PAPER CUTS: I See Dead Newspapers
On March 14, the Los Angeles Times, published by the Otis and Chandler families for 119 years, was swallowed whole by the Chicago Tribune. On the following day, the Tribune trumpeted its entry into the Who Wants To Be King of the MultiMedia World sweepstakes, alongside such industry giants as AOLTimeWarner, DisneyABCTV, Yahoo!KMart, and Rupert Murdoch.Why should it matter to any of us if some newspaper on the left coast gets eaten alive? It matters because, to paraphrase John Donne, the loss of a single independent voice in the media, any voice, diminishes us all.Newspapers are the loss leaders of the information age, and in grave danger of extinction. Their profitability is miniscule compared to magazines, television, and online services. The simple act you are performing at this very moment, reading the daily paper, makes you one of a steadily diminishing minority.Along with pre-fabricated housing, and home furnishings pre-color coordinated by Martha Stewart, when it comes to the news, most Americans are perfectly willing to have somebody else cut their meat for them. TV news, barely distinguishable from TV entertainment, is fed to us in tiny snippets, reality bites engineered to fit neatly between blocks of commercials, the ball scores, weather maps, and traffic updates. It's not "All the news that's fit to print" anymore, it's ïAll the news that fits'.Newspapers are disappearing at an alarming rate. Those that survive are being subsumed, like the LATimes, into larger corporate entities, with the end result that many media outlets speak with one corporate voice.Mergers may be swell for manufacturers of toothpaste and underarm deodorant, for stockholders, for CEO's who exit with golden parachutes, and for the bottom line, because profitability rises when redundancies are removed. But they are antithetical to the function of the media. Media agglomeration produces synergy, and decreases cacophony, the strident chorus of opposing opinions that is the hallmark of a free press and a free society.Consolidation of news and information services has only served to heighten the public's distrust of the media. Last December, in a survey conducted by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 42 percent of respondents considered the media too protective of the owners' business interests, and 35 percent believed that the media was overly responsive to the needs of its own advertisers. And they may have a point.The grave danger implicit in media mergers is that conflicts of interest will be decided in favor of corporate interests, rather than by traditional standards of ethical journalism. As witnessed by the famously unaired ABC News report on hiring practices at Disney World that was killed by Michael Eisner with the stirring words: "I would prefer ABC not cover Disney". Or the decision of CBS to pull the "60 Minutes" piece unfavorable to tobacco sponsors. Time Magazine regularly devotes cover stories to movies like "Pokemon: the First Movie" and "Eyes Wide Shut", produced by its parent company Time Warner. These are not isolated incidents.What makes the passing of the Los Angeles Times especially tragic is that the increase in readership, and revenue, which made the paper such an attractive takeover target, came as a direct result of breaching the wall that traditionally separates editorial content from business interests.In 1995, the Chandler family stockholders hired Mark Willes, a former General Mills executive, to "improve the company's economic status and boost its stock price". Over the next several years, rumours began to circulate that the LATimes was selling the news, by inviting its advertisers to participate in planning future editorial coverage.As it turns out, business managers were not only producing content specifically to increase advertising sales, but, as was revealed in October 1999, secretly shared the paper's revenues with the owners of the Staples Center, a professional sports center that was the subject of a special magazine section.Last November, former publisher Otis Chandler wrote a personal letter of apology to the staff of the LATimes, calling the newspaper's loss of respect and credibility "irreplaceable". The NYTimes called Chandler's action "a striking moment in the effort to protect journalistic integrity from the commercial pressures of a new age in media economics". The NYTimes went on to say that "tension between the business and editorial sides is part of life at any newspaper, including this one. The challenge is to create ways of maintaining journalistic quality and business viability, both of which are essential to a thriving newspaper. That means communicating across the wall without creating an adversary culture or disregarding the values of either side. What the Staples Center controversy brought into the open at The Los Angeles Times was not simply a conquest of business over the newsroom. It was, more dangerously, a failure to understand the contribution that an uncompromised newsroom makes to the business strength" of a newsgathering organization.The principle which guides this newspaper is: "To comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable". Awfully hard to accomplish when the comfortable become the very ones who own you.