The Journalism Crash

The journalism profession is in crisis, where every week brings another bleak announcement.The situation looks dire for the mainstream media industry, particularly for newspaper companies. Tribune Company, the third-largest newspaper chain in the nation and owner of 23 TV stations, declared bankruptcy. Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, announced it was slashing 2,000 jobs. Scripps put a “for sale” sign on The Rocky Mountain News, and the Miami Herald is reportedly on the block.

As I reported in another blog post in November, the newspaper industry has slashed more than 10 percent of its work force since 2000. And according to the running tally at the blog paper cuts, more than 15,000 newspaper positions have been eliminated through layoffs or buyouts in 2008.

The crisis in the media industry mirrors why our financial system is a mess. Big corporations pressured the government to deregulate industries. Companies got even bigger through mergers, controlling the major institutions that impact our lives with little oversight, facing less competition and refusing to innovate. Instead, companies obsessed over profit margins to please Wall Street while failing to serve the public interest. As these companies take on greater debt, they can’t pay back their loans — and workers get the ax.

Profits vs. the Public

It is true that profit margins have shrunk for some media companies, and the larger financial crisis undoubtedly impacts advertising. The Internet has changed the public’s media habits. But most media companies remain extremely profitable, just not profitable enough to please Wall Street. (Some papers in the now-gutted Gannett chain enjoy profit margins above 40 percent.)

“We know that newspapers are making money – just not the astronomical profits of the 1990s,” the National Association of Black Journalists said in a Dec. 5 press statement. “NABJ is reminding media companies of their sacred trust, which is more than the bottom-line. Never mind that media companies provide a private trust.”

The crisis has revealed how little media executives care about journalism or serving the public’s news and informational needs. It has also revealed how the government has utterly failed across party lines to protect the public by allowing for greater consolidation.

“As great newspapers, magazines, TV networks, and publishing houses dismember themselves around us, it would be marginally consoling if the pink slips were going to those who contributed so vigorously to their companies’ accelerating demise,” said Tina Brown in a post at the Daily Beast.

What Can Be Done?

Even though there is much to criticize about mainstream media, our nation needs the important work performed by journalists. The vast majority of journalists are motivated by the noble mission to keep the public informed about the world they live in.

But the current media crisis demonstrates that our nation’s reliance on corporate-funded journalism is failing us. While bloggers and online news sites are stepping in to fill the gaping hole left by the crash of our mainstream media, few can afford to fund long-term investigative journalism. As a result, fewer journalists are covering the critical institutions that affect us all, leaving the public more uniformed and vulnerable.

Now, more than ever, we need to roll back media consolidation. We need to make a greater investment in public and community media. And we need to figure out and support the models — private and public, corporate and independent, online and off, professional and amateur, local and international — that give us the news we need to hold our leaders accountable.

We also need to finally recognize that our media system is the result of policies and politics. Just like the weak-kneed watchdogs at the SEC and Treasury stood by as subprime lending and “credit default swaps” sank our economy, the public servants entrusted with the airwaves cheered deregulation as local voices and viewpoints were crushed by the now-tottering media behemoths.It didn’t have to be this way. And the next time the Zells and Gannetts come to Washington seeking special favors and massive giveaways, we ought to remember how we got into this mess. Too much “regulation” wasn’t the problem.