Journalism in trouble – and not because of Donald Trump

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America is in danger of losing its independent press, and almost everyone is blaming it on the wrong things. I’m not arguing that there is no threat from “alternative facts,” or the preference for security over freedom, or the balkanization of media in the age of the Internet, or reporters knowingly or unknowingly slanting what they report; all of these can be real issues. But none of them is the biggest problem. The biggest problem is economic, and it could do far more harm to our Republic than these other issues combined.

In 1970, the year I broke into radio news as a senior in high school, most large and medium-sized cities had two newspapers, three television stations with newsrooms, and at least half a dozen radio stations, of which four or five had actual news operations. Even in fairly small towns a newspaper typically employed several full-time reporters; in big cities they would employ scores of them.

All radio and television stations were required to do some news. Some did “real news,” with people actually going to news events and interviewing people. Some employed only the newscasters you heard on the air, but they could do phone interviews between broadcasts. The rest carried the newscasts of radio networks, of which there were several, or to the AP or UPI wire services, which maintained news-gathering bureaus “across the nation, around the world,” as the Mutual Broadcasting System was still saying on the air when I joined it in 1977.

The Federal Communications Commission forbade any company from owning more than five TV stations, five FM radio stations, and seven AM radio stations. That created an economic incentive to own stations in larger cities and invest heavily in their operations to gain maximum audience and charge maximum for commercials. Television stations made a lot of money because the cloth was cut so few ways. Cable in the 1960s was seen mainly as a means of getting broadcast signals into rural areas and even by 1971 it still wasn’t much of a factor. Executives of the three TV networks CBS, NBC and ABC confidently said there would never be a 24-hour news network on television because it wasn’t technically or economically possible to generate enough content. Not everyone watched Walter Cronkite, who anchored the CBS Evening News from 1962 to 1981, but most who didn’t, watched the Huntley-Brinkley Report on NBC, which aired until July 31, 1970, just a few weeks before I did my first report on WNAV Annapolis shortly before starting my senior year in high school. The very few not watching the news on CBS or NBC watched ABC, where Harry Reasoner, ex-CBS, would join Howard K. Smith in December 1970.

Fast forward 10 years to 1980 – I’m in my twenties, married with kids, and at Mutual now, after working at three radio stations and moonlighting at two weekly newspapers. Things now begin changing rapidly. Ted Turner founded Cable News Network – it went on the air June 1, 1980. Its evening anchor: Bernard Shaw, who worked for CBS and ABC. He’s retired but still with us at 76. (At the Honolulu funeral of a mutual friend I mistook him for the funeral director because he was wearing a suit – until I heard his voice.) By 1983 there is a second cable news service called Satellite News Channel, and CNN responds by creating its own second service Headline News Network. Three networks – doing what TV news executive considered impossible a mere decade earlier. CNN later bought SNC and folded it, but other news operations followed including Fox News and MSNBC.

The Federal Communications Commission relaxed the rules both for radio news and radio station ownership. Ultimately it removed most limitations on ownership. Today the largest owner of radio stations has more than 800. It’s not unusual for a single company to own half a dozen radio stations, operating from a single physical plant. As all-news radio became increasingly successful by emphasizing traffic and weather, music stations, which had always done the minimum news they could get away with, stopped doing it altogether except in morning drive time. The FCC killed radio news on stations other than all-news formats, first by reducing requirements for it, second by allowing companies to own more stations, which led to leveraged takeovers of chains by other chains, after which the surviving chains reduced spending at local stations to maximize profits and pay down the debt they incurred to buy the stations in the first place.

While all this was going on, newspapers structured for afternoon delivery were dying, victims both of the evening news on television and the worsening afternoon traffic that impeded delivery while reducing free time for workers to read a paper after getting home.

And all this was before the World Wide Web.

During those years when all radio stations did news, even those who merely read stories delivered by wire services were paying money to the AP and UPI, which collected even more money from newspapers. UPI, which relied mainly on afternoon newspapers, went into decline long before I got there in 1984, and over the next 13 years I watched it shrink more. The AP secured many subscribers who left UPI, but others simply stopped taking a wire service altogether, especially radio stations that stopped doing news altogether.

The decline of “wire services” matters a lot because most newspapers, radio stations, television stations and even online news service relied on the surviving wire services as the basis of their own reporting, if any. Countless broadcast reporters regarded “reporting” as calling someone quoted in a wire service service, recording an interview, and basically replicating what the AP story already said.

But as the number of news outlets declined, the AP increasingly relied on “electronic carbons” from its member newspapers, retelling stories that were actually gathered by its own subscribers. And the problem with that is that newspapers, which generated most of that content, cut back on their reporting staffs as they went into financial decline themselves.

Everything starts with reporting, with actual journalists attending events and interviewing sources and finding stuff out. The fewer people are doing that, the more news becomes a recitation of press releases, in which the news is shaped by the principals, not curated by professional journalists at all.

Based on circumstances here in Honolulu, I suspect there are more people, perhaps several times more people, paid to write stories about their clients, the way their clients want their stories told, than there are actual reporters generating stories. Those reporters who remain are constrained by time and money considerations.

The smaller the city, the worse this is. Honolulu, a medium-sized city, still has several competing news organizations, and even the TV stations do original reporting every day. Residents of some of America’s smaller towns are lucky if they learn even a small fraction of what is going on.

The AP reported a 2% decline in revenues last year while costs rose 2%, though it hopes to save millions from having moved to cheaper New York headquarters. Last year it laid off some news personnel.

Moving can indeed save big money, though when United Press International moved from New York to Washington it incurred all sorts of unexpected costs, and even a windfall 10% ownership of a new office building, bestowed on the company just for allowing the use of its name, was sacrificed later to raise funds for one payroll.

A friend of mine has bucked the trend. She built a community newspaper into a successful business. This can still work in a town that is big enough to support a local paper but not big enough to support other local media, though even then it requires someone with the energy and will of my friend.

I point this out, not to dismiss other challenges to modern journalism and the American citizenry, but to encourage you to also consider the financial threat to original reporting of any kind.

 

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