Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011

The Dual Masters of a Newspaper

Tomorrow on the Campbell Conversations I’m talking with Tim Atseff from The Syracuse Post-Standard.  Prior to his recent retirement, Tim had worked 46 years for the paper (yes, 46), starting off as a copy boy and working his way up through the art department to become a managing editor, before creating and editing three regional magazines published by the paper’s parent company—Central New York Magazine (sometimes called The Good Life), CNY Business Exchange, and Central New York Sports.  In this interview, he looks back at his time with the paper, and reflects on the new economic challenges the industry is facing.  He also discusses the highpoints and lowpoints of the paper’s performance, its coverage of the Destiny project and its political endorsements, and the business models for the new magazines he created. 

The interview left me thinking about the dual roles of a newspaper—on the one hand a profit-driven business that happens to supply information as its product, and on the other a public-service institution that’s uniquely responsible for providing its community the civic information it requires in order to function democratically.  Both roles were evident in the way that Tim talked about his experiences over the years.  Clearly there are inherent tensions between the two—had there been more time, I would have liked to explore the paper’s coverage of Destiny in more detail, for example.  A former colleague of mine now teaching at Harvard, Tom Patterson, has argued that the profit-driven role leaves the American media poorly suited to fill its public service role (see his book Out of Order, among others).  I don’t have a ready substitute in mind, though in the broadcast world I am a big fan of the BBC (and of course NPR!).  The “Beeb” or “Auntie,” as the BBC is often called, provides several TV channels and a variety of quality radio stations, along with a really fine website.  I think the British citizens get pretty good value for their license fee.  But I continue to ponder the American conundrum.

Yes, there are Internet-based outlets and there are other news publications in Syracuse, and there are of course broadcast outlets, but there really is no competitive alternative to The Post-Standard for the kind of product it supplies--as Tim points out in the interview.  So given its civic role, in some important respects the paper, despite being privately owned, is a unique public institution, and we need it to act like one if it is going to fill its role properly.  It's not clear how well that fits with a business model.


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