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- WHAT OTHERS
Alden Scott Crow, "A Big Sky Treasure," Musea, Issue
Montana Newspaper readers should be thankful
they have Nathaniel Blumberg on their side. Since 1991, he has
published the Treasure
a periodical newsletter that provides forceful criticism and
commentary primarily on Montana journalism. It specializes in
inside news on Big Sky newspapers, with an ever- watchful eye
on the chains . . . . Don't you wish every state had a TSR?
- Judith Sheppard,
"The Death of the Free Obit," American Journalism
Review (April, 1999):
Nobody could accuse Nathaniel Blumberg of being
reticent. The Treasure
an occasional publication the retired dean of the University
of Montana journalism school writes and mails from Big Fork,
blasts away fearlessly at the out-of- state chains that now own
all but two dailies in his state. But he is particularly withering
on one movement he believes those chains began encouraging about
eight years ago: requiring payment to publish news of the dead.
"They're ghouls," he says, remembering
looking up the definition of the term ("evil spirits that
feed on the dead") before using it in this context.
"The death of a citizen in a newspaper's
circulation area is not only news, it's important news."
Newspapers, he says, should not be putting the interests of their
shareholders "above the interests of the subscribers."
Policies Blumberg abhors in Montana have found
their way into newspapers around the country. Once, obituaries
were uniquely the products of newsrooms, summaries of ordinary
lives and deaths that tested the accuracy of cub reporters and
the patience of news clerks. Destined to be clipped and tucked
into family Bibles or sent off to insurance offices to prove
that a soul had passed on, they were often a newspaper's doff
of the hat to a departed subscriber.
Blumberg is among those who thinks mixing staff-written
and family-produced copy is a bad idea. "It is the worst
example of giving over control of news columns, this giving it
to the survivors, the morticians," he says. "There
was a time when it was impossible to either buy into or out of
the news columns. Now, they're allowing such expressions as 'gone
with the Lord' in the news columns. When you don't distinguish
between paid and unpaid, that is extremely objectionable."
Blumberg says the practice is offensive because
it "allows the cover-up of suicides, of criminal negligence."
He adds, "it also violates the traditional requirement of
newspapers to list the cause of death."
Making sure whatever appears in news columns
is accurate and complete, "historically and traditionally
the function of editors," is being circumvented by this
practice, he says.
- Timothy Noah,
"For newspapers, the obit pages aren't sad," U.S.
News & World Report (April
With circulation declining at a national rate
of about 1 percent a year, newspapers are making up the difference,
partly with higher ad rates. As department stores and other traditional
advertisers die off or shun papers, classified ads --including
obits--are assuming a much larger role in newspaper economics.
Many readers find the paid-obit trend troubling. Nathaniel Blumberg,
former dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism,
calls the practice "outrageous." The obituary page
"is not only news, it is extremely important news."
Barbara Henry, publisher of the Des Moines Register [and former
publisher of the Great Falls Tribune], agrees. When she took
the job in 1996, she scuttled a plan by her predecessor to shift
to a paid-obit policy. "Publishing obits," she says,
"is something a newspaper can do that no other communications
Moving obituaries from the news desk to the
advertising deparment necessarily means handing editorial control
over to the family of the deceased. For Blumberg, that compromises
"Tradition demands the cause of death,"
he says. With paid obits, families can keep mum about whether
the deceased had an infectious or environmental disease that
might be of legitimate interest to others.
- [Editor's Note: The
American Journalism Review in 1998 published a
22-page article that critically examined news coverage by capital
bureaus in every state. Significantly, it devoted its most extensive
coverage to Montana's plight, with special emphasis on the dreadful
performance by publishers and editors of the Great Falls
Tribune in the seven years following its purchase by
the Gannett newspaper chain. Following are the final paragraphs
of the article:]
Charles Layton and Mary Walton, "Missing the Story at the
Statehouse," American Journalism Review (July/August,
Back in Montana, the Tribune has yet
to live down the controversy. Last year, at a celebration of
the 25th anniversary of the Montana Constitutional Convention,
the curmudgeonly press critic Blumberg delivered a speech titled
"The Role of the Press: Then and Now." He made the
most of his opportunity,
charging that "the out-of-state corporations that control
the primary sources of our news and editorial opinion no longer
even claim to serve the public interest." Publishers with
no training in journalism, he said, "regard their newsroom
employees as little more than cogs in a money machine" and
deny them the resources to do investigative stories on such things
as the prison system, nursing home conditions, health care and
the tax system.
