or: slashing the staff like this could results in assault charges
or: Remaining News Staff required to perform miracles, also to cure cancer before fiscal quarter
Well, it is with a heavy heart and a cold sweat that I have to write this piece on the further death nell of the Newspaper industry. I say newspaper because all indications show that the online/television media are fairing relatively well. All signs point to the eventual demise of the printed paper on a wide scale and little can be done, it seems, but for industry leaders to continue to cut off fingers and limbs so as to slow the gangrene-like spread of the infection until they can find a cure for what ails news, the most valuable use of movable type in my humble opinion. With companies reporting massive ad revenue losses, circulation decline, and current business models failing like a bad monkey heart transplant, there has been no choice but to make sweeping layoffs, close reporting bureaus, and to close down papers all together. Though reporters and their families are the immediate victims of this necessary blood letting, the real victim here will undeniably be the American public with less diverse and more poorly researched and fact checked stories as the remaining reporting force is stretched thin to continue to deliver the same level of content with less resources and editorial oversight.
Recently the Times Co. issued a statement that they would be cutting some 100 jobs from now until Dec. 31, which accounts for 8% of it’s newsroom staff. This is only the first sign of how many jobs it will cut, being as this is only the first number since it cut 100 jobs in this same type of program last year. The Times Co. as of 2008 employed some 1,300 employees. That number today is difficult to calculate, but they have had regular rounds of layoffs, and with revenue dropping by the millions every quarter you can bet that the layoffs are going to come more rapidly in the coming year. Up to this point it was cutting in to their profits, stock dropping, but they didn’t have to make the severe cuts. Now it has become apparent that a company of this size, a company that was founded in 1851, is beginning to buckle under its own weight, its spindly legs of analog media can’t support its decrepit, obese form any longer. You have to understand that the Times Co. also owns the Boston Globe, the International Herald Tribune, and about 15 other regional publications as well as a minority stock holding in the Boston Red Sox, a fact that a lot of New York sports fans probably don’t know, if they did I think the circulation would fall through the floorboards over night.
In addition to one of the largest publishing organizations making cuts the Wall Street Journal is simply closing its doors on the Boston Bureau it has maintained for many years, try 100 of them, which generally contributed reports on New England, health care, education, and financial services. Yes, this is what we need, an industry leading, pulitzer winning bureau that covers these pivotal topics at a time like this. Dow Jones & Co., who on the Wall Street Journal have taken drastic measures recently with salary cuts, hiring freezes, completely closing some regional publications, and most recently cutting 50 jobs, leaving the company with only 750 employees world wide. 750, that is only 150 more employees than the LA Times currently employs; in 2007 the LA Times employed 1,200 employees. As you can see we’re not just losing ho-bunk back water papers, the leaders of this industry are failing every day as times get more and more complicated and good news coverage becomes critical.
Are you about to slit your wrists journalism students? A few hesitation cuts while you get the nerve up to pull it off? Well I’ve got exactly what you need to close the deal; The East Valley Tribune, after some 118 years of publication, is turning off the presses and calling it a day Dec. 31, 2009. Yes, a paper that has service Phoenix and the surrounding areas for more than a century could not survive despite cutting staff by 40% and scaling production back to only four days a week. The problem might have come from their parent company claiming bankruptcy recently, but one can’t be sure. In putting the paper up for sale the closest thing they got to a serious offer was a oily haired jukebox salesman in an ’84 caddy who offered $500 dollars, a Wurlitzer at factory cost, and a buffalo head nickel. The deal fell apart when they wanted all of the 45’s thrown in for free and ol’ Neil commented that he wasn’t gonna get hosed like that without getting kissed first. You might say that who gives a shit about the Phoenix area? Well it has stood for a long time as the largest growing community in America, a growing readership pool to draw from every year, and the pulitzer prize winning paper continued to lose circulation and ad revenue. If a paper in a growing community with more potential readers moving there every year can’t survive, then who can?
This is only a portion of the bad news, a small sliver of the awful news coming from the financial front. Every single day bad news streams in and I just can’t publish all of it, for the mere fact that I can’t stand to analyze it as I try to break in to an industry that is hemorrhaging revenue and dropping employees like a pinata exploded. The WGA East (Writers Guild of America) issued some statements that echo my own concerns. I find that the most disconcerting fact that I think we are all failing to recognize is what the guild refers to as a difficulty to provide “reliable, informative material in the face of unrelenting budget cuts.” This is exactly how I feel as a journalist. What is occurring is news gathering organizations attempting to provide the same level of coverage with less staff to do so. What happens is now you have employed staff journalists required to now cover more ground, which will stretch them thin on accuracy and in depth, thoughtful coverage. Then, in a sick twist of fate, now there are fewer checks and balances as to the accuracy and quality of this writing in less research staff and editorial oversight leaving far too many wholes for poor journalism to fall through.
