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Jerry Lanson

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On Ethics, the Imperiled Printed Word and the News

Posted: 05/30/2012 6:23 pm

Throughout nearly four decades as a reporter, editor and journalism professor, I've looked to The New Yorker as the gold standard for meticulous, thoroughly vetted, contextual journalism. So it came as a surprise last week when the magazine published a lead "Talk of the Town" item on "The Cost of College" without clearly identifying the writer as the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

Why did it matter? Well, for one thing, that dean, Nicholas Lemann, wrote:


"Where higher education is actually underpriced is in the top-tier schools. That may sound offensive, but price is determined by what people are willing to pay, and the top 25 or so schools in the country could charge even more than they do. The number of applications to those schools continues to grow faster than their cost. (Ivy League colleges will charge about $60,000 next year.) That's because the perceived value of their degrees continues to rise."

Nowhere in his commentary does Lemann name Columbia University as one of those top-tier schools. But it is in the Ivy League elite. And though a truly curious reader could find Lemann's affiliation with Columbia under a list of the issue's contributors on page four, the magazine does not make Lemann's dual role as a New Yorker writer and dean clear in the article itself, on page 23. Nor does it identify him by anything other than his name in the tagline (essentially his byline) at the article's end.

Mind you. I don't for a minute believe that Lemann's line on the price of top-tier schools was an effort to attract more applicants to his top-ranked graduate program. But in the world of journalism ethics the appearance of conflict-of-interest matters as much as the real thing. And in this case that appearance is clearly plausible.

I couldn't find a code of ethics for The New Yorker either online or on the magazine's website. But plenty of codes can be found for other publications. Here, for example, is what The Los Angeles Times has to say about the issue of conflict in its ethics guidelines:


While The Times does not seek to restrict staff members' participation in civic life or journalistic organizations, they should be aware that outside affiliations and memberships may create real or apparent ethical conflicts. When those affiliations have even the slightest potential to damage the newspaper's credibility, staff members should proceed with caution..."

I believe the best way to proceed "with caution" in such cases is to make crystal clear to readers what those affiliations are -- to be, in the buzz word of these times, entirely "transparent."

I'm not in the habit of giving advice to The New Yorker or its writers. But the next time Dean Lemann takes on a topic in higher education on the magazine's pages, I believe he should make clear within the text of the article what his academic title and affiliation are.

***

Memorial Day was one of those Spring mornings I wish I could bottle: about 70 degrees, blue sky, a gentle breeze. There's nothing I like to do more on such days than to sit outside with a cup of coffee and my morning newspaper, folding back the pages in search of a bit of serendipity, a piece buried inside that piques my interest. Which is why I was saddened once again last week to hear that yet another newspaper is buckling at the knees in the face of digital competition and declining readership and scaling back its print edition.

In this case, that newspaper was The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, which announced that starting this fall it will publish a print edition just three times a week.

The paper isn't the first to take this route and it won't be the last. But it does serve the largest urban area yet to end daily news coverage and, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its devastation, that city still sorely needs the kind of community a daily newspaper can help build.

For The Times-Picayune editorial staff, some of whom are expected to lose their jobs, the financial cost will be devastating. It is one more case of blood-letting in the losing battle print journalists keep fighting to earn a living.

But even more than the journalists involved, I mourn for readers, residents and tourists alike, who on some days will have to drink coffee and eat beignets at places like the Cafe du Monde without having a local newspaper in front of them to read and discuss.

I realize this is a romantic notion, one The New York Times' David Carr captured beautifully this Memorial Day, when he wrote: "Newsprint sentimentalists are part of a shrinking club. ... We are like Shriners, once a proud, powerful bunch who now meet in little rooms and exchange secret handshakes."

Nonetheless, even if the digital world of news allows faster retrieval and more focused, global access, it also fragments community born of geographic proximity and limits the odds of surprise -- for example, of a city dweller stumbling upon a fascinating story about farming.

A good daily newspaper, Carr notes, does one more thing: It is "a reminder to a city that someone is out there watching."

In New Orleans, as the Newhouse parent company beefs up sports and entertainment coverage, that watchdog role will soon be relegated to part-time.

 

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