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August 13, 2007

With Newspapers 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 – informing yourself.


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.


Reporting, 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 of anything.


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.


Another industry 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 are missing.


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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