By Bill Boyarsky
As we know, the death of the American newspaper is fast approaching.
Specifically, the paper editions of newspapers are dying. Readers and advertisers are migrating to the papers’ Web sites or to other sources of information on the Internet, thus reducing revenue of the print editions. One day the papers will no longer be on my driveway before dawn, and I will be getting all the news from my computer and my iPhone.
This is a huge economic dilemma for the news industry, as the print editions, rather than the Web sites, supply most of the revenue needed to support the newspapers’ news operations and to hire the journalists who dig up the news and edit the stories.
As someone who has been in the news business for most of a lifetime, I’m concerned about the uncertain future of these women and men. Without them, who will “watchdog” politicians and bureaucrats, charity officials, cops, educators and the many others who help make our society run? Who will report and comment on the culture that binds us together? Who will explain the social tensions that tear us apart?
First, the current situation:
The Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and other dailies, the Chicago Cubs and 23 television stations, has filed for bankruptcy. The New York Times has said it will sell or mortgage its headquarters building. The Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press, a joint publishing operation, announced that they will limit newspaper home delivery to Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays while selling printed copies at newsstands seven days a week. They said their Web sites will expand news coverage.
Finally, Editor & Publisher reported that Fitch Ratings, the credit rating firm, issued a report declaring it “believes more newspapers and newspaper groups will default, be shut down and be liquidated in 2009 and several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010.”
Newspaper management’s reaction to this projection is to cut the staffs. This seems to be killing what’s left of the golden goose, but publishers are notoriously shortsighted.
One suggestion for increasing revenue comes from Peter Osnos, founder of the publisher Public Affairs. He pointed out in his Century Foundation column in November that newspapers are giving away news to Google and other search engines.
He said newspaper publishers should do what the book publishers have done: They sued Google and forced an agreement that requires payment for digitizing and distributing copyrighted books. Osnos wrote that “Google has now conceded, with a very large payment, that information is not free. This leads to an obvious critical question: Why aren’t newspapers and news magazines demanding payment for use of their stories on Google and other search engines? Why are they not getting a significant slice of the advertising revenue generated by the use of their stories via Google?”
But newspaper management is probably too disorganized and distracted to get together on the long and complex litigation that the proposal would demand.
Then there is the matter of a labor force.
The average entry-level reporter’s wages are $25,167 a year, according to Payscale.com. And today’s beginning reporters are asked to do more than those starting just a few years before. “In some cases it means being able to go out and report the story, write for online, shoot video, edit from the field, and update for the print edition. And in some cases it means shooting the pictures, creating a slideshow, putting it in Flash, and doing all that in addition to reporting,” Ernest Sotomayor, assistant dean of career services at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, told Poynter Online.
Sotomayor sounds like a Marine commercial: Only the toughest need apply. He doesn’t mention the really ugly side of the new media life—advertisers pressuring news organizations for favorable coverage. That’s the great danger of all these news organization Web sites, one that journalism ethics gurus have yet to adequately confront. I don’t see a lot of money-hungry news businesses resisting such pressure.
These are the low-pay jobs. There are also the no-pay jobs popular with Web site management. Young journalists are encouraged to blog and post on a variety of no-pay Web sites. This is supposed to help them find employment, and it probably does. But it certainly does violence to the old slogan of a day’s work for a day’s pay.
Or, journalists can hustle grants from foundations or wealthy individuals to pay for their reporting. The practice is becoming more common. In fact, a friend proposed giving a Pulitzer Prize for “entrepreneurial journalism.”
This routine is a marked difference from the life of reporters on newspapers, especially the big ones, during a brief golden age of journalism, from the mid-1960s through much of the 1990s. Labor-saving technology, along with consolidations and a monopoly on classified, retail, auto and other advertising, had made newspapers quite profitable. Thanks to the American Newspaper Guild union, journalists’ salaries increased. On the big papers, such as the Los Angeles Times, where I worked, we traveled far out of town pursuing stories that sometimes took weeks to report. There was a wall between the advertising and news departments.
It was a sharp contrast to when I started at the Oakland Tribune, where pay was low, working conditions bad and advertisers ruled. The life attracted only those in love with newspapering, including many eccentrics and nonconformists who wouldn’t fit into an organization-man straitjacket. It was a blue-collar business. My friend Al Martinez, another Tribune survivor, and I used to look around the Times’ large newsroom, contemplating our new pampered lives and agreeing that it couldn’t last.
With the new media’s low pay, bad working conditions and powerful advertiser clout, the journalism world looks as it did when Martinez and I started.
Why would any college graduate want to do it? A lot won’t. The smart, somewhat normal materialists will choose law or business school, just as their parents wanted them to do. Scholars of journalism and veterans of the golden age will mourn the loss of “the best and the brightest.”
The impossible routine expected of today’s young reporters will attract only oddballs, fanatics, obsessives driven to writing and reporting and free spirits entranced with the adventurous life of the journalist, all of them people who can’t contemplate writing briefs for some fat-headed law firm senior partner. Only those who can live on the low pay, survive idiot bosses and navigate through many other obstacles will survive.
I went through all these negatives one night while talking to one of Truthdig Editor Bob Scheer’s communication classes at USC. A young man in the back of the room raised his hand. “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll figure it out.”
They will. Despite all the miseries in the business, it’s still hard to stop a good reporter.
AP photo / Kevork Djansezian