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Think Again: Bad News About the News

SOURCE: AP/ Elise Amendola

Cutbacks at important regional newspapers, like The Boston Globe, jeopardize the future of serious journalism.

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Covering the media is one of more depressing jobs in journalism but also one of the easiest. Every morning you can wake up to about a dozen websites where the stories of the previous day have already been aggregated for you, often with snappy comments and suggestions of where the story is likely to lead the following day.

Being an old school type, my favorite of these news collectors remains Jim Romenesko, who began the practice longer ago than I can remember. He was supported for a long time by the Poynter Institute, but after splitting with them, he launched JimRomenesko.com, where he does pretty much what he has done from the beginning.

Thing is, the news keeps getting worse and worse. On Tuesday morning I woke up to the following headlines on his site:

  • Boston Globe offers buyouts to 20 newsroom employees.” (The Boston Globe)
  • “Detroit journalists get early retirement offers.” (Crain’s)
  • Newsweek Daily Beast loses support of Harman family. (New York Times)
  • Newsday fires longtime reporter James Bernstein.” (Long Island Business News)
  • Financial Times covers HSBC scandal while its CEO sits on the bank’s board.” (CJR)
  • “Could Kickstarter be used to crowdfund journalism?” (GigaOM.com)

Each of these stories bespeaks bad news for the future of not only journalists and journalism, but also of democracy. Let’s take them one at a time.

The stories

“Boston Globe offers buyouts to 20 newsroom employees.” 

The Boston Globe, owned by The New York Times Company, is today worth but a fraction of the $1.1 billion the Times shelled out for it nine years ago and the Times has given up trying to sell it. And while it continues to put out important stories regarding New England and has recently been leading the pack with its investigations of Bain Capital, it is, following endless rounds of buyouts and layoffs, a shadow of its former self.

But the bad news here is that it has not hit bottom yet and, to be honest, nobody knows where the bottom might be—or even if there is one beyond bankruptcy. The news release doesn’t say how many newsroom employees remain at the Globe and one might say the release wishes to confuse the issue by quoting a figure of “1,881 employees,” neglecting to mention that the vast majority of these never see the inside of the newsroom and have little or nothing to do with the reporting of news.

“Detroit journalists get early retirement offers.” 

Ditto, only doubly so, to the 155 employees pink-slipped by The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, and the partnership that handles their joint business operations. This is on top of roughly 400 job eliminations according to their own count since 2007, and constitutes a bit more than 10 percent of what remains. According to the Crain’s article, Gannett Company Inc., which owns the Detroit Free Press and 95 percent of the partnership—MediaNews Inc. owns The Detroit News and the other 5 percent of the partnership—“has eliminated more than 20,000 jobs across the company since peak employment of 52,600 in 2005, based on its regulatory filings, with the majority of those layoffs coming from the newspaper unit.”

Newsweek Daily Beast loses support of Harman family”

This story is self-explanatory from its headline. Its larger implication, however, is that the private millionaire/billionaire who is willing to sustain multimillion dollar losses to support traditional journalism is not a business model that is likely to work. When 92-year old Sidney Harman, whose assumption of Newsweek’s debt from The Washington Post saved it from extinction, died in April of last year, his family pledged to continue the commitment he had made to funding Newsweek.

A year later, not so much. Now Harman’s partner in the enterprise, media tycoon Barry Diller, is talking about ending the print magazine entirely.  And with it, almost certainly, will go most of the in-depth reporting and investigation that a print publication requires to sustain.

Newsday fires longtime reporter James Bernstein.” 

In this story Jim Bernstein, a veteran Newsday reporter whose work has been a mainstay of the publication’s business section for decades, has been let go after 40 years at the newspaper. Of course it’s impossible to know the truth of the accusations made against Bernstein—he was fired for allegedly touching another (male) employee improperly two years earlier, but he denied it and his lawyer said Newsday found no evidence of wrongdoing by Bernstein:

They brought in a third-party investigator who spoke to everybody in the newsroom,” said James Vagnini, an attorney at Valli Kane & Vagnini in Garden City. “It cost Jim a lot of money to get a lawyer for what he knew was frivolous. The investigator found no substantiation of this employee’s complaint.”

After seeing the employee who accused him, Bernstein later told another employee he was upset with the accuser, who was still employed at the publication. Bernstein was suspended last Tuesday afternoon and formally let go via a telephone call.

“In this situation, which led to Jim’s termination, it’s our position they conducted no investigation whatsoever. Mr. Bernstein denies any wrongdoing,” Vagnini said. “He rolled his eyes and made a comment to another employee that this person cost him all this money to defend something which was frivolous. Then Newsday fires him. I don’t know their grounds for termination for a 40-year employee.

