News & Politics

DC Radio Boss Calls the Downie Report “Thin Gruel” and Attacks the Post for Bad Numbers, Bad Reporting

The Washington Post and the Columbia School of Journalism have spent much of this week celebrating the latest report on how to save journalism, this one by former Post editor Leonard Downie and Columbia University professor Michael Schudson.

But all the self-congratulation didn’t sit well with Jim Farley, head of news and reporting at WTOP radio, Washington’s all-news station. He called the report’s denigration of radio journalism “thin gruel—not based on any serious research.”

The Post devoted a chunk of Monday’s opinion page to a Downie-Schudson essay promoting their ideas, which boil down to suggesting ways for charities, government, and universities to help finance journalism. The new business model, they argue, is handouts and subsidies of various kinds.

Post media reporter Howard Kurtz used his Monday media column to give the Downie report more attention. Kurtz focused on the report’s listing of new ventures that show “journalism is being revived and reinvented in some encouraging ways.”

But Kurtz also wrote about some of the report’s criticism of news organizations. Downie for years has been frowning on news outlets that, in his view, don’t practice serious journalism. Kurtz wrote: “Commercial radio stations, except for a handful of big-city outlets, do little or no local reporting.”

WTOP’s Farley was not amused.

“That is neither fair nor accurate,” Farley wrote to Kurtz. “All you need to do to check this is to look at the award winners from the recent Edward R. Murrow Awards (held in New York City on Monday, October 12th).  Look at stations like WRVA in Richmond which won for Breaking News.  Or WMSI in Jackson, Mississippi, which won for Feature Reporting.”

His list went on.

“There is an impressive body of work by radio newsrooms outside a handful of big cities,” he wrote.

I asked Kurtz to comment. He wrote back in an e-mail: “I was covering what was said in the report, which is the conclusion of two guys who have studied these matters. His issue is with Downie and Schudson, not me.”

Downie and Schudson did not respond to my e-mailed questions.

Actually, Farley has issues with all three. And with the Post in general.

Farley pointed out that Kurtz was not entirely accurate. Downie and Schudson wrote: “On radio, with the exception of all-news stations in some large cities, most commercial stations do little or no local news reporting.”

Kurtz left out “most.”

Farley wrote: “I would agree that the majority of small and medium market stations don’t do local news reporting. But without that important little word “most” yours was a blanket statement to which there are way too many exceptions to ignore.”

Farley then took on Downie and Schudson.

Their report says: “The all-news stations, like WINS in New York and WTOP in Washington, broadcast mostly traffic and weather updates, sports scores, and network, news service, and newspaper headlines, repeated over and over, along with snippets of their own local news from a handful of reporters.”

Farley tells the duo by e-mail: “In the case of WTOP, we field more reporters per week than all but one of the local TV stations. We break local news ALL the time. Listen to WTOP with a stopwatch any weekday and you’ll discover network news is only 3 minutes per hour, sports is only 3 minutes per hour (90 seconds twice), traffic and weather is normally only 10-12 minutes per hour but that local news from our own reporters runs more than 20 minutes in most hours. If you don’t have time to listen to a non-public radio station with a stopwatch, I think a casual inspection of helps make my case.”

Adding to Farley’s outrage, the Post said in its special tab on Monday about its new format, “Nearly three times as many Washingtonians age 25-54 read The Post each week than listen to WTOP, the largest audience station.”

Farley asked: “What news editor vetted that bogus claim?” A day later Post president Steve Hills left a voice mail agreeing the numbers were wrong and promising a correction.

In a final venting, Farley e-mails me: ”The fact that radio news operations do good things WOULD be totally lost on the Post. They studiously avoid reporting on the Murrow Awards or almost anything that reflects well on commercial radio stations.  But they NEVER miss a chance to report on Pulitzers or other ‘Honors’ accorded to themselves.”

As for Len Downie, his hallmark at the Post was winning Pulitzers. But his other legacy is that he presided over the early stages of the newspaper’s decline . He fought the Post’s transition to digital journalism. He stood in the way of merging web and print newsrooms. His front page stories won journalism prizes, but the newspaper he edited failed to respond to drops in circulation with the kind of creativity and innovation shown by the New York Times and other newspapers.

Which raises this question: Why is Downie coauthoring a report on the future of journalism when he is so rooted in the past?

More>> Capital Comment Blog | News & Politics | Party Photos

Don’t Miss Another Big Story—Get Our Weekend Newsletter

Our most popular stories of the week, sent every Saturday.

Or, see all of our newsletters. By signing up, you agree to our terms.