Half a century ago, many cities supported two competing daily newspapers. Today, cities are lucky to have one.
My first journalism gig came in the 1970s. Las Vegas tolerated three daily newspapers locked in a winner-take-all war: the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the Las Vegas Sun and the North Las Vegas Valley Times.
If you rode for the brand of the Review-Journal, as I did coming from the U.S. Navy via Northern Arizona University, you were taught one thing: Beat the other guy. Get the story first. If you couldn’t get the story exclusively, then make your story better with a more poignant picture, a juicier quote or more colorful detail.
And when I say “colorful,” I mean the grittier the better.
Rather than writing “police killed the suspect on Main Street,” you’d write, “The man’s half-severed hand lay in the street, as if pointing to the casino where the getaway started.”
It’s that kind of grit that would get you in front of the night editor, Roy Vanett, and if you were lucky, on the front page. Maybe even the top story with a big, blue, all-caps headline.
“Talkin’ to the dead now, kid? How do you know he was pointing to the casino where the ‘getaway started’? Saying ‘getaway’ convicts the poor bastard, and worse, it sounds like a ‘Dragnet’ script.”
“I said ‘as if,’ Mr. Vanett.”
“Jee-zus Christ. I don’t know where to begin editing you kids!”
But cheesy pulp detail like this often made it to press because intense competition breeds an ethic in which taking the high road to boredom didn’t win the day. Readership wins advertising. Advertising wins wars. And you weren’t going to get readership by getting your ass kicked day-in and day-out.
It’s a gentler time now. The Valley Times died an ignoble death with the stroke of a pen of a Bankruptcy Court judge in 1984. The Sun arguably died when founder Hank Greenspun passed in 1989.
Reporters now leisurely work on “think” pieces. Half-severed hands appear only in sentences like: “There’s been a 15 percent reduction in murder this year, but an increase in the number of severed hands with tattoos. A three-part series examining the cultural relevance of tattoos begins Sunday.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. And I will stipulate that too much competition in journalism produces sensationalism. But too little competition produces an orthodox uniformity that’s dangerous for a democratic nation.
And, did I mention, it’s boring?
There’s little awareness in journalism today that survival of the brand is always on the line. Most reporters exiting college take print extinction as an article of faith.
They’re taught the Internet is the new frontier. Video is the hot medium. But even the Internet and its new “platforms” (how I hate that term) has yet to jump-start competitive journalism.
Maybe it’s because newspapers still have an ironclad deadline. When the press starts, the race is over. The day’s winner is declared. But with the Internet, the clock never stops. Stories continually update with giant search engines that periodically scrape and homogenize the news, rendering news gathering for individual websites less important.
There’s no glory in a system that diminishes the newspaper brand. And there’s no honor for reporters who use social media to communicate with competitors while gathering stories, then circle back on Twitter to mutually fondle each other’s egos and denigrate the newsmakers about whom they just wrote.
Those types of journalists compete only in the sense of who can promote themselves into a better job or a bigger “platform.”
It’s not war anymore. It’s networking.
And it’s a damn shame.
Sherman Frederick, former publisher of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, writes a column for Stephens Media. Read his blog at www.lvrj.com/blogs/sherm.