--by Mike Murray
Are you old enough to remember when the media in your town presented news from a variety of perspectives? Do you recall a time when editorial content sprang from truly diverse sources, when it included widely competing points of view?
For most Americans, those days are long gone.
Economics are partly to blame. While our nation’s population has exploded over the past few decades, newspaper circulation has not. In many cases, there have been outright drops in paid subscriptions. But even for those publications that have been able to hold steady in an absolute way, the relative news is still bad.
Because against a growing base of potential readers, they are undeniably losing ground. The simple truth is that the percentage of Americans who pay to receive print news is shrinking. Proportionately fewer and fewer people – a steadily declining number per one hundred residents – fork over cash to receive hard-copy news delivery.
There was a time when this phenomenon was a boon for some. When the Cleveland market, for example, could no longer support two daily newspapers, one succumbed. In the wake of reduced competition, the other thrived. At least for a while. The victor gained circulation that the vanquished surrendered. Moreover, as the sole survivor it gained leverage with advertisers whose options had suddenly shrunk.
But what goes around often comes around. The market forces (declining readership and rising costs prime among them) that years ago overtook one Cleveland newspaper today nip at the heels of its surviving competitor. Clouds now darken that daily’s horizon, too.
Companies that find themselves in such difficulty employ a variety of strategies to preserve financial health. Belt-tightening measures are enacted in stages. It begins with departmental budgets that are scrutinized by bean counters with very sharp pencils. Travel and expense accounts are slashed to bare essentials. Hiring decisions are very carefully considered.
Eventually, companies turn to attrition: when employees quit or retire, some are not replaced. News-gathering staffs (national ones, most especially) are pared to the bone. More and more stories are “gleaned” from the Internet, picked up off “the wire,” or purchased from other publications. (These days in Greater Cleveland, for example, readers perusing bylines doubtless wonder if they’ve inadvertently subscribed to the New York Times or the Washington Post – or to some other like-minded publication, rather than to their local newspaper.)
As things worsen, financial hardship requires reduction in staff that cannot wait for attrition. Employees, if they’re lucky, are offered buyout packages as incentive to leave or retire early. Those who stay face uncertain futures. They roll the dice, because some will probably end up being laid off. And layoff is a form of forced separation that almost always lacks the generosity of buyout.
Still, the news is not all bad. It is hard to imagine that print will die. Much like the Ford Motor Company, many publications can probably ride out the storm by retrenching. By aggressively trimming overhead they greatly improve their chances for survival. (Cold comfort, to be sure, to those employees who are let go.) In leaner, more efficient form most publications can – and should – endure. At their best, they provide a valuable service.
But for consumers, the picture is not rosy. Because there are consequences of declining circulations that negatively impact us. One is obvious. When Cleveland lost its second daily, it lost its editorial board as well. The city lost the natural tension that exists between rival publications, a byproduct of which is diversity of thought.
And when national news staffs are decimated – and stories are instead imported from a small group of cooperating media outlets – objectivity is further eroded. (It is a wasted exercise to debate the partisanship that exists in the news organs that are routinely turned to in such cases. Either you’re in the group that sees it or you’re in the one that doesn’t. Neither camp seems capable of persuading the other of anything.)
But almost everyone agrees on one thing: The fewer the means and methods by which news is gathered, the less likely is reasonableness a result. And no one can deny that drastic cuts in resources are reducing – at an alarming rate – options within the traditional media.
And that is disturbing. The horizontal integration inherent in consolidated journalistic efforts is problematic enough since it undermines the competition necessary to keep reporting balanced. But it gets even worse. There is lately the troubling practice of “partnering.”
If there is anything that can further deteriorate the quality of news and opinion presentation beyond the practice of “horizontal” integration, it is coupling it with its “vertical” cousin.
Consider how the practice of “partnering” – of vertically integrating the news – works in the Cleveland area. Here we have one daily newspaper. We also have a weekly publication (edited into separate editions, tailored for different sections of the region). While there is some overlap in readership, their audiences are not precisely the same. Some folks subscribe only to the daily, others only to the weekly.
