Back in February, PBS featured a four-part, 240-minute long documentary entitled “News Wars.” Through extensive interviews with many of the nation’s most well-known journalists, publishers, editors, media executives, and bloggers, “News Wars” seeks to unpack the meaning of journalism in a world that is slowly being upturned by advances in technology and the ubiquity of the Internet. Indeed, all 240 minutes of the documentary are available to watch, free of charge, on PBS’s website. “News Wars” begins with an analysis of the way in which the mainstream media has covered the Bush Administration, specifically highlighting the murky and scandalous affair commonly referred to as “Plamegate” and the War in Iraq. Both stories are relevant because they raise significant and pertinent questions about the media’s role and responsibilities in covering national security, terrorism, and an ongoing war. Those questions raise other questions: Who controls the flow of information? How can the media protect confidential sources? What are the effects of deregulation? Who defines “news?” What is journalism? How is the Internet shaping the news? How can mainstream media adjust and adapt to the world of online news and blogging?
For me, the documentary hits its stride when it begins exploring the proliferation of online news and the blogging phenomenon, juxtaposed against a fascinating story about the triumphs and tragedies at one of America’s most well-known newspapers, The LA Times.
Today, on a national level, more people in that “key demographic” are reading news online than in printed newspapers. However, the vast majority of online news is culled from newspaper-based journalism, and this can create problems for newspapers, many of which are owned by publicly-traded, profit-driven corporations. Online news is simply not as profitable.
The LA Times, for example, had to make numerous cuts to their news room after being purchased by the publicly-traded Tribune Company (which, on April 2 of this year, decided to go private). Despite the fact that The LA Times had won a dozen Pulitzer Prizes in recent years, the cuts were deemed necessary in order to maximize (not stabilize) profitability for Tribune Company shareholders. This is occurring throughout mainstream media.
Cuts to the news room directly result in cuts in news coverage, and the expectation of not only making a profit (The LA Times was already making $200 million a year in profit) but of exponentially increasing this profit every year has dramatic effects on the types of stories many major newspapers and television news programs choose to cover. Some dub this new brand of news as “infotainment.” For example, it’s when cable news decides to spend endless hours covering Anna Nicole Smith’s death or when newspapers decide to become “hyperlocal,” giving preferential coverage to banal local news stories over more important and pressing national or statewide news stories.
Some argue that the “hyperlocalization” of American newspapers is a positive development, that it provides a needed service to local communities. But others believe it diminishes the quality of the news and that it leads to a less informed public.
Central Louisiana has only recently experienced the growth of an online “news” and blogging community, and our local, traditional media outlets have attempted to adapt. Like many markets throughout the United States, Central Louisiana’s media is dominated by outlets owned by publicly-traded companies; Media General (NYSE: MEG) and Gannett (NYSE: GCI). KALB, which is both a NBC and a CBS affiliate, is owned by Media General, and The Town Talk is owned by the largest newspaper publisher in the nation, Gannett.
Gannett also owns and publishes USA Today, which has the widest circulation of any newspaper in the United States. For a company like Gannett, much like the Tribune Company, it makes little financial sense to encourage its smaller newspapers, like The Town Talk, to dedicate time and resources to national or international coverage, because they own USA Today. The hope is that the consumer will read local news in the local, Gannett-owned paper and read national news in the USA Today. And because Gannett owns papers in five markets in the State of Louisiana, statewide news is shared. Although Gannett does not have a presence in the Baton Rouge newspaper market, they do have a correspondent, John Hill, who practically writes all of the state political stories, which are then disseminated and published in Gannett’s five papers. For all intents and purposes, this means Alexandria no longer has its own on-the-ground political dispatcher reporting on the State’s capitol. We share John Hill with Shreveport, Opelousas, Lafayette, and Monroe.
It is not difficult to understand why this can be problematic. Every year, we send our elected representatives to Baton Rouge in order to work for the best interests of our region and our state, yet we fail to send a local reporter, someone who recognizes the issues unique to our region, to specifically cover the work and the progress of these elected representatives. None of this is to undermine the work of Mr. Hill. He is an excellent reporter who recently wrote some of the state media’s best analysis of the Vitter affair. This is merely offered as an example of one of the symptoms of media consolidation.
