Schadenfreude (a German word defined as “a malicious satisfaction in the misfortune of others”) is a relatively recent phenomenon in the journalism world. The word–and the feeling–started popping up when big newspapers like The New York Times were embarrassed by scandals like the Jayson Blair fiasco. People at smaller papers, accustomed to being reminded by neighbors of their imperfections every day, snickered.
It didn’t used to be that way. A newsman (and it was mostly men until not too long ago) felt either the thrill of beating the competition with a big scoop, the despair of getting beaten, or the pleasure of writing (or reading) a really good story.
But there is no schadenfreude watching what’s happening to The Herald-Sun in Durham. It is too close a reminder of what has happened as media conglomerates with voracious profit margins have taken over the nation’s newspapers, magazines and television. Paxton, which bought the paper a year ago, may not be a major player, but they are acting no differently than a General Electric (which owns NBC) or a Viacom (which owns CBS) or a Disney (which owns ABC) or Tribune Company (which has shut bureaus and laid off reporters as it’s grown). Instead of catering mainly to stockholders, Paxton apparently must satisfy the banks it borrowed from to pay an outlandish price for Durham’s 117-year-old daily newspaper. So, as Fiona Morgan makes clear this week, instead of a well-staffed newsroom poised every day to go out and dig up the stories that some prefer to keep hidden, The Herald-Sun‘s reporters are struggling just to write enough stories to fill the paper.
In many ways, we’re lucky to have a paper as good as The News & Observer (full disclosure: I worked there for four years as the Durham editor). Their work exposing the relationships between state House Speaker Jim Black and the lottery industry, problems with overloaded trucks, and failures in medical oversight have been outrageous and invaluable.
Which makes it even more infuriating that the same editors are so timid in their coverage of the Bush administration. Can’t they see that the corrupt Republican lobbying/legislative machine is about to explode and belongs regularly on the front page? Why does a story run on the back page that says the real costs of the Iraq war (including things like lost productivity and caring for the injured) may be $2 trillion? A smart, forward-thinking editor would put that on the front page and give readers something to chew on. Or is it that chain ownership plays a subtle role in making editors afraid to disturb some readers and lose circulation?
So there is no more schadenfreude for other newspapers’ failings. Just frustration that there are fewer reporters and editors able–or willing–to uncover scoops and run great stories.