Although owned by the same parent company, the newspapers for years maintained a reasonable degree of journalistic separation. They had completely different staffs after all, and somewhat different audiences. But, no doubt spurred by economic considerations, they’ve lately begun to share resources (web site, reporting, etc.) and have openly alerted readers to enhanced collaboration.
On the surface, that makes sense. An elimination of “redundancies” improves efficiency and the bottom line. But it has a chilling effect, too. It reduces the robustness of news gathering and reporting, and it severely narrows the process by which positions emerge.
Because while “partnering” for them might seem innocuous – merely a natural means of reducing overall expense – such is not the simple case. When voting issues have recently appeared on Northeast Ohio ballots, for example, the publications have been more “on the same page” editorially than in the past.
A result is that one point of view now achieves expression in two publications, and reaches – and influences – a much wider audience. Another result is that dissent is potentially subordinated (if not suppressed altogether).
Even worse, newsprint resource-sharing is nowhere near the full extent of “partnering” and of news consolidation in Greater Cleveland. Our daily newspaper now has similar arrangements with several other media outlets – involving a variety of delivery mechanisms.
In addition to its relationship with its sister print-publication, the newspaper today has a collaborative agreement with a local television station, with at least one for-profit radio outlet, and – perhaps most troubling – with public radio and television affiliates.
The central appeal of “public broadcasting” is its supposed independence from for-profit influence. When public outlets partner with corporate-owned ones, they get in bed with them to a degree. Which should not come as a surprise to current viewers; the “sponsorship” spots that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting airs these days (on its member PBS and NPR stations) are nearly indistinguishable from the advertisements that companies run on for-profit stations.
While some steps that print publications have taken to ensure survival are understandable, the ones that they have taken to control news presentation – and to subsequently control public opinion – are not. It is one thing to pool resources in an effort to cut costs. It is quite another to attempt to extend editorial reach by uniting with (what should be) competing news organizations.
Mainstream media members love to bash Internet activity. To be sure, the World Wide Web is a realm of inconsistent quality. Blogging involves content that spans the spectrum, from the ridiculous to the sublime. But its existence is absolutely essential these days to the free exchange of information and ideas.
When the framers of the Constitution included the First Amendment, their notion of a “free press” was not as narrow as many in the media today interpret it. Framers lived in an era that preceded radio, television, telephones, and computers. Information was shared in simple ways back then; the printing press was the sole means of mechanized mass communication.
Rather than intending to endow a specific industry (the paid media) with unique or special rights, drafters of the First Amendment no doubt meant to guarantee that news be reported, that opinion be expressed, and that ideas be shared in diverse and unfettered ways. The framers surely meant to prevent a situation that accorded select entities – governmental or commercial – exclusivity or dominance over speech.
For all its flaws, the Internet more faithfully manifests the intent of “free speech” envisioned by our forefathers than does much of what is today offered by the corporate-owned, mainstream media.
Newspapers that coordinate too closely with other newspapers, and with for-profit and not-for-profit television and radio stations, do a free society no favors. When they integrate the horizontal and vertical mechanisms of news distribution in attempts to guide content and sway opinion – and to influence elections – they fail to act in the best public interest.
Television networks that similarly partner with national cable and newsprint organizations – sharing resources and on-air “personalities” – likewise stifle competing, dissenting points of view. Whether intentional or not, excessive collaboration between media outlets homogenizes news and opinion and flies in the face of First Amendment intent.
No matter how well-intentioned some professionals within the traditional media may be, funneling news and opinion through narrowing conduits is not a good idea. The potential for group-think, controlled by a very small segment of our society, is just too great – just too dangerous – a prospect.
Here in Greater Cleveland we have a media outlet that ambitiously refers to itself as an “idea stream.” Given its participation in a network of increasingly consolidated news and opinion delivery, however, the entire group would more accurately be characterized as an ideology stream. To the dismay of many, such streams are becoming all-too prevalent across America.
Copyright © 2007 Michael F. Murray -- All rights reserved.