'I read the news today, oh boy ...'

Aug 6, 2008 at 12:00 am

Spend some time on the "future of news" conference circuit, as I have recently, and believe me, you'll need a drink and perhaps a Prozac. The flight of readers and advertisers to the web has led to an unprecedented assault on stockholder value, making newspapers the investment equivalent of slow-motion seppuku. For instance, on July 11, Alan Mutter's invaluable Reflections of a Newsosaur blog reported that in "perhaps the worst single trading day ever" for the newspaper business, "the shares of seven publicly held newspaper companies today plunged to the[ir] lowest point in modern history." When these losses continued to accelerate, Mutter calculated that newspaper stocks had shed an amazing $3.9 billion in value in just the first 10 trading days of July, leading to the disappearance of more than 35 percent of these companies' combined stock price in 2008 alone.

It's been nearly two and a half years since the much-missed Molly Ivins observed of media moguls that, "for some reason, they assume people will want to buy more newspapers if they have less news in them and are less useful." And yet the strategy continues unabated. The Los Angeles Times just announced that it will cut loose another 250 people, including 150 in the newsroom — this on top of a series of job cuts by the previous owners, which led to a revolving door of resigning editors and publishers who could not in good conscience carry out the cuts demanded of them.

As a result of this avalanche of industrywide layoffs, buy-outs and firings, Mutter notes, the industry's age-old ratio of one journalist per thousand papers in circulation is about to disappear. But as a contributor to Romenesko pointed out, this is "a self-correcting mechanism. As subscribers find less and less to read because newspaper staffs are thinned too much to produce quality copy, subscriptions will lapse and the ratio will be restored — until, of course, additional layoffs refresh the cycle."

For those who embrace the now omnipresent mantra that the staff will simply have to "do more with less," blogger Kevin Roderick of LA Observed notes, "Yes you can put out a good paper with 700 staffers — but not a better paper than the one paying customers are already fleeing."

Corporate responses have also included: asking an already dispirited staff to take a 10 percent pay cut (The Boston Globe); raising the newsstand price by 33 to 50 percent (Gannett, The Wall Street Journal); drastically reducing the newspaper's news/advertising ratio (all Tribune papers); turning the paper's Sunday magazine over to the business staff (The Los Angeles Times); reducing the physical size of the newspaper and cutting down on the news hole (everyone); buying out experienced, knowledgeable staff members and replacing them with underpaid novices (everyone); and closing foreign and national bureaus (almost everyone).

Virtually the only expense still intact is executive pay. On the Recovering Journalist blog, Mark Potts notes that the average compensation among the thirteen public-company newspaper CEOs was just under $6 million a year in 2007, according to corporate proxy filings with the SEC. These figures, one can only conclude, are entirely unrelated to performance.

The dearth of decent ideas designed to save newspapers — or reinvent them for the digital age in ways that preserve their crucial democratic functions — is curious and depressing. It's curious because some of the smartest, most ambitious and most civic-minded people in America are deeply engaged with the problem. It is depressing because the only ones with the self-confidence to undertake radical measures appear to be completely off their respective rockers.

Take the example of the Tribune Company's new owner, Sam Zell. Leaving aside his penchant for potty-mouth rejoinders for those who question his judgment, Zell has done nothing to slow the slide in the company's fortunes and much to accelerate it. Scrambling like mad for cash to service the company's debt, Zell sold off the profitable Newsday and borrowed $300 million against future earnings, a clear sign of panic. To advise him on long-term strategy, he has appointed as "chief innovation officer" Lee Abrams, a man who was apparently surprised to learn that reports datelined "Baghdad" are actually produced by reporters in Baghdad. His suggestion: "photos of the reporter with Iraqi kids" to advertise this fact.

Writing on his blog, Abrams mused that newspapers were "TOO NPR" (caps in original), which he found "a bit elitist." He would rather have newspapers "study the feel of a well honed All News Radio station," which he defines as "being INTELLIGENT ... not intellectual."

The more one listens to the men and women at the top of the industry, the more it becomes obvious that the survival of the newspaper — the primary information-gathering and knowledge-disseminating instrument of American democracy — is going to have to come from somewhere else. Sure, the blogosphere makes some invaluable contributions and a few foundations are rising to the challenge of funding investigative journalism. Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian recently suggested to me that universities might attach a small fee to their students' tuition — like an activities fee — to pay for the newspaper subscription of their choice. This would improve the newspapers' bottom line, give their advertisers access to a coveted demographic and, if successful, would inculcate in the students the habit of newspaper reading as they approach maturity as voting citizens. It's a great idea, and unlike most of what one hears at these conferences, it is on scale with the problem. Unfortunately, young people do not appear to want to pick up a newspaper, even for free. They often leave them lying around, even at journalism schools, where they are distributed gratis.

I don't have a better idea, except to repeat, again, the following: The loss of daily newspapers is a significant threat to the future of our democracy. It is far too important to be left in the hands of a bunch of clueless media moguls and their "chief innovation officers."

Eric Alterman isa regular columnist for The Nation magazine, where this piece originally appeared, and distinguished professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York; also professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Send comments to [email protected].