The Tribune Company owns the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, The Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Cubs, a bunch of TV stations and some other regional newspapers. They’re just barely holding on since being acquired in a takeover a year and a half ago by Sam Zell, a real estate billionaire. After the buyout, the Tribune’s editor left, as did a lot of its journalists and columnists. They reportedly weren’t happy with some of the changes that Zell had instituted. The paper had also acquired a relatively large debt. My guess is that after Zell bought the paper, his purchase price saddled the paper with debt; or rather, the paper’s employees — since its board members, like Zell, managed to avoid any personal debt.
I saw similar things happen in the music business in the early 80’s, as record companies merged and were taken over by other companies (Warner Bros. was absorbed by Time and then later, AOL). The result was that the companies suddenly ended up in debt, and, in order to show a profit every quarter, had to forget about their standards and musical instincts. Long-term thinking became a thing of the past. They had to cut back here and there, which often meant cutting out middle-level employees. Bosses weren’t likely to thin their own ranks, and from their perspective, losing middle-level employees who had accrued decent salaries would help shore up the bottom line — temporarily, at least. New middle-level people could be hired at lower pay, or lower-level employees could be bumped up.
The thing is, it was the middle-level people who actually knew and essentially ran the businesses.
The Houston Chronicle is not alone. Almost every newspaper in the US, except the Times and the Wall Street Journal, has drastically cut, or in many cases entirely eliminated, their Washington contingent.
As one of the Baltimore Sun reporters, who appeared in the HBO show The Wire, mentioned, you just can’t cover with 4 people what you used to with 11 — or 30. Despite management trying to squeeze more blood out of that stone, it’s just not possible. Less gets reported.
Likewise, these newspapers have dumped most of their foreign bureaus, food critics, and film critics, and are loathe to assign reporters to stories that will take months to research and write. In doing so, they are eviscerating that which makes newspapers different from online reviews, blogs and websites. When papers end up like USA Today, there will be no reason to read them.
In accepting a Pulitzer Prize for that work in 2006, ‘we were bold enough to hope that it would be the first of many, but it turned out to be the high point,’ said George E. Condon Jr., the last bureau chief. ‘No matter how much great journalism is done by national organizations, they’re simply not geared to monitor closely a member of Congress from, say, San Diego, who’s not a national leader.’” [Link]
Second to the NY Times, the Tribune Company owns some of the country’s most widely circulated newspapers. Though I tend to think of the LA Times as more a community paper than a national one — a paper that covers mainly the intrigues and dramas of their local industry (movies, music and TV mixed in with coverage of local politics and crime) — there’s nothing wrong with in-depth reporting of one’s own city. TV sure ain’t gonna do it.
Do we really need in-depth reporting, investigative journalism and foreign news desks? Can we manage without them? I am as guilty as most in that I often (though not always) read the morning papers online, for free. I jump between different publications, as their angles, points of view and interests are varied. Yeah, sometimes it’s the wacky human-interest story that grabs my attention — the sort of thing fit for web reporting — but just as often, it’s a story that is thoroughly researched and gives background and context on the topic.
How does a democracy work without (in-depth) news? It doesn’t. While most of the population will not care about access to high-quality news, there are always some who read to find out what’s really going on, and why. Dictatorships, totalitarian regimes and underdeveloped countries don’t have the luxury of investigative journalism, and the news-as-entertainment in highly capitalist regimes isn’t really informative either — it’s bread and circuses. An informed citizenry, said Jefferson, is necessary for a democracy to function. He also said:
TJ may have presumed we’d get our information from other sources, or maybe, like many politicians, he simply distrusted the press. It wouldn’t be surprising if he did — imagine if the press reported heavily on his taste for Brown Sugar. Politicians are held in check by the press, for better or worse; that too is one of the ways in which the press allows a democracy to function. Without the threat of public exposure, well… you can imagine.
Anyway, it will be strange if the USA becomes a large industrialized country with only one or two newspapers — the NY Times and The Wall Street Journal — practicing in-depth coverage; the latter, now owned by Murdoch, may find itself eviscerated, assuming its fate follows those of his other newspaper purchases around the world. There is no way the Times can afford all the foreign desks, local reporters and journalists that a country of this size requires.
What will happen when most of the country has nothing but entertainment, gossip and sports as sources of information? It’s a country ripe for takeover, if you ask me. A place where public opinion can be easily manipulated, as long as the consumers keep buying. Blogs and Internet news sites can’t fill the gap, as they don’t have the resources to sustain a team of reporters working and digging into a story — sometimes for months before anything sees the light of day. They don’t have African or Southeast Asian bureaus either. Besides, most Internet news sites like Google News are aggregates of traditional print and wire service news gatherers. Without sources they’d be pretty much nothing. Local sites like Gothamist and national ones like The Smoking Gun are cool and up-to-the-minute, but they don’t assign staff to conduct long-term investigations into the how and why of a scandal or news item. They break stuff, it’s true, but mostly they rely on others to feed them information.
I have plenty of beefs with the arts and culture coverage of many newspapers; I can easily spot the biases and lack of research. I’m of that world, so I have my own personal biases as well — which sometimes match those of the critics, and sometimes don’t. I myself have gone in and out of favor a few times, so I regard their reviews and reporting with what I feel is healthy skepticism. News, though, is another story. I imagine that cops, thugs, hedge fund dudes, politicians and bureaucrats all have their own beefs with the press, but from my point of view, I’d much prefer some seriously researched coverage in those areas — with a little bias — to nothing of any depth.
I’ve been trying to imagine what this country would be like without a serious news source. Like Cuba with only Granma, the organ of the party — that and bootleg satellite TV broadcasts of American Idol. Or Russia, pre-Gorbachev, when the choice was between Pravda and some samizdat mimeographed publications. Iran under the Ayatollah or the Shah. The Philippines under martial law — when all press critical of the Marcos regime was silenced.
We tend to get all holier-than-thou when we look at countries without free press. We think their lives must somehow be more pathetic or sad. Needless to say, this attitude makes us feel better. But people go on. They know, or at least suspect, that they are being denied something, but they maintain hope and optimism. They don’t go around moping. They get on with their lives, and sometimes, at least now and then, feel like maybe the censorship doesn’t matter all that much. There are still reasons to be cheerful. We might like to think of life in an oppressive regime as sheer misery, but from what I can tell, it’s rarely viewed that way. Life goes on and people make do with what they have, and they fall in love and get drunk and sing and dance. It takes a lot — a whole lot — to bring them to the flash point, like what just happened in Greece. Mostly, people adapt to the way things are — and to feel miserable about it is fruitless. And that’s what we will do when there are only two serious newspapers left in the USA.