In another blow to an industry under siege, the Washington Post has announced that it’s closing regional bureaus in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. The paper, it’s owners and editors say, will focus more on politics and local news.
The Post is making cuts for the same reason cuts were carried out at the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Ad revenues continue to decline as advertising dollars are drained away by cable, satellite and the Internet, leaving newspapers less money to spend on news. Remember news? The kind of traditional journalism that requires weeks or months of digging by experienced reporters and editors? The kind of credible, balanced and objective reporting we’ve come to rely on our major newspapers to provide? And that of course, begs the question — where will the news come from when the professional journalists who once went out and got it are no longer there?
The answer is that we will be getting less meat and potatoes news and more sugary and superficial “news lite.” Fewer reporters and editors being told to do more with less will mean less investigative reporting. Fewer newspapers will go to the mat to pry open court proceedings to give us some idea of what’s happening inside our judicial system. Newspapers will increasingly feature pool reports, wire service stories and even news releases disguised as news while more expensive investigative reporting is set aside. And don’t look for more international news. Many overseas bureaus have been shuttered and their correspondents called home.
While things aren’t what they used to be, Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab reports that the problem isn’t that some papers aren’t still making money. They are. According to Nieman: “The problem is that newspaper owners have leveraged their cash flow to the hilt to make risky, ill-considered acquisitions that have now put many of them at, or over, the brink of bankruptcy. Their larger assets — most of the top 100 or so papers (those over 90,000 or so in circulation) — are probably in the red on an operating revenue basis, because they lack the grass-roots small-business advertising support the small dailies have, and are saddled with expensive real estate, distribution arrangements and union contracts. Hence threats to close papers like the Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle. But even if all the chains go bankrupt, operationally profitable assets like small-town dailies will be sold off intact, not shut down.”
Well okay, some of the small town dailies will survive, those that are “operationally profitable,” but that doesn’t answer the question about the news vacuum that’s being created by cutbacks at every major paper from L.A. to New York. I was on hand for three rounds of layoffs in four and one-half years at the Los Angeles Times as the Tribune Company slid into bankruptcy. The editorial staff kept getting smaller even though the Times is one of those Pulitzer Prize winning papers that goes out and does all the digging. It’s one of the papers that come up with the stories that are tomorrow’s news on television, the wire services and the Internet. It’s one of the papers that act as a societal watchdog in D.C. and the state capitol. What if the Los Angeles Times and the other major papers get to a point where they can’t do the job we have come to expect? Or are they already there? According to “Newspaper Deathwatch,” the American newspaper industry is half the size it was in 2006. A few of those small town dailies the Nieman Lab is writing about must have gone under after all?
In an article published in “The Nation” John Nichols and Robert Mcchesney contend that it’s not just newspapers that are in crisis, “…it is the institution of journalism itself. By any measure, journalism is missing from most commercial radio. TV news operations have become celebrity- and weather-obsessed “profit centers” rather than the journalistic icons of the Murrow and Cronkite eras. Cable channels “fill the gap” with numberless pundits and “business reporters,” who got everything about the last decade wrong but now complain that the government doesn’t know how to set things right. Cable news is defensible only because of the occasional newspaper reporter moonlighting as a talking head. But what happens when the last reporter stops collecting a newspaper paycheck and goes into PR or lobbying? She’ll leave cable an empty vessel and take the public’s right to know anything more than a rhetorical flourish with her.”
Welcome to the future. This new era of “news lite” will be great for greedy corporate fatcats and shady politicians. It will be a boon to anyone who fears the truth and justice that journalism brings to a culture. I almost wrote “truth, justice and the American way.” Well, if ever we needed Clark Kent, Lord knows we need him now.