What we have here is maybe comparable to a regimen of men trying to hold a line, defend against an enemy and without warning half their force is called away, so now you have half the fighting force holding the same stretch of land; it is too much for too few to cover, no matter how hard they try and with whatever conviction they have, it will not be the same caliber as when they had more men. This thinning of the ranks leads to less accurate, and to a greater extent less thoughtful and in depth reporting. The 100 year old Boston Bureau I mentioned earlier won its Pulitzer prizes for investigative reporting on favoritism in university admissions to the children of Alumni as well as shady business practices of backdated stocks for company executives. The first casualty of this cut back will be the time consuming, heavily researched, and expensive practice of investigative reporting. The in depth kind of work that you don’t get without a company putting journalism first. Where we have ended up, and are heading to like a bat out of hell is now ‘bottom-line journalism’ on two fronts; basic, bare bones daily reporting coupled with cost first decision making on what gets covered and how.
Years ago journalism starting taking its cues from tabloids and sensationalizing stories. This is the time of the likes of Fox News coming to supremacy in the network battles. When you started listening to pundits and stopped watching the nightly news. The loudest voices and the most controversial personalities became the leaders in news, and then you have Glenn Beck in a league unto himself. News became about salacious headlines and quick witted propaganda, but to a greater extent it just became about entertainment. What was tolerable was that you had relatively legitimate news organizations to cover everything else and deliver unbiased news on a daily basis. Those that wanted real news coverage could get it. What also aided in the tolerability of the situation was that there were many voices, many sources, and great staff members checking and rechecking facts as well as layers of editors and publishers sifting through work to prevent bias and misinformation to greater extent. This slashing of staff and research budgets is now leaving fewer voices, 50% at some papers as other just close their doors. Now the diversity of coverage has been compromised, the quality of coverage has been compromised, and to a greater extent, the publics trust has been compromised.
I want you to, for just a moment, imagine a world without the LA Times, NY Times, and USA Today. Where will you get the news? You can’t get there? OK, how about a more nefarious and dangerous situation, imagine only the NY Times, or the LA Times, or the USA Today. This is the great disaster you will have to come to terms with eventually. Imagine a world where everyone has gone bankrupt and one company, one news gathering organization stands as the only publication left. What if there was a bias, or if they decided to not cover certain things? Without other companies to compete with, without a need to fact check they could run rough shod over the world, and God forbid you get a publisher or owner with an axe to grind, bias could run amok upon it’s pages with no way for you, the reader, to compare facts and try to get the whole story. It would be a Stars and Stripes kind of situation during Vietnam; smooth over the bad news and beef up stories with false facts and embellishment whatever news fit your agenda (also see ex. FOX News). Absolute anarchy as the public can’t get the real story or be informed enough to make a decision about Presidential candidates, bills up for a vote, etc. You don’t want to be there, I know I don’t.
This is a scary situation that needs immediate attention as diversity and quality in reporting begins to deteriorate in the public sector. A bailout is out of the question, the newspapers didn’t get in line soon enough and with all of the healthcare reform spending a TARP money, there isn’t enough to go around, so papers are shit out of luck for Government help. Besides, if the Obama Administration got its fingers in to free press the effects and distrust by the public in reporting would go through the roof. A share of the Times Co. in the Obama back pocket would only fuel the flames of the communist and fascist sentiment some have for the administration. I have heard rumors that the companies I have spoken of in this piece may be considering creating a united front with other groups to team up and begin charging for premium content or online subscriptions all at once. This would not create an immediate flocking from those who charge to those who don’t. A kind of Newspaper Alliance to help everyone and hurt no one so that they can all try and move in to an era of online profitability that has been lacking ever since the 90’s.
I promise you that the fall of the news empires in this country is not over, it will be getting much darker before there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and I predict the fall of a titan Newspaper like the Boston Globe or a paper with a readership nearing one million on Sunday editions going down before people begin to take serious notice. It will take the fall of a news empire or the sale of the LA Times to bring the spotlight squarely on the industry. Can you imagine if the NY Times were put up for sale or eventually just had to claim bankruptcy. It is not entirely impossible as being a publicly traded company, if stock were to fall to a buck a share the company would crumble, massive closing of international bureaus, layoffs, etc., the company could be in ruin inside 90 days from the stock falling. A world without the NY Times would a be a terrible place given the fact it would shake confidence in others and possibly lead to a domino effect resulting in the ugly world I mentioned in the last paragraph.
Embrace of online media will help, but it is not going to fix the problem, you don’t make up 60% ad revenue declines by charging .99 micro-charges for weekly subscriptions to the Times. A complete restructuring of the business model will need to take place to find a profitable design for the 21st century paper. In the meantime you, the readers and general public need to be wary of reporting, check your own facts and dig deeper to find the information that you need to form opinions and make decisions. As the journalists are stretched thin and expected to perform miracles on a daily basis for less money on tighter deadlines without the needed support staff I ask that you forgive inaccuracies and instead pick up more than just the one paper. Take a cue from me, I read the LA Times, NY Times, USA Today, as well as my local papers to check facts and try to get the whole story as well as a wide array of different stories. I don’t subscribe to any of these papers, I read them online for free, bad aspiring journalist, I know, but I put in the leg work to be assured that I am as diversely informed as possible. What you now need to do is support papers more than ever by doing the job of research assistant, reporter, editor, and publisher at multiple papers to get your news. You now do the same job four people used to do at the paper…welcome to modern journalism, you have to get your own coffee, too, we had to fire Jimmy last week.