Is profit-making journalism a contradiction in terms?

The Argument

May 20, 2001|By Peter Cole | Peter Cole,Special to the Sun

Yes, high corporate yields have damaged professional standards; but, no, Citizen Kane will not rise again.

Journalists, good journalists, are by nature free spirits. They have a rebellious streak, see themselves as anti-establishment, outsiders, anti-authority. They are emphatically not corporatist. That at least is the self-image, and they reflect upon it, often.

This is why journalists find journalism, and other journalists, an endlessly fascinating topic of conversation, to be joined in cafes and bars around the world. It makes them sensitive and sentimental creatures, much prone to nostalgia, and sometimes -- say it softly -- self-importance.

Though they defend with passion the press freedoms they associate with democracy, they become confused when dealing with that other vital component of democracy, the market economy. They are uneasy when money is mentioned, more uneasy when it comes to profit. Journalism and business make uncomfortable bedfellows. In an ideal world -- journalists find such worlds congenial -- money and profit are the other side of the Chinese wall, out of the way of truth, disclosure, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

So let's be heretical. Newspapers close when they don't make money, say people who own and manage newspapers. Newspapers close, or at least deteriorate, when they don't spend enough money, say journalists. Contradiction? Contradiction. In the aforementioned ideal world, newspaper owners and managers are out of sight, concentrating on creating wealth on behalf of journalists, who can then get on with the loftier and more honorable business of reporting what those with power would rather have left unreported.

Trouble is, life isn't like that. Capitalism triumphed in 1989, and that's the way the world is run -- always was in America. So why are American journalists suddenly so preoccupied with newspaper ownership? Why was the heavily funded (by the Pew Charitable Trusts) Project on the State of the American Newspaper necessary? Why is the first of two books of the Project -- "Leaving Readers Behind: the Age of Corporate Newspapering," Gene Roberts, editor in chief; Thomas Kunkel and Charles Layton, general editors (University of Arkansas Press, 395 pages, $29.95) -- now published?

Gene Roberts' credentials for passing judgment on the current newspaper scene are impeccable -- he built the Philadelphia Inquirer into a legend, and demonstrated there and later on the New York Times that where there is forceful and passionate journalistic commitment and talent then great newspapers will out and the bean counters will know their place.

Good editors assemble good teams of writers, and Roberts has done that here. The book is an engaging tour of the highways and byways of American newspapering, always well written with plenty of human stories, blood, sweat and a great number of tears. It is a sort of road movie through the American press: fear and loathing in the Fourth Estate. But there's a lot of rose-tinted hindsight, leaving the impression that the former world of the philanthropic newspaper despot was good, the new world of the faceless bean counter is bad. Bring back Citizen Kane.

From Tampa to LA -- and it is the Los Angeles Times more than any other paper that gets the full Project treatment -- distinguished reporters lament the passing of ... well, what? What has changed?

The heroes of the Project are Big Characters, Big Editors, Big Publishers, Big Money wisely spent. The villain is corporatism. Corporatism is what's changed, ownership, the assembling of huge conglomerates, the buying and selling of newspapers. The Project logged 719 changes of ownership among the 1,483 daily newspapers in the United States over the six-year period to 2000. In more than 100 cases, ownership changed two, three or even four times.

Of course, the specific studies are snapshots, fixed in time within a very fluid industry. Significantly, the Los Angeles Times, examined in greatest detail, has changed fundamentally since this account -- new ownership, new top editorial hierarchy and dramatic improvement in commitment and quality.

The corporatist story is the same in the old country (as a dear American friend of mine always refers to England -- pity about the satirical twinkle in his eye when he says it) from where I write. Some of the players are the same. Rupert Murdoch owns four national newspapers. Regional ownership reflects the American pattern, with vast change over the past decade, and Gannett becoming the second biggest player. The Canadian press baron Lord Thomson sold his regional papers in Britain before he invaded the U.S. , where he has now sold his regional papers.

In Britain, we have the same squeeze on costs, same reduction in staffing, same obsession with bottom line, same demand (greed?) for profits to rise through 20 percent, to 25 percent and now through 30 percent. Same falling sales among regional dailies and tabloid national dailies.

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