well, many of us. We identify with it. We literally identify individuals we know. ‘His/her name in the paper!’ So there is the cheap thrill of recognition.
We are also meant to feel other things, which is where the crime coverage fits in. Titillation – sex crime charges against a Champaign police officer of the year. And voyeurism. And especially the dirty laundry.
“I make my living off the evening news
Just give me something
Something I can use
People love it when you lose
They love dirty laundry” (Local Yocal online comment)
This is the underside of their Republican right respectability.
The News-Gazette is selling us a bill of goods. It is smug, self-satisfied, and not accountable, because money-making featurettes trump reporting the news. The paper does not cover the news in any depth, let alone do investigative reporting. Instead, it makes money by reflecting back to its loyal subscribers the world it and they already live in, the comfort zone they inhabit, plus another, different, private-made-public world they voyeuristically peer into from the outside.
It all comes down to selling its readers on the world according to the News-Gazette. In selling us this bill of goods it calls “news,” the paper is conning us. No wonder they’re smirking all the way to the bank.
I, for one, don’t buy it.
Would we be better off without the News-Gazette?
This question is sometimes asked, especially by those who have just read yet another editorial that makes us cringe.
The usual response is ‘I read it for the local news.’ By this people apparently mean what could be termed “surface stories,” that is, what is going on in the local schools, city councils, county board, and the like. Although less willing to admit it, many also get a guilty pleasure, a low-level voyeuristic thrill from reading the obits, letters to the editor, and the often lurid crime stories with their accompanying mugshots.
By ‘local news’ folks do not mean investigative journalism, that is, extensive, in-depth coverage of local business, the university, and news analysis of local wheeling and dealing, of what really went on at the last city council/county board meeting, and the like. For that you have to read between the lines of a story, plus online reader comments, and any subsequent letters to the editor.
Arguably, therefore, the News-Gazette is no better on local news than it is on state news (spotty), national news (including sensationalistic page A-3 blurbs), and international news (hit or miss, except “terrorism”).
At this point in the discussion, either the News-Gazette, or one of its defenders, will respond that ‘if the paper were owned by a newspaper chain, rather than locally-owned, then there would be much less, and less knowledgeable, local news coverage.’ Although often made, this point is largely a self-serving myth, repeated especially by the News-Gazette. For it is rarely, if ever, backed up or substantiated versus simply asserted.
First of all, there was a local paper owned by a national chain during its last years. People did not complain about the lack of local news in the Urbana Courier.
Second, the Courier had been running in the red in the years before it folded in 1979, but the News-Gazette also operated at a loss in the five or so years after 2008.
Third, by ‘locally’ or ‘family-owned,’ people are referring to the paper’s byzantine for- profit/not-for-profit tax status. The for-profit paper is technically owned by a non-profit foundation set up when Marajen Stevick Chinigo died. The News-Gazette claims this ‘far-sighted’ move safeguards the paper from a corporate takeover.
What the paper does not tell you is that it is also a financially astute mechanism to maximize tax advantages, meaning it pays lower taxes. The News-Gazette is not operating illegally, but like that other locally-based for-profit/non-profit — Carle Foundation Hospital/Carle Clinic/Health Alliance – it is definitely pushing the envelope.
So, would we be better off without it? If you say no, keep it, then you are also saying that it is OK for the News-Gazette to have a news monopoly, and for that to be Faux-News Champaign.
David Prochaska formerly taught colonialism and visual culture in the UI History Department