Thomas D. Williams: The Decline of Journalism
The Decline of Journalism
By Thomas D. Williams
t r u t h o u t | Report
Monday 20 November 2006
If some doomsday industry analysts are to be believed, newspapers are laid out and stacked neatly inside their own future death warehouses, not only in the United States, but worldwide.
"October was a pretty depressing month for national newspapers. While circulations slide, the industry news has been dominated by job cuts and staff unrest, particularly among journalists," England's Guardian Unlimited reported in November. A month earlier, Der Spiegel, the intellectual German news magazine, disclosed that more and more, German journalists are leaving the print media to get safer and more lucrative jobs with corporate public relations agencies.
But some concerned and dedicated journalistic observers both inside and outside the US news business believe the demise or baggage-seat status of newspapers is a farfetched theory. It is promoted, say news insiders, by corporate executives operating large newspaper chains. They are engrossed in making news collection as cheap as possible, while forcing a larger advertising layout in newspapers at the expense of the formerly generous pages of a variety of local, national and international news. And as they do, publishers and editors claim to be inventing a new, easy-to-read, streamlined form of tabloid attractive to all ages, particularly the younger set.
Threat of Extinction
Published explanations of fiscal threats to newspapers from so-called industry communications experts and corporate news executives sound so logical. Their mantra is: the news business is under constant threat of extinction from fierce Internet advertising competition, extraordinary increases in newsprint costs and declining newspaper profit margins.
It is hard to question news executives' assertions that the Internet is a modern information superhighway, easier to access, keenly popular with a younger generation of site-Googling activists. As a result, experts say, newspapers are losing much of their classified and display advertising to a host of flashy, photogenic and even audio-video-oriented Internet sites. Only older adults, used to washing ink off their hands, would read a newspaper, those same experts say. Newspapers have fought back, creating their own Internet sites with free news and paid advertising.
In spite of the Internet's allure, and a variety of news sites like Salon and Slate, many competing newspapers are still making 20 percent profits. That is five percent more than used to be acceptable in the decades when publishers understood the costly but essential responsibility of being part of the Fourth Estate, while scrutinizing and reporting on government and corporate corruption.
Profitable and Resilient
In its 2005 state of the news media, Rick Edmunds of the Poynter Institute says, "As businesses, newspapers are strong, highly profitable and resilient. In good times and mediocre, the industry now boasts operating margins in the low to middle 20-percent range, a bit less than Microsoft and Dell, but higher even than pharmaceuticals."
Hosts of editors, reporters and readers are angry just listening to and repeatedly reading what they consider "excuses" to increase profits while eroding probing enterprise journalism. Those committed to public service news and investigative reporting believe grave industry profits to be manipulative, shallow or misleading. In fact, the very rationale for saving newspapers - cost cutting, layoffs and buyouts - is thought to have created circulation and profit drop-offs, and to foster the very predictions of a dark, deadly fiscal whirlpool. The bigger the staff and cost cuts, the more advertisers and readers are scared away, indeed creating loss of disgusted readers and lesser profits.
As newspaper size shrinks, experienced reporters and editors are replaced by relative greenhorns. Then, the comparative evidence in daily published reporting shows a wide variety of in-depth stories and features morphing into larger sensational headlines, bigger photos, news graphics and repetitious bad news dominated by politics, crime and war.
Lock on Talent
Paul Marks, 53, spent 30 years of his life as a reporter in more than one newspaper before he became discouraged by the lock on his development and talent, and left the ever-declining staff of the Hartford Courant this year. He said he once again feels professionally energetic and less creatively constrained as an aerospace and speechwriter for the president of Pratt & Whitney, a manufacturer of aircraft engines, gas turbines and space propulsion systems.
As an eventual result of declining staff, Marks said, Courant editors cut back on reporter training, workshops, fellowships and conferences. Reporters were sometimes trapped collecting and writing a workaday 10-inch story instead of attending a rare all-day, local seminar on an assigned specialty - in his case the energy industry.
When he and other reporters wanted to be reassigned to expand their careers, Marks said, they frequently were blocked because cutbacks made it difficult for editors to transfer them to better assignments with so few replacements. And, as time and cuts wore on, said Marks, reporters had difficulty suggesting time-consuming, in-depth stories because they were needed instead for day-to-day routine coverage. "The people who had good local or deep sources and thorough understanding of the political landscape the Courant lost to attrition," said Marks. "As a result, the Hartford Courant just became another parachute in news organization, like TV stations or the Associated Press."
"Every time a newspaper loses staff, it forces those remaining to take on more duties in the effort to continue the paper's core mission ... to create a strong local report," Les Gura, metro editor of the Winston-Salem Journal, told the Poynter Online journalism site. "The problem?" he asked. "If you reduce staff, you are going to have to either cut local coverage, or add duties to those remaining to maintain local coverage."
