Newspaper publishers knew the end was nigh - and milked it

by John Sugg, Columbia Journalism Review

I’ve been a print journalist for thirty-eight years, and have held senior editing and writing positions at The Miami Herald, Palm Beach Post, Atlanta Constitution, American Lawyer, Tampa Tribune, and the Creative Loafing alternative group. It’s been a fun trip, but a sad one.

I went to work for the Palm Beach Post in 1970. I was on a vacation to Europe when the Post’s owner, Cox, ordered all of its editors to endorse Nixon. The Post editor, Gregory Favre, resigned—and when I returned from Europe I opted for a job at the Herald, which at that time still reflected the great journalistic tradition of Jack Knight. Sylvan Meyer, editor of Cox’s other South Florida newspaper, The Miami News, was fired after he took his name off of the masthead the day the Nixon endorsement ran. Those events were traumatic—but the backdrop was horrible. As the great media critic Ben Bagdikian would later expose, America’s publishers had bartered their endorsement to Nixon if his administration would drop its opposition to Joint Operating Agreements, the monopolistic, anti-competitive schemes the publishers used to prop up a “second voice,” thereby deterring real competition from coming into markets. (A source, apart from myself, is CJR.)

The significance of that is that, for four decades, newspaper owners consistently have sacrificed integrity and watchdog reporting in favor of one grab-the-cash scheme after another—the latest being the muscling of the FCC to drop cross-ownership bans, which came far too late for the industry and wouldn’t have worked anyway, as illustrated by the arguably illegal “convergence” at The Tampa Tribune. As armies of critics have said (and been roundly ignored), investing in the product - doing great journalism - is not on the publishers’ agendas.

I live in Atlanta, where the Journal-Constitution has turned itself into a joke. As with most major dailies, it has become timid—afraid even to hire a metro columnist over anxiety that that person would have an independent base. Its coverage of the Bush administration and the Iraq war has been pathetic. It has withheld news that might offend Georgia’s white racists (as chronicled in the recent book Buried in Bitter Waters, by, incredibly, a Cox Washington reporter, Elliott Jaspin), and it gives many incompetent and corrupt black politicians a free pass because it’s afraid it will be called racist. With those sorts of wet-their-pants priorities, it’s not surprising that the AJC circulation has dwindled to a fraction of its peak. Now the editors, as elsewhere in the nation, are trying to con people with the assertion that the combined online and print readership is growing. That equates to someone in, say, Moscow, clicking on a single AJC story with someone who subscribes to the paper and reads the dozens of stories in it. After all, each is a “reader.”

In 1995, I made the decision to leave dailies, and went to work for the alternative press as an editor of the group now called Creative Loafing, which has papers in Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Tampa, Charlotte, and Sarasota. Alternatives seemed to hold on to what little bit of life was left in local journalism. But they’ve been battered too. Although the origin of these papers is the “underground press” of the 1960s, the big groups—Village Voice/New Times and Creative Loafing—have fled the political arena. They are hardly voices of dissent, and their interest in investigative reporting is waning.

What’s left? The new model for journalism will be Internet-based and funded through nontraditional and traditional sources. I semi-retired from Creative Loafing this year (I’m still an owner and write a column), and with one of the top editorial writers from the AJC, Lyle Harris, and several other folks—including Jon Sinton, founding president of Air America—am starting a think tank called Think Atlanta. An independent companion entity will be the Georgia Online News Service Organization (we couldn’t resist the acronym, GONSO). Although the business plan is extensive, it boils down to: people in this state want intelligent, high-quality journalism, and they’re not getting it from traditional media. What we’re doing is similar to other projects popping up across America, from ProPublica on a national level to MinnPost, which is bringing quality local reporting and commentary to Minnesota. Most of these efforts are funded, at least in part, by journalism foundations, and that may be the best model for starting up the enterprises. We’ll do the same, with the objective of quickly becoming self-sustaining.

The other giant lie perpetrated by publishers is that they were bushwhacked by the Internet. As a business writer, I covered Knight-Ridder’s Viewtron experiment in the mid-1980s. I several times interviewed K-R Chairman Jim Batten, who knew full well what the implications of the clunky Viewtron were. For almost thirty years, the tree-killing, oil-wasting publishers knew the days were numbered for their manufacturing plants. Sure, they built Web sites, generally pretty awful. And they became excellent at portraying themselves as victims of Craigslist, Google, and the rest of the Internet. As the newspaper circulations plummeted, the advertising rates soared—what a deal for the publishers! Even better, they could fire (pick the euphemism) all of those non-revenue-producing, pesky journalists.

And what’s the final act going to be? In Atlanta, few people take the AJC, and even fewer take it seriously. It has a handful of great editorial writers, but since the paper is no longer capable of convening the community, it has forfeited its right to lead. Its news coverage is pathetic. That story is repeated in city after city. The national newspapers may survive, for a time, but the locals are on life support. Cause of death?

Suicide.

article originally published at http://www.cjr.org/parting_thoughts/parting_thoughts_john_sugg.php?page=all.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey