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Shadows in the newsroom

Even veteran newsman confused by the state of journalism today

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Bob Woodward
Judith Miller

(CNN) -- Tough times for the news business these days, in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons.

First, there's "insiderness" -- confidential sources and all that. Back during Watergate, when young reporters named Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were doing good work for The Washington Post, the Post's editor in charge, Ben Bradlee, knew what was going on -- knew who the sources were, who was telling who what and so on. Lately, that doesn't seem to have been so.

Woodward, who works for the Post, but who really mostly writes all those books, didn't tell his editor for more than two years that he'd had conversations about Valerie Plame Wilson, just like those other reporters at Time magazine and The New York Times. Why not? I have no idea.

Nora Ephron has compared Woodward to Theodore White, who started "insider" books with his "Making of the President" series. But he got so inside in his 1972 book, for instance, that he wound up writing about this "great man," Richard Nixon, pacing the White House lawn and pondering the fate of the free world. Nixon was by then hip-deep in the Watergate scandal, but you wouldn't have known it from White's book.

And the Times has had its own insider troubles. Judith Miller, who has now left the paper, described herself as "Miss Run Amok," which seems to have been pretty accurate. The Times had an editor who was supposed to be in charge of her, but she apparently covered about whatever she wanted to cover.

Another problem with insider journalism: It's swell when the whistle-blower is telling you how much tax money his agency is wasting, but it's quite another when he's using you in an intra- or inter-agency feud. Do you really want to take sides?

Another, much bigger problem facing the industry is money. Years ago, a friend of mine, going off to head up CBS' Saigon bureau during the Vietnam War, asked what the budget was. The answer: "Cover the war." Back then, people such as William Paley at CBS, the Sarnoffs at NBC, could and did say things such as, "Ed Sullivan makes plenty of money. Just do a good job."

That was then. Now, most of the networks are owned by giant corporations -- Verizon, Disney, Time Warner. What they say is, "What we care about isn't your product; it's return per share and we'd like it to be higher, please." So there's less expensive investigative reporting, for instance, more stories about vanished white women, especially if they're blondes.

Newspapers are cutting staff; The Baltimore Sun just had to close two overseas bureaus -- one example among many. Family-owned papers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, have some cushion, but even the Times is cutting newsroom jobs. The broadcast networks' evening news ratings are down; the morning shows make the big money now, what big money there is.

And that raises another question. I'm an old reporter, and I like sitting over a cup of coffee in the morning with a newspaper in my hands. But do people in their 30s? Young folks in their 20s? I don't know, but I suspect that a lot of them get their news not from any traditional source -- newspaper, TV, etc., but on the Internet.

If you go to a news organization's Web site such as this one, of course, you'll get, or you should get, news that's been as carefully written and edited as anything that is in the paper or on the air. But there are blogs without end, it seems to me, and while some of them are certainly carefully researched, others are just folks who want to sound off, share their point of view about how the world is going wrong.

There's nothing wrong with that, as long as you know which is which, but sometimes it's hard to tell. A Web site labeled Democratic National Committee, of course, tells you where it's coming from. A Web site called, say, "Americans for Justice," leaves it up to you to figure that out.

So it's a confusing time for the news business in terms of standards, in terms of budgeting, in terms of "how hard to we have to go after the lowest common denominator these days, anyway?"

If a young person asked me -- Should I go into journalism now? -- I'd have to think long and hard before I answered.

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