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Media Feel Economic Climate's Cold Winds

New York Newsday's closing was a blunt reminder that the days are gone when news-gathering was more a crusade than a business

'WALL Street danced on NY Newsday's grave,'' sang the Daily News after the demise of its competitor on July 16. The next day, the Times Mirror Company, New York Newsday's owner and one of the last great bastions of quality independent journalism, announced more cuts in its media holdings. The stock immediately went up again. Finally, on July 21, what to many in the press was unthinkable: 150 news-gathering positions were cut from Time Mirror's flagship paper, The Los Angeles Times. The Times's editor, Shelby Coffey 3rd, called it ''one of the toughest days in journalism.''

As reporters and media analysts fretted over the increasing bottom-line pressures at smaller papers and in the television industry in the last 15 years, they always looked to the Times Mirror Company as a symbol of how media operations should work. It was seen to put public service first, profit second. The changes wrought by Times Mirror's new CEO, Mark Willes, have left many in the journalistic community feeling vulnerable to Wall Street's cold calculations.

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''Journalists live in this delusion that they're not really a business and their craft is insulated from this crass bottom-line thinking,'' says Stephen Bates, a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program, a communications think tank. ''The closing of New York Newsday is one of the rude reminders that this really is a business.''

The changes at Times Mirror, along with the rumored sale of the CBS network to the Westinghouse Corporation, have once again forced journalists to confront the contradictions inherent in the news media's competing roles as public servant and business enterprise. To many, the changes at the Times Mirror Company signal that business may have taken the upper hand for good, threatening quality, independence, and morale in the industry.

''Quality journalism is expensive,'' says the Washington Post's David Broder. ''You can put out a paper pretty economically if you only want to fill out the space, but to put out a good paper you have to invest in people and give them time and resources.''

Other analysts and executives in the industry argue that business and journalism are inextricably linked. To look at it any other way, they say, is to deny reality.

''The only way you can keep control of your journalistic destiny is to keep control of your fiscal destiny,'' says Lane Venardos, vice president for hard news at CBS, who argues that quality has not been compromised by the steep cutbacks all the big network news operations sustained in the 1980s and '90s. ''The difference is, all the network news operations are much more efficient than they were,'' he says.

But some analysts have tied the shrinking of resources to the media's plummeting reputation. A 1995 poll by the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, the independent think tank that also lost its funding in the latest round of Times Mirror cuts, found that two-thirds of American adults had nothing good or nothing at all to say about the media.

That, analysts say, creates a catch: The more people become dissatisfied and turn to alternative media, the more revenues go down, the more cuts are made, and - the analysts say - the more the quality of mainstream news sources decline, leaving the public still more dissatisfied.

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''You have the Internet now, lots of specialty press, and, unfortunately, the rumor mill,'' says Larry Sabato, professor of government at the University of Virginia. ''We're moving into the era of specialty media that cater to certain segments of society.''

Professor Sabato contends that people are turning to media that reflect their views: liberals to magazines like the New Republic and the Nation, conservatives to The National Review and the soon-to-be-published Standard.

''We have no more 'national town meeting,' '' Sabato says. The network news ''wasn't an interactive town meeting, but we did come together as a country when we all tuned in to the evening news. Some celebrate it, some lament it, but that's clearly passed.''

Franklin's business tactics

The news media have always been a business. In 1726, when Ben Franklin started his Pennsylvania Gazette, he took advantage of his role as postmaster to ensure its success. He simply barred his competitors from using the mail.

At the turn of this century, newspaper owners routinely used their papers as their private soapboxes, threatening and firing any reporter who questioned them. But from the 1930s through the '80s, most journalists were protected from such ''crass'' concerns as the bottom line, to some extent.

''In the past, there was more of wall between the editorial side and the business side,'' says David Weaver, the Howard Professor of Journalism at Indiana University. ''The reason was to preserve journalistic freedom and autonomy so journalists didn't have to worry about offending advertisers or readers. That really changed in the '80s.''

On the national level, the change was felt most forcefully in network television newsrooms first. The advent of cable TV increased competition for viewers and advertising revenues. At around the same time, the once-independent networks sold out to corporations that demanded to know why the news divisions consistently lost millions of dollars. Gone were the gold-plated expense accounts, the legions of researchers, and the notion that news was expected to lose money because it was a public service.

To many journalists who thrived under the benevolent hand of such network founders as CBS's William Paley, the new bottom-line thinking threatened more than traditions.

At a speech at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in 1991, just after the Gulf War, longtime CBS anchor Walter Cronkite cautioned that the cuts in foreign bureaus by all news-media outlets may have damaged the nation's preparedness.

He speculated that if a reporter had been following Saddam Hussein closely, he or she probably would have done a series of reports warning about Hussein's increasing brutality and megalomania. As a result, Mr. Cronkite said, when Hussein invaded Kuwait in the summer of 1990 it may not have come as such a surprise.

Cutbacks at strong papers

Bottom-line worries are also no stranger to the newspaper world, particularly at small- and medium-sized journals. But newsrooms at the larger, more established papers like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times were thought to be insulated. ''There was a period during the shake-out in our business when you could say to young people thinking about journalism careers that yes, there were a lot of papers closing, but it was mainly the weaker papers,'' Mr. Broder says. ''You can't say that anymore.''

Bottom-line pressures have also had an impact on morale. Studies show a decline in job satisfaction among journalists. In 1971, 49 percent were ''very satisfied in their jobs.'' By 1982, that had dropped to 40 percent. By 1992, the number of ''very satisfied'' journalists had plummeted to 27 percent. Two big reasons for discontent were management policies and salaries.

''There were a lot of quotes about management not caring about workers as long as they made a profit,'' says Professor Weaver, who surveyed more than 1,000 journalists in 1982 and 1992 as part of his study.

''Management style and corporate policy put profits before the public trust,'' said a reporter from a large television station in what Weaver calls a typical comment. ''The motivation of the company is not to have a news organization as a public service, it's just to make money.''

Times Mirror Company executives did not return phone calls. But in public statements, officials said - as the networks had said before them - that their commitment to the highest-quality journalism had not changed. The cuts, they said, were just a necessary adjustment required by the economic climate.

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