As reporters were being pulled out of some towns that supplied prime circulation, said Marks, local readers were pelting the paper with e-mails, phone calls and letters complaining about the loss of published news in their towns. Still other readers are being fed a steady diet of news features, initiated from such superficial inspirations as eunuchs collecting taxes in India. Such oddities can be easily collected by a reporter from the Internet and rewritten, a task that saves the reporter the time it takes to explore on the street for a more fascinating, readable local feature, said Marks.
However, the Courant's newly appointed top editor, Cliff Teusch, has said the cuts are merely a challenge for editors and reporters to reinvent ways to cover news for a "thriving" newspaper. "We all know very well the grander reinvention agenda that faces us today," Teutsch told the staff recently. "We need to make the smartest, boldest moves we can as we confront challenges in circulation and advertising and changes in how people get their news and information. As a staff, you have shown great enthusiasm for this in the numerous innovative ideas you have submitted in recent days."
Bob Greene was a longtime investigative reporter and editor for Newsday and the founder of the journalism program at Hofstra University. He is perhaps one of the foremost experts in the country on investigative journalism. Greene suggests the innovation Teutsch mentioned has disappeared. "Reduced news staffs lead to gradual abdication of responsibility for comprehensive and insightful news coverage," he said.
"The quarterly report drives public corporations, including those holding and publishing newspapers," says Greene. "When many of our great newspapers were owned by individual persons or families, they were willing to reduce their profit margins in any given quarter or year if it came to maintaining reporting staff or devoting much time and money to investigative and other forms of public service reporting. This was in tacit acknowledgment that their businesses also had a unique Constitutional responsibility to fully inform.
Profits Are the Goal
"In this respect, I can think of publishers like the Taylor family and the Boston Globe, Alicia Patterson and Newsday, the Bingham family with the Louisville Courier Journal, the Chandler family and the Los Angeles Times, the Pulliam family in both Indianapolis and Phoenix and many others, big and small. These newspapers and others of their kin are now owned by public corporations, where constantly increasing profits are the paramount goal," says Greene.
Pat Feeley, a former Connecticut resident now living in Colorado, is a veteran newspaper reader who buys hard copies of the Coloradoan, and regularly reads the New York Times online, as well as sometimes the online Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, "and even the [Hartford] Courant." She thinks news executives, editors, reporters and readers, too, have allowed their public service values and native intelligence to erode. Instead, she says, they have become mesmerized by starlit gossip and scandals, money-making, power politics, Internet blogs, television and conformity.
"Newspapers and journalists themselves are slipping," says Feeley, "and most have adapted ineptly to the succession of electronic media. The public companies have become hysterically responsive to the 'expectations' of Wall Street.... [News] is a mature industry, and a profitable one, and it isn't going to have growth like Microsoft or Crocs or Google before the bubble burst. I think it is managing for the short term, not the longer one.
"Don't discount the decline of American education," she said, "and the rise of the consumerist imperatives as sources of trouble in the newspaper trade. We now think we should be entertained from infancy to senility, and aren't willing to work to understand difficult concepts, other cultures, other points of view, nor do many citizens have the skills to do any of that. This goes for journalists as well as readers," she explained. "We keep seeing what we want to see; we keep following the herd, as in the hero worship that kept Bush in office with scare tactics. [Some] journalists and publishers knew better, but were afraid to say anything for fear of being tabbed as 'disloyal' or 'un-American.'"
"This is the kind of simplistic thinking that says, 'You're for us or against us' was contagious," said Feeley. "Fear and greed too are powerful motivators. I think the scariest thing is how many people listen to and read only [information] that agrees with their point of view; the proliferation of purported news outlets permits one to do that. If you are narrow, you only get narrower that way, and the country gets more polarized."
Although newspaper executives like Dennis FitzSimons, chairman, president and CEO of Tribune Company in Chicago, say the declining revenues of newspapers require responsible officials like himself to repeatedly cut expenses and reduce staffing, those closer to the printing presses believe these reductions are themselves the cause of lost revenues and quality newspapers.
As a result of the pressures from stockholders and boards of directors, the Tribune is actively trying to extract itself from the fiscal-vs-journalistic- value controversy. Its officials are proposing to sell out as a corporate whole or by auctioning off its newspapers and television stations to individual buyers. The latter prospect has encouraged some dedicated journalists to hope that selected parts of the news business will flash back decades. That's when some newspapers were owned by rich individuals who allowed professional editors and reporters to pursue in-depth news. But a few of the potential buyers swooping in over the Tribune, it is believed, are thought to have ambitions to influence news content for more selfish schemes.
But as newsroom cuts continue to threaten the product, the corporate goal of attracting new buyers willing to pay the highest of prime sales prices seems to become less realistic to some inside the news profession. And, even if that goal is reached, it is clear to many editors and reporters that new owners will have to improve staffing levels and encourage a wide variety of in-depth story collection.
"Reporters and editors once had a vocation and worked in a place that generated hope and the possibility of justice," says Andy Thibault, a former reporter and editor who now operates, investigates, reports and edits from his own Connecticut news blog. "The so-called news executives have sold out and destroyed a grand tradition."
