Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Making The News Makes News

Layoffs and downgrades at newspapers around the country may well leave large and small communities without their daily papers. While I've earned my living for decades in the news biz, I am also part of the reason they are in dire times. I seldom touch a paper or a magazine, since 90% of what I am seeking is already available online.

I don't have to pay to read their product - though I do pay for the access to the Web. Most papers have dropped any fees to receive their info online, but one wonders if they may start charging out of sheer fiscal necessity.

The Chicago Tribune media giant has declared bankruptcy, but is it really due to falling readership and advertising? Is it the mismanaged programs of owner Sam Zell?

Marty Kaplan says yes:

Zell only put up $315 million of his own money to buy the Times' owner, Tribune Co. The rest -- $8.2 billion -- was highly leveraged debt; the deal, which nearly tripled Tribune's debt load, turned on a fancy maneuver creating an Employee Stock Ownership Plan executed behind the backs of Tribune's actual employees. The sorry result: a debt service of $1 billion a year.

Even if advertising were not dropping, even if subscriptions were not falling, Zell would have had no chance to cover his monthly nut without the waves of cutbacks he ordered, which have devastated Times morale and decimated its content. And even with those cutbacks, the bankruptcy is now proof of how misbegotten his strategy was in the first place.

The economic meltdown the nation is now living through offers plenty of evidence of how the American people are at the mercy of casino gamblers posing as capitalism's finest. The billionaires who got us into this mess turn out to be not heroic entrepreneurs contributing to the country's prosperity, but unaccountable buccaneers who could care less about jobs and communities. Sam Zell's megalomania isn't unique; it's just our misfortune that Los Angeles' civic life has to bear the consequences of his financial swagger."

Kaplan adds that what is being lost is not being replaced online, no matter how it is organized:

"Blogs and Web sites are swell, but they're silos, not connective tissue. Local television news believes that thoughtful coverage of local politics and public affairs is ratings poison. Community and special-interest and alternative papers perform a crucial service, but size matters; a million people sharing the same information every day makes a deeper impact than 10 readerships of a 100,000 once a week, no matter how ecumenical the content. Budgets matter, too: investigative journalism takes time and dough that smaller outlets, and local public television, don't have. The Times may be an imperfect mirror of what Los Angeles is, but without it, it's hard to know where the region goes to see itself whole, or even why people will think that's an effort worth making.

"Sam Zell didn't cause the crisis in modern journalism, but he did turn a superb and profitable institution into a basket case. The people who work there, and the people who read it, deserve way better."

Kaplan takes on a related issue too in another column - should reporters be allowed to provide opinion on the news stories they cover?

Straight news puts the defensive blather from top executives of Moody's and Standard & Poor's on the same footing as testimony about conflict-of-interest by former officials of those firms at the hearings. Each piece of damning evidence is juxtaposed with a flack's denial. Each incriminating e-mail demonstrating the corruption of the ratings process is laid against the executives' contrary assurances of integrity and high standards. Straight news is stenography: these guys say "day"; these other guys say "night." It's up to you, dear reader, to decide whom to believe.

"The trouble with this conception of journalism is that it inherently tilts the playing field in favor of liars, who are expert at gaming this system. It muzzles reporters, forbidding them from crying foul, and requiring them to treat deception with the same respect they give to truth. It equates fairness with evenhandedness, as though journalism were incompatible with judgment. "Straight news" isn't neutral. It's neutered - devoid of assessment, divorced from accountability, floating in a netherworld of pseudo-scientific objectivity that serves no one except the rascals it legitimizes."

I agree that just providing opposing views is NOT the way news should be written or presented. Views of the players in a news story demand to be tempered with the facts of how the actions of the players affect the public.

In other words, as Kaplan says, the reporter's job is to out the rascals and not legitimize them.

1 comment:

  1. I think people of my generation will be the ones who most miss the newspapers & magazines. We grew up w/ the love for holding that object in our hands, smelling the print, reading day old news.. which was still fresh to us. And we could use it for packing material, afterwards.
    Tribune, I knew ye well..