(A Newsday spokesperson said that the company did not comment on personnel matters.)

“Financial Times covers HSBC scandal while its CEO sits on the bank’s board.” 

Rona Fairhead, who heads up the Financial Times Group which owns the Financial Times, is apparently a member of the board of directors of the British-based but global banking giant HSBC Holdings plc, which recently found itself forced to admit to having let Mexican drug lords launder billions of dollars; to helping Iran, among other nations, evade U.S. sanctions; and to making money from working with an Al Qaeda-connected Saudi bank. And that’s just for starters. Fairhead chaired the board’s audit committee and eventually its risk committee.

I’ve not studied the Financial Times’s coverage of the HSBC scandal but it turns out that it hasn’t seen fit to mention its editor’s position on the board. The Columbia Journlism Review notes, “Richard Parsons sat on Citigroup Inc.’s board while he was chairman of Fortune’s parent, Time Warner, Inc.” This shouldn’t have been allowed. It’s not as if Time Warner didn’t pay Parsons enough in the first place, but at least Fortune disclosed its chairman’s role. Transparency is the least we should be able to demand from these behemoths.

“Could Kickstarter be used to crowdfund journalism?” 

This last link led to a story about Chris Killian, a journalist from Kalamazoo, Michigan, who hoped to drive through the swing states of Iowa, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire to take the “pulse of the people.” After Romenesko wrote a story about him, Killian said he had reached his Kickstarter campaign goal. But here’s the kicker: He was only looking for $2,500—$2,000 of which was for gas. The guy promised to live and work out of his 1984 Volkswagen camper van.

What these stories mean for journalism

So what do we learn from this entirely random set of just six  “Morning Report” links? We learn that serious journalism—the kind that both matters in the life of our democracy and in the lives of those individuals—is affected by larger forces.

Would The Boston Globe have been able to undertake its now-famous investigation of the abuse of schoolchildren by Roman Catholic priests and the church’s subsequent cover-up at its current depleted strength? It’s an impossible question to answer but we can be certain it would never have been able to do the job it did and it might not have risked it at all.

And what of the infamous corruption in Detroit’s City Hall in the recent past? Would the criminals still be running things without a vibrant newspaper watchdog? Would the implications of a shrinking auto industry for the area’s middle-class workforce have been discussed at all?

This brings us to the problem of the conglomeratization and concentration of media ownership. Are decisions like those described above made for the long-term health of the newspaper in question (as is always claimed) or for profit? In the case of Jim Bernstein’s firing, it’s impossible for any of us to know for certain the details of what took place, but we do know that papers all over the country are purposely shedding their best-paid, most experienced reporters.

We also know that investigative reporting—the kind at which Bernstein excelled—is by far the most expensive kind and is rapidly disappearing everywhere. As former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. recently wrote, “40 years after Watergate, investigative journalism is at risk.”

Again, without taking sides in this particular dispute, it’s a fair question to ask how long we can pretend that profit-minded business executives are going to invest in the money-losing enterprise of investigative reporting, particularly given how many enemies it tends to make when it goes after people with power.

An example of how complicated these conglomerates can make honest journalism can be found in the examples of Rona Fairhead on the HSBC board and Richard Parsons on the board of Citigroup. It’s not that these execs need to explicitly intervene in the coverage of these institutions and big banks that are paying them and about whose welfare they deeply care. It’s only necessary that the people making editorial decisions know they care and act accordingly.

And how can they not? These execs are, after all, their bosses. In the olden days journalists took pride in ignoring the financial interests of their newspapers, no matter how much money it cost in advertising (or social invitations) to do this or that story. No longer. And the more interests these conglomerates enjoy, the more stories that never even get proposed or written, much less watered down.

And finally, we have at one end of the spectrum the extremely wealthy Harman family withdrawing from their late patriarch’s commitment to fund Newsweek’s future and at the other, the case of the extremely un-wealthy Chris Killian, crowdsourcing the money to live out of his 1984 VW camper to cover the news. Neither story, I’m afraid, offers much hope for the support that honest, decent, and expensive journalism will need to survive—much less thrive—in the future.

Unless we, as a society, take more seriously the emergency of the loss of serious, sourced, and verified news reporting that is only picking up steam (and can be found every morning a media writer wakes up and clicks on Romenesko’s site), we will lose the ability to check the powerful’s ability to manipulate the rest of us as we increasingly leave their victims to their own devices.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

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