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The Decline and Fall of the Times Roman Empire

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If you still read newspapers and magazines, or watch network television for that matter, you are probably aware that times are tough for the mainstream media. Latest casualty: The Rocky Mountain News which folded after 150 years in the press. News rooms across the country are laying off staff and cutting costs. Even the venerable New York Times is forced to sell and lease back its headquarters to stay afloat. Of course, the journalistic consensus is that the fault lies not in themselves but in their competition. In a recent issue of Time Magazine Walter Isaacson blames the Internet for print journalism’s decline:

“The problem is that fewer of these consumers are paying. Instead, news organizations are merrily giving away their news. According to a Pew Research Center study, a tipping point occurred last year: more people in the U.S. got their news online for free than paid for it by buying newspapers and magazines.”

His solution? Micropayment charges that would allow newspapers to collect revenue from Web browsers:

“Under a micropayment system, a newspaper might decide to charge a nickel for an article or a dime for that day's full edition or $2 for a month's worth of Web access. Some surfers would balk, but I suspect most would merrily click through if it were cheap and easy enough.”

Over at the LA Times, David Lazarus, rejects the iTunes model for a new revenue generation, an “iNews” as it were, in favor of a subscription approach that would provide the funding for expensive news gathering:

“But unless we want digital newsrooms staffed by skeleton crews of a dozen or so reporters and editors, we have to accept that it costs money to cover news events, perform investigations and tell yarns.”

Bad times affect not only print but also broadcast television. Under the headline “Broadcast TV Faces Struggle to Stay Viable,” Tim Arango at the New York Times quotes Jeff Zucker of NBC Universal:

“…broadcast television is in a time of tremendous transition, and if we don’t attempt to change the model now, we could be in danger of becoming the automobile industry or the newspaper industry.”

Ouch! As newspapers go the way of the buggy whip, it is appropriate to examine where the defenders of the press have got it wrong, and where they are right. I have included a mention of broadcast television because the news organizations of broadcast media have often adopted the poses and nomenclature of print journalism even though their now digital-based product is quite a different animal.

Defenders of the press as it stands mistake the physical medium of print with the function of the Press in a democracy as envisioned by our nation’s founders. Indeed, the rationale behind including "freedom of the press" in the First Amendment was detailed by Alexander Hamilton in The Federalist #84. Answering the objection that a large central government would be too far away to be effectively monitored and controlled, he wrote:

“The public papers will be expeditious messengers of intelligence to the most remote inhabitants of the Union.”

This is necessary because:

“Of personal observation they can have no benefit. This is confined to the citizens on the spot. They must therefore depend on the information of intelligent men, in whom they confide; and how must these men obtain their information? Evidently from the complexion of public measures, from the public prints, from correspondences with their representatives, and with other persons who reside at the place of their deliberations.” 

The remedy for the dangers of a remote, central government is a system of communication which, of necessity in that colonial era, relied on the printing press to carry word to citizens at a distance from the seats of government. Living at the height of the print era, Hamilton would naturally rely on the printing press as the medium of choice to preserve the transparency of government he deemed essential to a democracy. If the Internet had existed in his time, he might have deferred to any number of Internet blogs rather than to the printing press.

Paul Starr’s epitaph “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to the New Era of Corruption)” in the March 4 issue of The New Republic is one of dozens of recent laments that mistake the medium for the message. Starr assumes that newspapers have everywhere and always lived up to Hamilton’s ideals, or that only through the medium of ink pressed on newsprint can the "Truth" be revealed and corruption curtailed. He notes that:

“Although the rise of broadcast journalism changed the newspaper business, radio and television did not kill it because newspapers retained their local advantages in providing information to readers and connecting advertisers and consumers in a city.”

I was at CBS News in the 1980s when the decision was made to convert the entire news operation from a cost center to a profit center. Salaries of top news stars were increased. News support operations deemed not essential to the primary goal of maximizing ratings were abandoned. For example, CBS News used to employ a staff of full-time research librarians and a facility in-house for news staffers to use in the development of their stories. This was among the first things to go, with a resulting decline in the quality and quantity of fact checking for news productions.

This decision to extract the monetary value of CBS’s crown jewel was not based on ideological or editorial criteria, but on a purely financial one. That such a criterion would ultimately lead to the tarnishing of the jewel never seemed to have occurred to them. The resulting, inevitable degradation of the broadcast news product has also tainted print journalism as newspapers struggled to maintain relevance in the face of sound bite news delivery.

The new information environment of broadcasting required a subtle (or perhaps not so subtle) change in journalistic practices and created a gap between what the public wanted to know and what the public needed to know. This gap, being environmental, was largely invisible until the advent of the Internet. The “amateurs” of this new media environment have brought this gap to the foreground, focusing our attention on unquestioned compromises of mainstream media news gathering and reporting that have little to do with real journalism.

Newspapers’ reliance on advertising and classified revenues has always left them vulnerable in economic downturns. This vulnerability has become critical in the face of simultaneous assault for eyes and minds by a competing medium, the Internet. Had print journalism really fulfilled Hamilton’s vision of the Fourth Estate, large-scale newspapers might still be viable. If collectively newspapers were still the source the distant public could turn to for information important to their lives and well-being, we might not be witnessing newsprint’s end. The problem is that often they did just the opposite. I won’t go into the shortcomings of the obviously biased papers like Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post, the Washington Times or the Chicago Tribune. Even the so-called liberal papers of record like the Washington Post and the New York Times have fallen short of the mark more often then not.

For too long most of the press has gone along with the Washington establishment to get along. Publishers and editors alike mistook the physical ownership of the printing press for the spiritual ownership of Hamilton’s function of the Press.

On both economic and political fronts, the mainstream media often have failed to keep the public informed. Where was any of the press during the length of Madoff Ponzi scandal? More than twenty years in the making, with numerous warnings from whistleblowers like Harry Markopolos, but no financial reporting organization picked up the lead. For that matter, where were the warnings of the current Great Recession? Not only did the mainstream media fail to call the Bush Administration to account during the lead-up to the Iraq War, most of them actively enabled that catastrophic misdirection, including the New York Times whose own Judith Miller helped cheerlead the war.

You don’t have to look only to the most recent events to see the shortcomings of the press. During much of the Vietnam Era if you wanted the straight facts on the War you had to seek out a tiny little independent weekly newsletter by I.F. Stone.

Having consolidated their smaller competitors out of existence, the declining newspapers can’t use the same trick that they used in the face of broadcast journalism, that is exploiting “local advantages in providing information to readers and connecting advertisers and consumers in a city.” This opportunity has been sucked away by the Internet.

In other times of media change, old media found new, albeit smaller niches in which they thrived. When video killed the radio star, radio said “I shrink, therefore FM.” In a similar manner, newspapers must reinvent themselves to survive. By this I don’t mean to find new business models or sources of revenue to continue doing the same old thing. To retain the mantle of the “Fourth Estate,” the old guard media must rediscover what reporting is really about. Maybe the example of I.F. Stone’s Weekly from forty years ago can serve as a model. Stone suggested that if you can’t compete with the media, go small, go independent:

"Reporters tend to be absorbed by the bureaucracies they cover; they take on the habits, attitudes, and even accents of the military or the diplomatic corps. Should a reporter resist the pressure, there are many ways to get rid of him… But a reporter covering the whole capital on his own — particularly if he is his own employer — is immune from these pressures."

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