Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

“Newspapers aren’t dying but committing suicide.”

Posted by metaphorical on 14 January 2007

“What is really frightening is that newspapers appear to be dying so quickly that they may disappear, or at least disappear as a serious part of our lives, before we have a replacement for them. That’s a grave danger to democracy,” says [Washington Post veteran and Pulitzer Prize-winner David] Maraniss. “As flawed as journalism as practiced by newspapers is, we don’t have another vehicle for journalism that picks up where newspapers leave off. That’s what we should be worried about. Maybe newspapers can be replaced, probably newspapers can be replaced. But journalism can’t be replaced–not if we’re going to function as any kind of democracy.”

An article in the current issue of The Nation, “Newspapers…and After?”, writes of “a hemorrhaging of journalism jobs, as reporters and editors join manufacturing workers in the ranks of ‘disposable Americans’.”

More than 44,000 news industry employees, at least 34,000 of them newspaper journalists, have lost their jobs over the past five years. Roughly 200 jobs have been cut at the Chicago Tribune over the past year. The Akron Beacon Journal, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Ohio daily that once set the standard in the state for investigative journalism, has slashed newsroom jobs by 25 percent. The San Jose Mercury News is in the process of shedding 17 percent of its newsroom positions. And deep cuts are being implemented in Denver, Pittsburgh, St. Paul, Philadelphia and dozens of smaller cities where traditional beats–labor, farm, federal courts–are disappearing as retiring reporters are not replaced.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s current report on “The State of the News Media” notes, “In some cities, the numbers alone tell the story. There are roughly half as many reporters covering metropolitan Philadelphia, for instance, as in 1980. The number of newspaper reporters there has fallen from 500 to 220. The pattern at the suburban papers around the city has been similar, though not as extreme. The local TV stations, with the exception of Fox, have cut back on traditional news coverage. The five AM radio stations that used to cover news have been reduced to two. As recently as 1990, the Philadelphia Inquirer had 46 reporters covering the city. Today it has 24.”

The pressures on newspapers to be highly profitable, quarter after quarter, are intense, and they’re rarely in the direction of better journalism.

Individual owners and powerful families–who often, though by no means always, settled for reasonable profits in return for the ego boost that went with putting out a quality newspaper–are exiting the stage. Increasingly newspapers are owned by the shareholders of national chains, who do not even know–let alone care about–the names of the papers from which they demand profit margins that are generally twice the average for other industries. Where a local family might have grudgingly accepted a weak quarter and a downturn in revenues, shareholders greet any softness on the bottom line with demands for draconian cuts. If a paper’s current managers are unwilling to make them, investors look for more ruthless managers. Investors forced the breakup and sale, in 2006, of the venerable Knight Ridder chain, which owned Pulitzer Prize-winning newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News and the Miami Herald. Similar pressures have forced the Tribune Company, which publishes the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Hartford Courant and several Florida dailies, to put itself on the block.

In recent months, Morgan Stanley has been pressuring the New York Times Company to alter its voting structure to reduce the influence of the Sulzberger family, which has opted for reasonably high–if often imperfect–journalistic standards over unreasonably high profits. The company’s “current corporate governance practices deviate from what is widely considered to be best practice,” explained Morgan Stanley Investment Management, owner of almost 8 percent of the Times stock, in asking shareholders to vote at this April’s annual meeting in favor of its plan. The Sulzbergers shot back with a statement that the family “has no intention of opening our doors to the kind of action that is tearing at the heart of some of the other great journalistic institutions in our country.” But the bosses at Knight Ridder once said much the same thing, and even if the Sulzbergers do manage to maintain one major newspaper in something like its current form, their statement is an acknowledgment that the broader trends are in the wrong direction.

Presumably, those pressures are what led the Times to cut some jobs and outsource others at the Boston Globe, which it owns. And there and elsewhere in the Times organization, “pay, benefits, job security and other contract provisions” are being renegotiated, according to the Newspaper Guild.

The article quotes syndicated columnist Molly Ivins as saying that “newspapers aren’t dying but committing suicide.”

“What really pisses me off,” she told the journal of the newspaper industry, Editor & Publisher, is “this most remarkable business plan: Newspaper owners look at one another and say, ‘Our rate of return is slipping a bit; let’s solve that problem by making our product smaller and less helpful and less interesting.'”

It doesn’t have to be that way.

In Norway, for instance, the Media Authority, an administrative body within the country’s cultural affairs ministry, uses public subsidies to encourage the development of local newspapers that compete with bigger established papers.

Subsidies are not the way to go in the United States, but it’s interesting to see how they work elsewhere.

The program promotes the development of newspapers in sparsely populated regions and helps sustain publications that may have an ideological following but are not necessarily popular with advertisers. The system is strictly controlled to avoid government censorship or pressures on publishers–in fact, the joke goes that the best way to get government assistance is to start an opposition newspaper. Even large newspapers that have little or no need for the subsidies are influenced by the system, as they find themselves in competition with papers that push the journalistic envelope. The basic requirements to qualify for subsidies provide encouragement to newspapers to invest in journalism. At the same time, key subsidies are not available to newspapers owned by companies that pay stock dividends–a restriction that prevents investors from cashing in on the public largesse.

What used to work in the U.S. is privately held newspapers, or ones which, while public, are controlled by a small group of journalistically-minded people, usually a single family.

Civic-minded families may well have a better record of running newspapers than distant investors, but there aren’t enough wealthy philanthropists to go around, and besides, they aren’t all “civic minded.” Foundations and trusts, which control a handful of American newspapers, present a more interesting prospect. While the experience is limited, foundation-controlled newspapers such as the St. Petersburg Times do, for the most part, have better journalistic reputations than their competitors. Congress should concern itself particularly with developing policies that would make it easier–through shifts in approaches to taxation, postal subsidies and the often-abused “joint operating agreements” established in a number of larger cities to help maintain competition–for newspaper employees, unions and even community coalitions to buy, and perhaps even start, newspapers.

The mention of foundation control brings us close to the idea of publications as not-for-profit corporations that I discussed last week. We need to figure something out. Newspapers may adjust to being Internet-based instead of print-based. But if they don’t figure out how to support themselves and still report the world fully and accurately, it won’t matter.

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