In her last column before she took a buyout in December 2005 as part of staff reductions at the Hartford Courant, 27-year news veteran Michele Jacklin was clearly fed up with constant erosion at the nation's oldest continuously published broadsheet.
"In the 1980s, the Courant staffed its Capitol bureau [covering the state legislature] with five reporters. [Still] other reporters were assigned to cover the full panoply of state agencies, from the Department of Transportation to the Properties Review Board. Today, there are fewer reporters in the Capitol bureau and many of the state and regional beats have been dismantled," wrote Jacklin in "This Columnist's Last Stand."
"Not long ago, a spokesman for a major agency confided that employees once lived in fear of opening the newspaper and reading about some bureaucratic misstep that was sure to land them in hot water. That anxiety has gradually dissipated," Jacklin wrote.
Heft of Cotton Candy
She continued: "Nowadays, the spokesman said, agency officials don't worry about embarrassing revelations. The news media don't dig as deeply as they once did, don't attend hearings as often as they used to, don't go to as many press conferences as in the days of old. Sad to say, Connecticut's Fourth Estate no longer believes that informing and educating voters about their political leaders and government is its chief responsibility. As a substitute for hard news and insightful analysis, readers are served up a steady diet of splashy graphics, celebrity gossip and stories with the heft of cotton candy."
The Associated Press's recent headlines tell it all:
Tribune Said to Be Mulling Sale of Company in
Google Targets Newspaper Advertising
LA Daily News Publisher Out, 21 Jobs Cut
Akron, Ohio, Newspaper Cuts Top Newsroom Job
San Diego Newspaper Offers Buyouts
Surprisingly, despite today's predictions of the demise of newspapers as a result of declining advertising and readership in the Internet age's takeover of communications, part of this dragged-out story is decades old.
The movie "Network," about the perils of network television news aiming daily sensationalistic programming at viewers and advertisers to make millions of dollars for corporations, was produced 30 years ago.
"Deadline USA," another and even older 1950s film, starring the legendary Humphrey Bogart as the feisty city managing editor battling to save his newspaper as it's about to be sold off for profit-taking, has, as well, a familiar story line in this 21st century.
On one hot polar extremity is Bogart's character, editor Ed Hutchenson - and in "Network," actor Peter Finch's character, wild and crazy news anchor Howard Beale - while on the other frigid extremity are multiple imaginary, money-hungry corporate executives.
The two courageous characters, editor Hutchenson and news anchor Beale, look to many harried modern-day newsmen like rare dinosaurs, but are they?
"Not Going to Take This"
As his world as a newsman morphs more into entertainment and his very professional existence is threatened, Beale screams at his TV viewers: "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" And editor Hutchenson is outraged and unrelenting - fighting on all fronts for his news colleagues and for the perpetuation of his sacred journalism, says a New York Times movie review.
Where are Beale and Hutchenson today?
They are still around, but seldom seen in the columns of their own newspapers. One of them lost his battle with corporate executives recently.
Los Angeles Times editor Dean Baquet was ousted November 7 for taking the "mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore" attitude toward staff cuts at the paper. Eventually, after he continually refused to go along with the latest in a series of staff cuts ordered by Tribune Company executives controlling the Times, Baquet, to the dismay of reporters and editors, was forced out earlier this month.
"Sometimes when I sit down with editors and managing editors, I find them all too willing to buy the argument for cuts," Baquet was quoted as saying. "We need to be a feistier bunch. It is the job of the editor of the paper to put up a little more of a fight than we've been willing to put up in the past, because a public service is at stake. We understand the business model is changing and we have to do some cutting," he said, "but don't understand it too much."
But, of course, Baquet, instead of covering city hall as a newsman, was fighting it as the editor closest to corporate executives' reach. And, now he's gone from the Times after 19 years as a journalist there and elsewhere. Eight years earlier, as an investigative reporter for the same Tribune that pressured him out as editor, he won a Pulitzer Prize for leading a team of three in documenting corruption in the Chicago City Council.
Thomas "Dennie" Williams is a former state and federal court reporter, specializing in investigations, for the Hartford Courant. Since the 1970s, he has written extensively about irregularities in the Connecticut Superior Court and Probate Court systems for disciplining both judges and lawyers for misconduct. His stories about the corrupt activities inside the Hartford Probate Court helped encourage a federal grand jury probe leading to the conviction of the court's investigator for corrupt activities, the first attempted impeachment of a judge or any official in the state's history, and a legislative probe that resulted in major changes of the court's disciplinary system for state lawyers. Another of his investigative inquiries in the 1980s led to the forced resignation of a Superior Court judge who was hiring and appointing friends and relatives for lucrative court duties. His most recent freelance stories exposed failings of the Connecticut Judicial Review Council, investigating misconduct by Superior Court judges and the regular one-and-a-half-year delays in deciding State Appellate Court cases. He has received numerous awards for his investigative and in-depth reporting.