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The Death of News | The Nation

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The Death of News

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Hope for haters of "the media" of whatever stripe or flavor! Judging from recent events, they may not have much media to kick around any more. Things are definitely on the droop in news-media land.

About the Author

Nicholas von Hoffman
Nicholas von Hoffman, a veteran newspaper, radio and TV reporter and columnist, is the author, most recently, of...

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One reason morale is down is reportorial work is getting exceedingly dangerous. In recent weeks Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist, was murdered in Moscow; so far this year in Iraq twenty-six journalists have been killed; and just the other day, according to the Associated Press, "Misael Tamayo Hernandez, editor of El Despertar de la Costa, was found nearly naked, with his hands tied behind his back, in a room of the Venus Motel on a highway, Zihuatanejo police officials said." Incidents like that can put a chill on recruiting at the J-school job fair.

While foreign journalists are losing their lives, journalists in America are losing their jobs. The Christian Science Monitor reports that "daily newspapers in New York, Boston, Houston, St. Louis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and elsewhere are laying off or buying out hundreds of newsroom employees, as well as other workers." And talk about covering your own funeral: The Monitor added that "last summer, The Christian Science Monitor cut newsroom jobs, too." Those cities do not begin to exhaust the list of places where reporters and editors are being let go.

While reporters are not yet as scarce as hen's teeth, there are far fewer of them than there used to be. Here is an instance brought to us by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, one of those high-toned outfits that studies the state of things and issues reports: "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 cause of mass reporter firings are varied, but the biggest is long-term loss of circulation, sometimes slowly and sometimes shockingly quick. "Average daily circulation dropped by 2.8 percent during the six-month period ended Sept. 30, compared with the period last year, according to an industry analysis of data released by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Circulation for Sunday papers fell by 3.4 percent," wrote the New York Times. If the readers continue to disappear at this rate into the Internet or die off or opt out of word communication for pictures and music, the advertisers are going to do the same.

As readers evaporate, so do advertisers and, although American newspapers continue to be more profitable than most businesses, there is panic over what the future holds in store. Investors, fixated on what they think is going to happen, have pushed down the price of newspaper stocks. The fall in the price is driving the remaining newspaper stockholders nuts.

American corporate managers are schooled to do one thing and one thing only under stress--lay people off. Here and there around the country editors have been resisting. They have been tussling with their own managements, insisting that there comes a point when laying off staff hurts the quality of the product.

One such drama has been playing out at the Los Angeles Times, where over the past couple of years two top editors have been shown the door for refusal to lop heads. The Times is owned by the Tribune, a Chicago-based corporation that owns dozens of newspapers, TV stations, Internet sites and even a Major League Baseball team. It makes money, pots of it, but not enough to keep the price of its stock where its owners would like it to be.

Since the major shareholders are interested in money, not product quality, they are willing to sell the company or, if they can make more money another way, to split it up and sell it off piece by piece. That is what was done earlier this year with the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain. K-R, a quality outfit with a special ethos, is now in pieces under various owners with various ideas of what a good newspaper is supposed to be.

If the Tribune corporation is broken up, God knows who will end up owning its papers. Rumor has it that billionaire entertainment wheeler-dealer David Geffen and real estate developer Eli Broad may team up to buy the LA Times.

So who needs newspapers anyhow? We have the Internet. Other than the websites supported by newspapers, the Internet is devoid of reporters. The Internet operations do not pay people to go out and gather accurate information. Thus we are bumping up against a contradictory situation. Thanks to the Internet, the iPod and so forth, we have more media outlets than ever before--but fewer reporters.

When the last reporter is laid off, we can subsist on rumor, speculation and gossip. These three are usually more interesting than the facts, but do you want to bet your life and livelihood on them?

Well, there is always what they call citizen journalism. That means, if you see something, take a picture of it with your cellphone and call in. It's not exactly New York Times reliability, but it's open-source, and they tell us that is terrific stuff. You know about Wikipedia. So why not wiki-wacky news?

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