Today’s journalism crisis is the business model. The Tribune Company fired its own handpicked publisher at the Los Angeles Times, Jeffrey Johnson, for refusing to make the editorial cuts it demanded, while the paper’s much-admired editor, Dean Baquet, hangs by a thread, hoping for a neck-saving sale. NBC slashed its news-gathering operations and plans to shutter its state-of-the-art MSNBC headquarters, dumping much of its (admittedly awful) programming. New York Times Company profits were 39 percent lower than last year, which was lousy too. The Boston Globe is in crisis, and smaller newspapers like the Akron Beacon Journal, the San Jose Mercury News and the Dallas Morning News, as well as powerful magazine franchises, like Time Inc. and Business Week, are shedding editorial staff like nickel bags in a drug bust. Yet Google reported a 92 percent profit increase, and Apple posted increases following another quarter of skyrocketing iPod sales. Given these trends, many veteran journalists feel they are witnessing the End of Times.
At a well-attended recent conference in honor of the twentieth anniversary of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, the gloom in the room was painfully palpable. The first presentation, offered by management consultant Scott Anthony, left the gathering gnashing its collective teeth over talk of news “consumers” rather than citizens, implicitly stripping the profession of dignity and purpose. Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian countered with an inspiring lunchtime lecture pointedly directed at the role of journalism as a “calling” rather than just a job; one that he defined as that of the “guardian of democracy” and “intermediary and an interpreter between society and knowledge.”
While Gregorian made everyone feel a little better, he could not single-handedly slay the dragon of Wall Street and its unforgiving profit demands. John Carroll, who left the editorship of the Los Angeles Times amid earlier demands for editorial cuts, walked the audience through what Wall Street expectations mean for the quality of the journalism an organization can produce. While posting a profit of 10 percent, he allows, a paper like the Times could afford to invest in new technologies, circulation outreach and web interactivity, and continue to grow and serve the community even with declining readership of the paper edition. With the 20 percent margin currently demanded by its owner, the Tribune Company, however, the net result–extrapolating from current trends–is the loss of approximately eighty editorial jobs every year until there’s nobody left. It doesn’t matter that most newspapers, like the network news, remain profitable. Such profits are peanuts compared with the riches promised by Google and Apple and, anyway, are not projected to last.
What is staring everybody in the face is the evaporation of journalism’s financial foundation into Internet air, where information is supposed to be “free” and ad rates are a fraction of those in print. Young people don’t buy newspapers or watch the evening news–even, or perhaps especially, with cute Katie Couric reading it to them. Blogs are more fun to read and sometimes more reliable. Traditional revenue streams have been diverted by craigslist, eBay, Yahoo! and, of course, Google.
Why does this matter–particularly when the mainstream media failed us so profoundly when we needed them most, as the Bush Administration lied us into a ruinous war in Iraq? Well, where are those of us who wish to remain citizens going to get our information? Almost every “fake” or quasi-news outlet, whether on the blogosphere, Comedy Central or in the opinion columns of this magazine, are to a considerable degree parasitical on the information paid for and gathered by the dinosaurs of great newspapers and newsweeklies. As communications scholar Kathleen Hall Jamieson pointed out on a Shorenstein panel, newspaper readership correlates positively with good political knowledge. Without newspaper narratives, whether presented on paper or on the Net, news comes to us “helter-skelter,” as Walter Lippmann explained more than eighty years ago. Now one can believe, with Lippmann, that citizens need reliably imparted knowledge or, with John Dewey, that they require a culture of communication to become a “public”; but the truth is, a functioning democracy of any kind requires a healthy dose of both–if only to allow the elites and the masses to maintain boundaries on each other’s most dangerous tendencies. So, too, do functioning local communities.
America’s journalism crisis is part and parcel of a larger failure of nerve by almost all our elites. They failed to stand up to the assault on our democracy by the right-wing ideologues in the Bush Administration and elsewhere, on the one hand, and have no answer to the societal, moral and environmental degradations of an out-of-control capitalist machine, on the other. These twin failures have left our democracy weakened and vulnerable to further manipulation. Lord knows, the arrogance of the MSM drives me crazier than anyone, since it’s my job to track it. But for all the tsuris they cause, nobody has come close to finding a substitute for the crucial role newspapers and the news play in holding our society together.
Merrill Brown, founding editor of MSNBC.com and now a consultant for Net operations, observes that while locally based Internet ventures have grabbed market share around listings and search functions, “what’s been missing from hundreds of millions of dollars invested to date in locally based Internet business ventures is a sense of the important civic and journalistic roles that newspapers once played in our cities and towns. There’s an enormous and important civic, journalistic and commercial opportunity being created by the accelerating decline of newspapers, and it’s time community leaders, businesspeople, journalists and citizens banded together to capitalize on that opportunity.”
Gregorian suggests that universities band together to buy newspapers. David Geffen’s attempts to buy the LA Times suggests the benevolent billionaire model. Both tracks–and more–may be necessary. Whatever happens, the crisis is here.