Are subpoena wins a pyrrhic victory for journalists?

[Guild Reporter]

Federal subpoenas of four U.S. journalists in two separate cases were dropped abruptly in recent weeks, averting courtroom confrontations over reporters’ rights to maintain the confidentiality of their sources. But as a fifth journalist remained behind bars, setting a modern-day record for such incarcerations, the hollowing out of the news industry such actions are intended to protect continued without faltering.

Federal prosecutors sent a valentine to San Francisco Chronicle reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, announcing Feb. 14 that they had reached a plea agreement with the lawyer who had provided the duo with transcripts of grand jury proceedings. Fainaru-Wada and Williams, who had written extensively on a steroids scandal involving professional athletes, were courting prison sentences of up to 18 months for refusing to identify their source.

Earlier, on Jan. 29, the U.S. Army ended a similar effort to subpoena freelance reporter Sarah Olson and Honolulu Star Bulletin reporter Gregg Kakesako, a member of the Hawaii Newspaper Guild, in its court martial trial of Lt. Ehren Watada. Watada had refused an order to redeploy to Iraq because, he explained to the reporters in separate interviews, the war is “manifestly illegal” and obeying the orders would make him complicit in war crimes. Although Watada had explained his position publicly on many occasions, the Army felt it needed the reporters to substantiate his statements on a witness stand.

(Ironically, the court martial ended in a mistrial the following week, amid published speculation that Watada won’t be retried because he now can avail himself of a double-jeopardy defense.)

But while the government dropped two of its assaults on reportorial privilege, a third—its imprisonment of freelancer Josh Wolf since Aug. 1 for refusing to hand over videotapes of a demonstration—broke all contemporary records. Meanwhile, the trial of a former White House aide on perjury charges has featured a stream of reporters testifying in often embarrassing detail about their methods.

Yet even as a handful of reporters risked imprisonment to stick to their principles, the industry whose interests they ostensibly were protecting gave every indication that its priorities lie elsewhere.

The Boston Globe marked the end of an era by announcing it was closing all three of its remaining overseas bureaus and bringing home its foreign reporters—while almost simultaneously confirming that more newspaper jobs will be flowing in the opposite direction. Both the Globe and its parent, the New York Times Co., said they are outsourcing more work to Bangalore, India, resulting in the loss of 55 jobs in Boston and at least 20 in New York.

Members of the Boston Newspaper Guild wore black armbands Feb. 8, when Janet Robinson, chief executive of the New York Times Co., swung into town for a meet and greet. And Guild negotiators in New York broke off talks with management about resuscitating the pension fund when they were told that the Times was going to have an outside firm explore outsourcing options—and then were handed a letter announcing that a decision had already been made to ship the work of the customer order fulfillment department to an overseas company.

Such protests, alas, have been less effective than King Canute in stopping the encroaching tide. Newsday employees were recently advised that their help desk calls will be handled by IBM—in India. Reuters increasingly is assigning reporting jobs to its India staff, which initially was recruited to process earnings announcements and other financial boilerplate but now employs 1,500 people, including database support. That includes approximately 100 reporters and editors, up from only six when the wire service undertook what was then described as a trial run in 2004.

“The newspaper industry has only taken tentative steps into outsourcing what was [sic] once considered core competencies, such as editorial, advertising and circulation,” observed the World Association of Newspapers late last year. “But the trend is gaining momentum.”

It also is widening, as outsourcing doesn’t just mean exporting jobs overseas. Dean Singleton is the acknowledged master of “outsourcing” internally, clustering the newspapers owned by Media News and having them share common functions, cutting jobs in the process. Although the strategy has raised antitrust concerns, Singleton is pressing on: on Feb. 2 one of his partnerships announced it had purchased the Santa Cruz Sentinel, further consolidating his grip on northern California.

MediaNews picked up the Sentinel from Community Newspaper Holdings just four months after CNH bought it from Ottaway Newspapers, a subsidiary of Dow Jones. Singleton crowed that the acquisition would further “expand our reach in this very competitive region,” failing to mention that MediaNews now owns every daily in the region except the San Francisco Chronicle—which as it happens is owned by Hearst, a MediaNews business partner. Sentinel editors, meanwhile, explained that the deal would improve “their” newspaper because it now will carry stories from the Mercury News, Contra Costa Times and other northern California papers.

Outsourcing also can mean publishing work from people who have no relationship with you. Enter the Associated Press, which announced Feb. 9 it had entered into a partnership with that enables AP to use photographs, video and news from “citizen journalists.” is a two-year-old Canadian internet site that claims to have a registered base of 60,000 users who post blogs, news reports and pictures they’ve taken with cell-phones and digital cameras. AP stressed that its editors will not move such content without first editing it, but the potential for mistakes—or mischief—is obvious.

Apparently to make that very point, someone posted an AP-datelined story on under the headline: “West Virginia Law Bans Sex With Miners!” It quoted West Virginia coal miner Smitty Culpepper, grousing that the law wasn’t fair because “Miners need love just as much as anybody!” and featured a photo of a grizzled miner holding a picket sign proclaiming, “I need some poontang too!” The AP dateline survived just a few hours before someone realized it was a spoof and removed it.

The News Media Guild is sharply questioning AP’s move and what it says about the increasingly slippery notion of what constitutes news. But Gannett already has reached a conclusion, and it isn’t anything taught at most journalism schools. As reported in last month’s Guild Reporter, the Indianapolis Guild expressed concern over the newspaper chain’s plans to transform newsrooms into “information centers,” with reporters writing advertorial copy in addition to their regular assignments. More recently, nearly half of the Guild-represented newsroom at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle signed a letter claiming the newspaper has breached ethical barriers between the news and advertising departments, and between news and editorial.

Citing several incidents, including the byline of an editorial page editor on a news story and the blurring of news and editorial on the newspaper’s political blog, the letter asserted that being “flexible and nimble as a newspaper and multimedia company should not mean our ethics are also flexible.” Shortly after Editor & Publisher reported on the letter, the newspaper’s publisher responded by declaring that “our underlying ethical principles are not shifting”—but then maintained that advertorial copy “is not ad copy” and could be assigned to newsroom employees.

If such workplace “synergies” are insufficiently effective in goosing profit margins, there always remain the two classic remedies: sell something you haven’t sold before, and cut even the most trivial costs. In the first category, there’s MediaNews’ acknowledgment that its northern California newspapers—including the San Jose Mercury News—probably will start running front page ads that are bigger than the one-inch strips some papers already have started selling.

“It is inevitable, something we need to learn to accept,” Kevin Keane, ironically the vice president of news for MediaNews in the region, told E&P.

Meanwhile, the Providence Journal, a newspaper that once prided itself on nurturing an in-house writing culture, has decided good writing is a frill it can no longer afford. The paper has cut out the pizzas it used to serve during monthly writing discussions, and has stopped paying cash prizes—totaling a grand $400 a month—for top-notch writing.

Much more of this, and reporters once willing to court prison time to uphold professional ethics may begin wondering if they’re on a fool’s errand.

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