Blumberg delivered the speech in the chamber
of the House of Representatives. Afterwards, he received a standing
ovation. The AP filed a story containing the above quotes. The
Great Falls Tribune edited them out.
Crisp, editor and publisher of the Billings Outpost (December
Mr. Blumberg reserves most of his ammunition for the papers he
knows best: the error-plagued Missoulian and the Tribune,
which he considered Montana's finest newspaper before it fell
into the hands of the nation's most predatory newspaper chain.
He plugs away at reforming the state's newspapers with good cheer,
firing at will and taking no prisoners. On his worst days, he
is one of the state's most valuable resources. On his best, he
is absolutely irreplacable.
From the Premier Issue of
Winter Solstice, 1991
- Back in 1958,
a little more than a year after I arrived as dean of the University
of Montana School of Journalism, I founded the first journalism
review in the United Statesthe Montana Journalism Review. It seemed to me at the time that the
American press, watchdog of the government under our Constitution,
needed a watchdog itself. Three years later the Columbia Journalism Review was established, to be followed by others.
Hardly any survive.
Now, in the first year of the last decade of
the 20th century, it is clear that the news media in Montana
and the United States more than ever require some concentrated
surveillance. The time has come for another attempt to establish
a review, and this time it is a review not only of journalism
but of what under our system of government is the ultimate goal
of journalism: Justice.
The citizens of our state and our nation deserve
something better than what we have received from many publishers
and editors, reporters and correspondents, columnists and commentators,
politicians and bureaucrats, lawyers and judges.
Journalism and justice in the United States
have never been more in need of a tough new evaluation. Nationally,
newspapers continue to merge or die or fall into the clutches
of money-grubbing chains often a fate worse than death.
A few conglomerates with no experience in journalism and a concealed
political and economic agenda control many of our most influential
media outlets. So-called newsmagazines have been turned into
glitzy, trendy vehicles of trash.
In Montana, where the press, with notable exceptions,
was used as a tool of corruption by out-of-state corporations
for the first six decades of this century, the situation has
taken a notable turn for the worse. The Gannett chain, famed
for its innovative typographical devices, skim-the-surface reporting
and slippery sense of journalistic ethics, has taken over the
Falls Tribune, once
a splendid locally-owned daily, and the Lee chain has abandoned
the excellent performance and high promise that peaked in the
Letters and clippings and phone calls from
scores of my friends and former students confirm that the newspaper
profession has been taken over by corporations with no understanding
of the responsibilities of journalism in a free society. These
corporations display an overwhelming passion for MBAs and hacks
whose sole interest is the highest possible profit for owners
United Press International, losing money and
slowly dying for two decades, is passing through a Chapter 11
bankruptcy and id dead as a competitior of the Associated Press.
Thus more than 90 percent of the nation's dailies are at the
mercy of the AP wire service monopoly. The three major television
networks were taken over in the mid-1980s within one 18-month
period, and Loews Corporation (CBS), General Electric (NBC) and
Capital Cities Communications (ABC) are three tough corporate
outfits with histories that can use some public disclosure.
These conditions, and many similar perplexing
situations, will be examined in forthcoming issues.
We also intend to devote attention to
the many good things happening in journalism and justice and
to those who make them happen.
As a onetime University of Montana historian/philosopher
has written, "For any living thing to come to birth, the
conditions must be just right." We will test the conditions
in these last days of the second millenium to discover if there
is a place for the information offered by the Treasure State Review. For this forum, we welcome contributions
related to journalism and justice, news tips, items of interest
and pertinent comment.
Editor and Publisher
Big Fork, Montana
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