Sunday, August 24, 2008

Get Out The Pipecleaners Part I : You Can Hear Your News Arteries Narrowing

"Why oh why," we hear the cry, "Can't we have a better media?" And then the blogger or commenter notes some piece of boneheadedness in the news, and all agree the media is lazy or dumb, or writing to the orders of big media business.

Well, maybe this is the case sometimes. But there are systemic problems which would be a problem even if the publishers were as pure as Ivory Snow. These are not going away. Speaking as a professional, now retired reporter, let me offer you a peek into the newsroom.

Between media conglomeration and frequent downsizing of newsrooms, there's no need for conspiracy theories to explain slanted or anemic news. These and other changes in the media business environment push toward less effective news coverage without even having to be aimed.

First, big media companies have been buying each other pretty steadily for the past 20 years or more. Each time they consolidate, they cut costs by layoffs. This offers an opportunity to select staff whose worldview does not clash with the views of the publisher and advertisers. I don't know how often this sort of cherrypicking takes place, but I suppose it has and still does go on.

Second, being Highly Trained Investigators and thus noticing the empty desks all around them after layoffs, reporters are given silent notice not to make waves. This probably happens even if the publisher does not intend it.

Third, the layoffs don't change the amount of copy needed to fill the pages. In fact, more copy is needed today as media has slopped over into internet and other outlets. It takes time to prepare a story, even a simple charity event or house fire. Fewer people and more work means few reporters have time to cook stuff from scratch or do demanding investigative stories. Investigative stories take a lot of time and money.

Oh, and what do experienced reporters do when they get tired of no raises and more work? They "go to the dark side" -- take a PR or publicist job with a rueful grin but without a backward glance. The pay is far better, as are the hours and the clothes. Bye-bye, experienced reporters, hello solvency.

There's little incentive for new kids to enter the field, and fewer places to get started unless you don't mind long hours and skimpy wages. So where do new seasoned reporters come from?

The reporters having vanished, the editor at deadline sees before him unfilled column inches, inviting him to take shortcuts. Real news may not get covered due to lack of staff, but filler, like oatmeal for the meatloaf, is always there waiting to be stuffed in. It's a temptation to use content supplied by others just to fill a few empty inches of space or minutes of air time.

And not just self-identified news releases either. If you look on the net, there are many sources providing free non-copyrighted news and opinion content. My old weekly paper, too pinched for income to hire enough reporters to cover the area, used a lot of this stuff, mostly business advice columns and the sort of "news" which could be printed today, next week or next year. Of course these stories aren't really free -- someone commissioned this stuff -- but if you're reading the paper you'll never know who paid the writer, or often who the writer was.

Finally, two sleeper issues affecting newspaper income are making it even harder to supply a good newspaper.

One is the growth of online classified ad services, cutting into newspaper classified income. This is a huge problem.

From an article in the Boston Globe, July 24 of this year:
"The classified economic model is broken," said Outsell Inc media analyst Ken Doctor. "It was getting strained before the recession, and now it is broken."


At EW Scripps, which owns the Rocky Mountain News and more than a dozen other newspapers as well as 10 television stations, newspaper revenue fell 13 percent on a 20 percent drop in classified ad sales, a typical if gut-wrenching decline.
Correct me if I am wrong, but if 20% of classified ad sales make up 13% of their income, does that not mean that classified ads make up 65% of their entire income? As awareness of online free classifieds grows, how can papers compete? They can't. Display ads, yes, promotions yes, but classifieds? Not a chance.

Second, there is the problem of newspaper carriers. They are paid peanuts and in most cases a car is necessary to cover the routes. How long will the papers be able to get enough adults with cars willing to get up at 4 a.m. to deliver papers at $0.17 per paper? Especially with the cost of gas rising the way it is? Yet home delivery isn't just a luxury -- it gets ads under the noses of suggestible people just waking up, people who often wouldn't even buy a paper otherwise. Home delivery makes those big ads and inserts worth the enhanced prices the display advertisers pay.


Dry your eyes for the poor newspapers. Hoop skirts and buggy-whips, eh? Wonderful internet will take over and fill our heads with knowledge?

No. Try to realize something -- if newsrooms are in trouble, we are in trouble. I'll talk about that in part II.

Part I, Get Out The Pipecleaners Part I : You Can Hear Your News Arteries Narrowing, is here.
Part II, Get Out The Pipecleaners Part II : Robbie the Robot Can't Do News , is here.
Part III, Get Out The Pipecleaners Part III : Your Ears Aren't Big Enough, is here.

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