Monday, May 18, 2009

Take Out the Paper

When the United States began, the press meant newspapers -- the venerable Fourth Estate. Attributed to British politician Edmund Burke (1729 - 1797), that synonym for newspapers has been broadened to include all of the mass media. The press is protected by law from Congress, but it is not protected from business or technology. Despite pundits’ predictions to the contrary, radio failed to kill newspapers and television failed to kill radio. Neither is the Internet killing its media cousins. As newspapers across the country fail or fold, bad business practice in the present bleak economy threatens all of the Fourth Estate, and this in turn threatens the country.

The story of the failing
San Francisco Chronicle is just one example of a major metro-area newspaper having been managed into the dinosaur museum of media. It took the paper’s losing $50 million last year for management to make a remarkable grasp of the obvious. Its last-ditch solution is to slash expenses and purge the payroll. "Our current situation dictates that we accomplish these cost savings quickly," Chronicle Publisher Frank Vega wrote in a memo to the staff. "Business as usual is no longer an option."

The New York-based Hearst Corporation bought the Chronicle in 2000 in a $660 million deal and has been losing money ever since. The paper is the largest daily in northern California with a paid weekday circulation of 340-thousand and a work force of about 1500 people. According to the
Wall Street Journal, Hearst said it will seek "critical cost-saving measures," including a steep reduction in the Chronicle's staff. If it can't reach its cost-saving target "within weeks," Hearst said it will seek a new owner for the Chronicle. If it cannot find a buyer, Hearst said it will close the paper. Bankers say there are no likely buyers for the Chronicle.

The list of new exhibits to the dinosaur museum of media includes other inductees such as the Seattle Post Intelligencer and the Miami Herald. After 150 years Denver’s Rocky Mountain News is history. Tribune Company, parent to the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, has filed for bankruptcy. So has Philadelphia Newspapers which publishes the Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily Journal. In fact, 33 newspapers have filed for bankruptcy protection. The American Society of Newspaper Editors has cancelled its annual convention for 2009.

Mike Hoyt is the Columbia Journalism Review Executive Editor. He says such losses are sad because newspapers are very tied in with their community. “When a city only has one paper,” Hoyt said, "you lose competition, and you lose the edge, and you lose energy. Competition is good. It sharpens the news gathering, and the investigative reporting." Reflecting on Denver and San Francisco, Hoyt said, "The daily newspaper in a major metropolitan market is the voice of a city. It provides a civic forum that everyone can relate to and come together to talk about. And it can take on complicated problems, and be a watchdog for the community . . . You need big institutions to cover big problems and big situations."

In 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Jefferson regarded a free press as absolutely essential to investigate and criticize the government. It bit him. The press vilified Jefferson during his presidency. Nor would he be the last.

A hundred-fifty years after Jefferson’s presidency, Harry Truman joined a long line of presidents who worked the press. “Once a week the President of the United States faces the free press and endures a barrage of questions,” wrote Anthony Leviero in the New York Times in 1949. “It is the biggest show in Washington. It is also a great institution, uniquely American. It has become a factor in our checks-and-balances system of government.”

Then there was President Nixon who, after two years of bitter public debate over the Watergate scandals, bowed to pressures from the public and the press to become the first President in American history to resign the presidency. “We saw a president toppled by a couple of reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, who inspired thousands of young people to take up investigative journalism,” wrote the late author and activist Peter McWilliams. “Then, after Woodward and Bernstein were portrayed in the movies by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, tens of thousands applied to journalism schools.”

The peril of our free press is that it costs a lot of money and there is not much of that to support it. “Journalists are the watchdogs, and being able to shine a spotlight on corruption or scandal is vital to our democracy," wrote Mike Hoyt. However, the impact of the recession on newspapers ad-based bottom lines has to do with business and not journalism. It is just that there will be less journalism.

The worst advertising climate in decades killed the print version of the Baltimore Examiner free newspaper on February 15, less than three years after its debut. "This is very disappointing for all of us. Obviously, this is not what we envisioned when we launched the newspaper," ownership’s CEO Ryan McKibben wrote to Examiner staff. The company will now concentrate resources on an Internet venture where it plans to add space, new columnists and Web editors.
Maybe that is an example of good business management. What about the journalism?

“Half-truths, obfuscations and apparent deceit -- these are the wages of a world in which newspapers, their staffs eviscerated, no longer battle at the frontiers of public information,” wrote David Simon in the Washington Post about his experience as a newspaperman in Baltimore. “And in a city where officials routinely plead with citizens to trust the police, where witnesses have for years been vulnerable to retaliatory violence, we now have a once-proud department's officers hiding behind anonymity that is not only arguably illegal under existing public information laws, but hypocritical as well.”

Rather than solutions, there are modifications to the newspaper business failure. The Duluth News Tribune and the St. Paul Pioneer Press, for example, will work with the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communication on a half-million dollar project. The idea of folding newspapers into endowment projects or university systems is being floated. There is my dinosaur media museum. In the end, business is business – enterprise has a market to support it.

Unfortunately, business being business, markets contract and companies cease to be viable. GM is a looming example of a failed corporation and yet some of its brands will continue to be be produced. I suspect journalism likewise will survive the fall of the big corporations as a hybrid form of credentialed web-print production, such as blogging with a hard copy back end. I will not be convinced that blogging is journalism, however, until I see a White House Blog Corps.

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