And, to some extent, this is where the blogs come in. As previously stated, online news and blogging are primarily recapitulations of newspaper reports. The vast majority of news journalism is done by reporters who work for newspapers.
However, blogging, as Markos Moulitsas stated in “News Wars,” allows the passive reader to become a participant in the story. It breaks down the fourth wall of the fourth estate. And sometimes, as a result of this participation, the blogosphere produces real journalism. It is little surprise that the Central Louisiana blogopshere is so active; the consolidation of our major media outlets and advances in Internet technology and accessibility have produced a space for people to write about the stories the media simply does not or cannot report. There are numerous examples of local bloggers “breaking” a story before it is picked up by the mainstream media, though the blogosphere is rarely, if ever, credited.
Because the blogosphere, by its nature, encourages anonymous commentary, many people are more likely to “leak” information onto an anonymous forum than pick up the telephone and inform a reporter under the condition of confidentiality (particularly after Plamegate). The problem, of course, is that anonymous commentary on the Internet, no matter how insightful or sensational, is still untrustworthy and often misleading. Without hard evidence or someone willing to go on the record, many stories are born and then die on the Internet.
In Central Louisiana, our mainstream media has attempted to adapt to these changes. KALB produces a VideoBlog, featuring interviews with political candidates and clips of City Council meetings, a WeatherBlog, and a section entitled “Viewer’s Voice,” which reminds me of The Town Talk‘s now-defunct “Sound Off!” KLAX’s Babs Zimmerman has her own blog. And The Town Talk, along with its Gannett sister papers, launched StoryChat last August, which is simply a moderated forum attached uniformly to its online content. While these features can offer interesting supplementary analysis and commentary, they have yet to augment or enhance news coverage, and moreover, they have not stifled or slowed down the growth of independent blogs, which brings us back to the problem posed by “News Wars.”
As long as mainstream media continues to be owned by publicly-traded companies who solely seek to maximize profit and sustain growth, the news business will continue to produce the stories people “want” to read, not necessarily the stories people “need” to read. Probing, investigative journalism will continue to take a backseat to “infotainment.” Television punditry will continue to operate in sound bites. Newspapers will continue to be forced to make cuts in their news rooms, favoring an alliance of disparate dispatchers to fill in the blank spaces.
Some will argue that these changes are merely the result of the capitalistic will. That may or may not be true. The news business is not like any other business; its core purpose is to deliver information that is relevant, interesting and important to the public. The erosion of this business directly affects the quality of our democracy on local, state, and national levels.
There are many newspapers throughout the country, some of which are even listed on the New York Stock Exchange, that are primarily controlled by people (typically families) who refuse to allow the whims of the market to affect the quality of their product. A quality newspaper with quality reporters can be an incredibly profitable business. (Again, before the Tribune Company purchased the LA Times, cut its newsroom, and repositioned its focus as “hyperlocal,” the paper was still making $200 million a year in profit). Many papers are owned by people who are not driven by the goals of market domination, yet despite this, they continue to remain profitable.
Before the advent of cable news, most television companies understood their news divisions to be “loss leaders.” Television news may have not been as profitable as soap operas or sitcoms, but a solid news division lent the company credibility that affected the value of the company’s goodwill.
If the Tribune Company’s recent decision to go private is any indication, we may be seeing a recognition of the inherent flaws in attempting to maximize (and not stabilize) a newspaper’s profitability. This could represent a sea change in American journalism. Websites like Craig’s List will continue to whittle away at the profit margin of the classified section. Bloggers will continue to offer commentary and news stories free of charge, and because of this, inevitably, mainstream media will have to change its approach. Media consolidation may present opportunities for internal synergies and it may make vast fortunes for a few people, but ultimately, it has not increased the quality of the product. As quality diminishes, readership diminishes. When this occurs, people are much more likely to log onto the Internet and read the news free-of-charge than buy a subscription to a newspaper that is overwhelmed with advertisements and underwhelmed with good reporting.
Update: A special thanks to the Los Angeles Times Pressmen’s 20 Year Club for referencing this piece as a part of their Saturday Night Links.