Never has there been a greater need for independent, original, credible information about our complex society and the world at large. Never has technology better enabled the instantaneous global transmission of pictures, sounds, and words to communicate such reporting. But all this is occurring in a time of absentee owners, harvested investments, hollowed-out newsrooms, and thus a diminished capacity to adequately find and tell the stories. The standard euphemism to characterize these peculiar times is that the news media are undergoing a historic “transformation,” which is certainly true. What has also been true for years now is that media corporations are desperately seeking a way to remain viable financially in the wild marketplace of, well, everything else. And at the moment, the landscape looks precarious, particularly for serious editors and reporters.
In the past couple of years alone, everything but a piano has fallen on the head of the serious press: Rupert Murdoch bought Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal; Knight Ridder, the nation’s most Pulitzer-honored newspaper chain, was dismantled; the McClatchy Company sold the Minneapolis Star Tribune to a private equity firm for less than half of its purchase price eight years earlier; and hundreds of reporters and editors accepted buyout offers at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Boston Globe, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, The Dallas Morning News, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, and many other newspapers.
Four dailies that have produced inspiring international coverage in the past—The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Boston Globe, Newsday, and the Baltimore Sun—closed their remaining overseas bureaus. In TV, as veteran correspondent Tom Fenton has observed, a quarter century ago CBS News had twenty-four foreign bureaus and stringers in forty-four countries; today, there are six bureaus, none of them in Africa or Latin America. Time Inc., owner of the largest circulation newsweekly magazine, Time, eliminated 650 jobs in early 2006, including those of Don Barlett and Jim Steele, two of the nation’s preeminent investigative journalists, in May. The following week, it was reported that Time Inc. had just paid $4 million for exclusive photographs of Shiloh, the newborn baby of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
There simply are fewer and fewer professional reporters monitoring power in America and the world for American readers. The financial pincers threaten even the top of the news chain. In April, New York Times Company shareholders were urged by a Morgan Stanley money manager to overturn that company’s two-tier stock structure for strictly financial reasons. Days before the Times Company’s annual meeting, Donald Graham, the CEO of The Washington Post Company, which is also protected by a two-tier stock structure, wrote a blunt editorial entitled “The Gray Lady’s Virtue” in The Wall Street Journal, citing the “crazy risks” of the Morgan Stanley gambit:
If the stock structure were eliminated, a line of buyers eager to purchase the company would form within minutes. No one could say no. The line would include private equity firms, high-ego billionaires, international media companies lacking a famous property and lots more It isn’t guaranteed that anyone owning the Times would spend more than $200 million on its newsroom budget or deploy dozens of foreign correspondents around the world. Sending any one of those reporters overseas costs lots of money and doesn’t add a penny to this year’s circulation or advertising revenue.
The Sulzberger family retains control of the Times Company, its two-tier structure intact, but when was the last time you saw the owner of The Washington Post take to the street—Wall Street, that is—to defend The New York Times?
While more and more newspapers will transform themselves into “print-Web hybrids,” as Robert Kuttner wrote in these pages a few months ago (“The Race,” March/April), to keep the journalism flowing, online advertising revenue must catch up to editorial payroll levels. That prospect is uncertain, and more layoffs seem likely. Not surprisingly, in recent years, the sheer volume, enterprise, and quality of serious news stories have quite noticeably diminished, especially among small and mid-size newspapers.
What replaces that flow of information? What will nourish our democracy? Perhaps new stand-alone, advertising-supported, profitable venues for original newsgathering and storytelling—beyond subscription-based, niche publishing—will evolve in the digital age, as we all hope they will. But that hasn’t happened yet.
In this light, other economic models that can produce substantive journalism suddenly look more interesting and relevant to a profession under siege. And while much has been written of late about the dire state of commercial journalism, very little has been said about various independent, noncommercial initiatives specifically designed to produce that kind of substance.