New York Review of Books on the Sorry State of Newspapers

In the wake of Murdoch succeeding in his bid for the Wall Street Journal, this review by Russell Baker, “Goodbye to Newspapers?” on two books describing the decline of the newspaper, and its implications for the public, is aptly timed. Not surprisingly, Baker sees the corporate, as opposed to family, ownership, as a major culprit.

The piece is very much worth reading in its entirety; here are some excerpts:

When the Press Fails: Political Power and the New Media from Iraq to Katrina
by W. Lance Bennett, Regina G. Lawrence, and Steven Livingston
University of Chicago Press, 263 pp., $22.50

American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media
by Neil Henry
University of California Press,326 pp., $24.95

The American press has the blues. Too many authorities have assured it that its days are numbered, too many good newspapers are in ruins. It has lost too much public respect. Courts that once treated it like a sleeping tiger now taunt it with insolent subpoenas and put in jail reporters who refuse to play ball with prosecutors. It is abused relentlessly on talk radio and in Internet blogs. It is easily bullied into acquiescing in the designs of a presidential propaganda machine determined to dominate the news…..

There is a growing literature about the multitude of journalism’s problems, but most of it is concerned with the editorial side of the business, possibly because most people competent to write about journalism are not comfortable writing about finance. Still, it is on the ownership and management side that the gravest problems exist. The best discussion of trouble in boardroom and business office is found in newspapers’ own financial pages and speeches by journalists in management jobs. One document widely read among newspaper people is a speech delivered to the American Society of Newspaper Editors a year ago by John S. Carroll, formerly editor of the Los Angeles Times. It is an eloquent expression of the uneasiness many reporters and editors now feel about the future. Carroll titled his speech “What Will Become of Newspapers?” and, as the title suggests, his prognosis was not cheery.

He was especially alarmed about the breakdown of understanding between owners and working journalists and about the loss of common purpose that once united them. This has come about, he said, because the functions that were once the realm of strong publishers have been taken over by Wall Street money managers. The breakdown at the top began some forty years ago when local owners began selling their papers to corporations. As the nature of markets changed, power shifted from the corporations to investment funds, which make money by investing other people’s money in ways that make it multiply. It became hard to say anymore who or what a newspaper owner was. Owners ceased to be “identifiable human beings,” as Carroll put it. Sometimes the owner, who had once had a name—Otis Chandler of the Los Angeles Times, John Knight of Knight Ridder newspapers, Barry Bingham, of the Louisville Courier-General—became an it. Sometimes it seemed to be a room full of market researchers trolling the world by computer for profitable investment opportunities. Sometimes it was a fund manager with neither experience nor interest in journalism.

In this “post-corporate phase of ownership,” Carroll said,

we have seen a narrowing of the purpose of the newspaper in the eyes of its owner. Under the old local owners, a newspaper’s capacity for making money was only part of its value. Today, it is everything. Gone is the notion that a newspaper should lead, that it has an obligation to its community, that it is beholden to the public….
Someday, I suspect, when we look back on these forty years, we will wonder how we allowed the public good to be so deeply subordinated to private gain….

What do the current owners want from their newspapers?— the answer could not be simpler: Money. That’s it.

Carroll is an authority on the subject. As editor of the Los Angeles Times, the owner to which he reported was the Tribune Company, a conglomerate which had mushroomed out of Colonel Robert McCormick’s Chicago Tribune, self-styled “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” Before anyone guessed that the late-twentieth-century stock market boom was a bubble in the making, the Tribune Company had bought famous old newspapers hither and yon. Among them was the Los Angeles Times, then widely respected as one of America’s finest dailies….

Journalism was being whittled away by a Wall Street theory that profits can be maximized by minimizing the product. Papers everywhere felt relentless demands for improved stock performance. The resulting policy of slash-and-burn cost-cutting has left the landscape littered with frail, failing, or gravely wounded newspapers which are increasingly useless to any reader who cares about what is happening in the world, the country, and the local community. Cost-cutting has reduced the number of correspondents stationed abroad, shriveled or closed news bureaus in Washington, and crippled local reporting staffs which once kept an eye on governors, mayors, state legislatures, small-town rascals, crooks, and jury suborners. It has also shrunk the size of the typical newspaper page, cutting the cost of newsprint by cutting news content.

Newspapers report their own erosion in the business columns, doggedly recording inch-by-inch shrinkage of page sizes and job-by-job shrinkage of news coverage, but statistics alone cannot convey the true loss to the country. Besides the Los Angeles Times, the papers showing the ravages of extensive cost-cutting include many once ranked among the country’s finest: The Baltimore Sun, The Miami Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Des Moines Register, The Hartford Courant, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the San Jose Mercury News, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, for example.

The new-style owners are often puzzled when their editors and reporters make the traditional argument that journalism’s business is to provide a public service by supplying the information the citizenry needs for democracy to work. The new owners have a different view of duty. They are “sometimes genuinely perplexed to find people in their midst who do not feel beholden, first and foremost, to the shareholder,” Carroll says.

What makes these people tick? they wonder. The job of any employee, as they see it, is to produce a good financial result, not to indulge in some dreamy form of do-gooding at company expense…. Our corporate superiors regard our beliefs as quaint, wasteful and increasingly tiresome….

Carroll is saying that free-market capitalism doesn’t really work very well in the newspaper business, and, if rigorously applied, tends to destroy it. Astonishingly—he is an owner, after all—Graham seems to agree. His essay, only a thousand words or so in length, was notably angry in warning that Wall Street’s single-minded insistence on maximizing profits could be fatal to journalism.

The review continues here.

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