Wednesday, August 01, 2007


Newspapers: Ready For The Trash Heap In The Land Of Profit?

In a review of two books about newspapers and the "new media", Russell Baker touches on the recent move of Rupert Murdoch to acquire The Wall Street Journal and focuses on the remarks of former LA Times editor John S. Carroll. According to Baker, Carroll "was especially alarmed about the breakdown of understanding between owners and working journalists and about the loss of common purpose that once united them. This has come about, he said, because the functions that were once the realm of strong publishers have been taken over by Wall Street money managers." Sound familiar? This is precisely what has happened in every corner of American commercial life where MBAs have replaced pride in what one produces with an obsession with the bottom line. "The breakdown at the top began some forty years ago when local owners began selling their papers to corporations. As the nature of markets changed, power shifted from the corporations to investment funds, which make money by investing other people's money in ways that make it multiply." Again I ask - does that sound familiar?

Baker further recounts Carroll's experiences as yet another editor in a series of editors who had been pressured to cut back - to cut back on staff, to cut back on reporting resources, and to cut back even on quality - to boost his employer's profits. He eventually ended up quitting, and his successor - also, inevitably, an editor - would also quit for the same reasons. "Journalism was being whittled away by a Wall Street theory that profits can be maximized by minimizing the product," Baker tells us. "Papers everywhere felt relentless demands for improved stock performance." The familiarity of these laments are so reverberant they are like an echo across the Grand Canyon.

Extreme cost-cutting in journalism hamstrings its practitioners and destroys the quality of the product - but that is equally true of every enterprise in which something needs to be made by other human beings before it can be sold. Carroll, and Baker himself, tend to take an exceptionalist viewpoint on what's happening to the newspaper industry. They should not. What is destroying newspapers is destroying everything else. While the modern image of a journalist has been transformed from a reporter seeking the truth to a millionaire bigshot angling for ratings, so too has the image of every other occupation been eclipsed by the spectacle of ruthless stars exploiting their businesses for material gain. If nothing else, this should remind journalists to pay a little more respect to the non-millionaires everywhere around them who are just trying to do a good job, and a little less to the mercenary titans who are thwarting their lives as much as anyone else's.

"Goodbye To Newspapers?" from The New York Review of Books

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