News is what somebody else wants suppressed. All the rest is advertising.—Lord Northcliffe
Advertising is the heart and soul of the free press.—Josephus Daniels
Regarding the decade-long, ritual suicide of the US paper and ink “news” business, it seems to me the disaster is unfolding via two factors: (1) The smartest guys in the room, as is so often the case, aren’t and/or (2) there is likely some deliberate nature to this.
Other nations’ newspapers seem to be bearing up reasonably well. It isn’t so much that people don’t “like” newspapers anymore; on the contrary, surveys show that a desire for them remains high. It is simply that more and more readers are dissatisfied with today’s offerings. What is so unique about the Land of the Free, Home of the First Amendment? Newspapers are unequivocal in pointing the fingers of blame at the Internet, as if it were a vampire wolf gobbling precious advertising revenue. But sagging ad revenue is just another symptom.
In olden times, newspapers were operated by individuals, families and groups who valued (or claimed to value) quality reporting and content. By contrast, today’s newspaper is just another financial venture increasingly under the purview of Wall-Street bean-counters whose concerns are profits—and in the case of the news biz, double-digit profits. In the pursuit of money, quality has suffered.
“We’re boring, predictable, thin in our coverage and often intellectually lazy and shallow,” said William Hartnett of the Palm Beach Post.
There is a business strategy called the “Boston Box.” The next-to-last-step in a commercial product’s life-cycle is the “cash cow” stage: sucking all the money one can from a mature product by lowering production costs and, if possible, buying the competition. Newspapers have long relied on monopoly status to insure fat profits, as seen earlier in the acquisition of evening papers, such as The Raleigh Times by The News and Observer. The feeding frenzy escalated to where today (in the sector of corporate media) a handful of syndicates and a little over one hundred people control most everything one reads, hears and sees. An obvious downside is that when there is nobody chewing on your ass, when there is no threat, expending the energy to survive becomes superfluous. An analogy would be a species of bird which lands on an island with no predators and forgets how to fly—the dodo, for example, an ungainly, flightless, now-extinct creature.
Locally, this sort of evolution was displayed by both The News and Observer and The Independent. The Indy’s decision to buy Spectator from Creative Loafing, so I was told, emerged from the two publications’ bloody fight over ad revenue. The fix was—buy the competition. This thirst for ad revenue cost the Indy a million dollars more than the seven-fifty K Creative Loafing paid Bernie Reeves for Spectator a few years before and immediately placed the Indy under a staggering debt load. The Indy’s next move, mindful of that hillbilly who might live in a chicken coop, but by Gawd, gonna drive that new Cadillac, was to their new top-shelf headquarters on Pettigrew, which padded some egos—and their debt. Meanwhile, as the newspaper biz began to roll off the table, the N&O’s owner, McClatchy, went deep and bought another newspaper chain, Knight-Ridder, as prescient as going to a Hummer dealership this June and throwing down on a brace of H2s for the family.
When the money got tight, both papers’ reactions were as to a badger in a leg hold trap: start gnawing off staff, contributors and sections. At the Indy, when the call for cuts went out, former editor Richard Hart bravely supported his writers, salvaging, for instance, my column—at half pay. A new editor later, I was sausage.
“There’s nothing in the News and Observer,” said my bud Richard Martin. “It gets thinner and thinner with the same boring stories day after day. The local stuff isn’t even there anymore. Looks like pretty soon the N&O will be a three day tabloid.”
In the absence of reporting, content has to come from somewhere. Wire services and the biggies like The New York Times have become wholesalers for the black stuff to fill the white spaces between the ads. News has become a commodity, no different than hog bellies and aluminum ore, to be purchased as cheaply as possible. Most US papers are mere cribbed versions of every other paper.
Besides preserving profit, there is a quiet benefit to da man that remains in the shadows for this sort of squeezing of news. The necking of information gives the elite a dang-near Orwellian level of control we’ve seen developing for some time. In 1972, Senator Frank Church’s Senate hearings uncovered the CIA’s Operation Mockingbird, where the “company” steered public opinion through moles salted in the US newspapers and broadcast outlets. The upshot was, well—nothing, to the point that a decade after the hearings, the CIA ended up owning Capital Cities (ABC) during the Iran-Contra affair.
A threat to the control is occurring with the Internet-fueled public rejection of corporate/government (for they are inseparable) bullshit. For example, the unflinching PR service Dick Cheney’s ink-stained lackeys provided for the Bush Administration’s pre-invasion crack-pipe WMD claims led to the current US Profade (a variation on Crusade) a for-profit military adventure promulgated by the neo-cons and their boot-lickers in the Democratic controlled US Congress. To this day, the press insists on terming the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan “wars,” a word connoting a military contest between powers or nations, which they were at first (although illegal ones, in that those nations were attacked for reasons that were simply untrue). Wars? Nope. Each day of military operations are simply additions to a growing mound of crimes: murder, assault and destruction of property.
Like fractals where the smallest oak twig mirrors the largest adult specimens, there are similarities shared by the Indy and the largest newspaper consortiums like McClatchy. The cuts lead to reader flight which induces further cuts—and so forth, very like a speed wobble on a motorcycle where the rider’s frantic attempts to maintain control exacerbate what started as a minor instability and puts them in the ditch. Indy and McClatchy business and editorial decisions have been accompanied by significant drops in readership. At the Indy, decreasing circulation may or may not have been intentionally concealed until they got busted and had to alter the masthead figure from a fictitious “50,000,” to “The Triangle’s largest locally-owned newspaper,” instead of the correct 38,000 and change.
Dig it, y’all: readers are bailing from your papers because of decreases in quality of coverage and content. But, unlike the old days, when the reading newsie was faced with a choice of a monopoly newspaper or the deep blue, today, there are choices. In the absence of credible, interesting information, thinking readers are fleeing in search of valid, factual content.
The largest casualty may be the newspaper itself. Some don’t mourn the loss, citing, correctly, that newspapers are ecological nightmares in terms of resources and expensive to produce (business being, as we all know, in business to make money). But the larger issue is access to information. The demise of the hard-copy newspaper will remove that record from permanent availability, as anyone who has been stymied in a search for an item formerly on the Internet will attest to.
But there is also that the disturbing and antidemocratic specter of visually-based information cum propaganda, disseminated by sources like television and yes, the Internet, will further supplant reading, an act which requires reflection and thinking. The growing non-reading majority is, wrote Pulitzer Prize writer Chris Hedges, “dependent on skillfully manipulated images for information,” and has “separated itself from the literate print-based culture. It cannot differentiate between lies and truth. It is informed by simplistic childish narratives and cliches.” The looming and avoidable demise of the printed newspaper and its attendant losses could very well be nigh, a demise that in no small way lies with newspapers themselves.