Panic in the Newspaper Biz
By Molly Ivins
03/25/06 -- -- AUSTIN, Texas -- I don’t so much mind that
newspapers are dying—it’s watching them commit suicide that
pisses me off.
Let’s use this as a handy exercise in journalism. What is the
unexamined assumption here? That the newspaper business is
dying. Is it? In 2005, publicly traded U.S. newspaper publishers
reported operating profit margins of 19.2%, down from 21% in
2004, according to The Wall Street Journal. That ain’t chopped
liver—it’s more than double the average operating profit margin
of the Fortune 500.
So who thinks newspapers are dying? Newspaper analysts on Wall
Street. In fact, the fine folks on Wall Street just forced the
sale of Knight Ridder Inc. to McClatchy Co., a chain one-third
KR’s size. McClatchy’s CEO, Gary Pruitt, pointed out in an Op-Ed
piece that investors are so chicken that his company picked up
KR for a song. (Actually, he said no such thing—he was far more
dignified. But that’s what it comes down to.) So if newspapers
are so ridiculously profitable, how come there’s panic on Wall
Street about them? Because we’re losing circulation—2% in 2004,
and down 13% from a 1985 peak, says the Newspaper Association of
So we’re looking at a steady decline over a long period, and
many of the geniuses who run our business believe they have a
solution. Our product isn’t selling as well as it used to, so
they think we need to cut the number of reporters, cut the space
devoted to the news and cut the amount of money used to gather
the news, and this will solve the problem. For some reason, they
assume people will want to buy more newspapers if they have less
news in them and are less useful to people. I’m just amazed the
Bush administration hasn’t named the whole darn bunch of them to
run FEMA yet.
What cutting costs does, of course, is increase the profits,
thus making Wall Street happy. It also kills newspapers.
Aside from my own sentimental attachment to newspapers, I have
no objection to all of us shifting over to the Internet and
doing the same thing there. You’d still have the two big
problems, however: (A) How do you know if it’s true? And (B) how
do you put a lot of information into a package that’s useful to
people? If newspapers were just another buggy-whip industry,
none of this would be of much note—another disappearing
artifact, like the church key. But while Wall Street doesn’t
care, and neither do many of the people who own and run
newspapers, newspapers do, in fact, matter beyond producing
profit—they have a critical role in democracy. It’s called a
We are in trouble.
The Project for Excellence in Journalism, run by Columbia
University, has a new report out that finds that the number of
media outlets continues to grow, but both the number of stories
covered and the depth of reporting are sliding backward.
Television, radio and newspapers are all cutting staff, while
the bloggers of the Internet either do not have the size or the
interest to go out and gather news. Bloggers are not
news-gatherers, but opinion-mongers. I have long argued that no
one should be allowed to write opinion without spending years as
a reporter—nothing like interviewing all four eyewitnesses to an
automobile accident and then trying to write an accurate account
of what happened. Or, as author-journalist Curtis Wilkie puts
it, “Unless you can cover a five-car pile-up on Route 128, you
shouldn’t be allowed to cover a presidential campaign.”
Tom Rosenstiel of Project for Excellence says: “It’s probably
glib and even naive to say simply that more platforms equal more
choices. The content has to come from somewhere, and as older
news-gathering media decline, some of the strengths they offer
in monitoring the powerful and verifying the facts may be
weakening, as well.”
The McClatchy-KR merger, however, emphasizes the perils of ever
fewer outlets. Twenty-five years ago, about 50 corporations
owned most of the media outlets. Today, there are between eight
and 12. McClatchy and KR both have fairly decent reputations for
journalism, so what difference does it make if they merge?
Of course, McClatchy intends to merge the Washington bureaus.
Guess which Washington bureau has the distinction of being the
only one to report skeptically on the administration’s claims
about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction before the war?
Knight-Ridder and its terrific reporters Warren Strobel and
Jonathan Landay. They didn’t have to go to Iraq to get the
story—they found it in Washington: “Lack of Hard Evidence of
Iraqi Weapons Worries Top U.S. Officials.”
I’ve thought for years that newspapers should all be owned by
nonprofits. There is a chance something like this will actually
happen—the Newspaper Guild, in alliance with the Communications
Workers of America, is getting ready to bid on the 12 KR papers
McClatchy has to sell. Eight of the 12 are Guild papers, with
combined employment of 7,000 and circulation of 1.3 million.
Among the 12 are such outstanding newspapers as The Philadelphia
Inquirer, San Jose Mercury News and St. Paul Pioneer Press.
McClatchy can’t swallow all of them, and so the two unions have
turned to a “worker-friendly” investment fund to back their bid.
Keep an eye on this: It is a most hopeful development.
Molly Ivins is the former editor of the liberal monthly The
Texas Observer. She is the bestselling author of several books
including Who Let the Dogs In?
© 2006 Creators Syndicate
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