August 13, 2007
Endangered, So Is Government By the People
There is a seemingly
endless list of important, vital issues facing us today, and it seems
silly that problems facing one industry would be worse than those facing
any other industry.
As silly as it might
seem, it’s also true. And, it relates to what you’re doing right now –
A study came out
last week saying that, by 2010, more media advertising dollars will be
spent online than in print. This poses a serious question for media
companies – how to make online revenue work, and fast? Although online
revenue is increasing at most newspapers, ad sales for the dead tree
edition still largely pay the bills.
The problem is that
some of that revenue is simply evaporating when it hits the Internet.
Classified ad sales, once a cash cow for the newspaper industry, have
found a free home on Craig’s List, which has eviscerated classified
sales on both coasts and is now encroaching on the Midwest.
Revenue, of course,
has a direct relationship to a paper’s ability to report.
especially quality investigative reporting, is time-consuming and
expensive. Because of that, it’s a dying art at American newspapers,
with few of them still able to pull it off with any regularity.
This is the future
of the news industry. It isn’t good, it isn’t bad. Instead, it’s a big
question mark. Depending on who you talk to, the industry could be
headed in about six different directions – from the decentralization of
reporting to hyper-local niche sites, to chaos, to an eventual
correction and restructuring.
It all comes down to
making revenue work.
Newspapers used to
be cherished family businesses, a point of community prestige. That is
no longer the case, as ownership of newspapers is both consolidating and
also becoming part of corporations that are publicly traded on the stock
market. That’s increased pressure for profits as the primary motivator
of newspaper managers. It has led to cuts in newsrooms – long seen by
corporate bean counters as revenue-sumps rather than revenue-generators.
More work has now been concentrated into fewer hands, requiring more
thinly sourced stories and less time spent on what might not yield much
A few years ago,
these realities prompted talk from a group of private investors to
purchase the Los Angeles Times from the Tribune Company. The
Times had just gone through a major controversy in which the
publisher had resisted corporate pressures to make further cuts to the
newsrooms. When the publisher lost and was replaced, and the cuts were
made by new management, some very wealthy folks talked about purchasing
the paper and restoring the news operations as a public service. So far,
that’s gone no further than talk.
This isn’t just a
problem facing newspapers, but also television stations. A study of
broadcast journalists found that most of them thought there was too much
work in too few hands to guarantee journalistic excellence. Besides
that, decisions made by those at the top were often pre-empted by
managers who wanted to run salacious celebrity news – a decision that
places them directly at odds with media consumers, who routinely tell
pollsters they want less news about Paris Hilton, and more about things
that directly affect them.
facing a similar mountain of serious problems might prompt observers to
conclude that perhaps it was simply part of the way things work. These
problems are associated with the basic questions of how a free society
informs itself. Informed voting habits are based on having a reliable,
credible source of information. Some people might think that no
gatekeeper is necessary, but they’d be wrong. There is always a need for
someone to place facts and information in context for proper digestion.
You can look up, on the Internet, how much a public employee makes, but
without knowing what that person is supposed to do, how much experience
they have, and what people doing comparable jobs in the private sector
earn, you are no better informed than if you knew nothing. In fact,
sometimes possessing only a part of the story is more dangerous than
knowing nothing – surmises and assumptions often fill voids where facts
This makes it
something of a national emergency. Being well educated is critical to
self-rule, and part of that education is knowing what’s happening in the
world around you. When our ability to educate ourselves on the issues is
placed at risk, so is our ability to properly govern ourselves.
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