American Culture

So you want a ‘robust, independent press’? Good luck with that.

Given fragmentation of audiences, diversity of media platforms, frequently clueless ownership, and devaluation of journalism by the public, what should journalism schools be teaching today?

From time to time, especially during election seasons, this phrase is often uttered:

America needs a robust, independent press.

Examine the critical words. A robust press? Meaning a press “strong, healthy; vigorous … able to withstand or overcome adverse conditions”? An independent press, one “free from outside control, not depending on another’s authority”?

CATEGORY: JournalismIf reasoned people are calling for a robust, independent press, then they must be arguing that America does not have one.

The press, defined by me as journalism practiced primarily by the nation’s daily newspapers, has been eviscerated by changes in technology and ownership over the past few decades — as well as by the erosion of display advertising, its principal revenue machine for more than a century. The press’s robustness and independence are challenged by those fiscal and executive realities.

To paraphrase Bob Garfield, “The future of the journalism we actually consume hinges on the ability to somehow underwrite it.” It’s clear, sadly, and has been for at least two decades, that mass-market advertising will no longer pay the bills as well as allow for investment. Worse, news companies have been giving away news for free. Consumers expect that now. They resist attempts to charge them for news.

So what about this “robust, independent press?”

Independent? Of what? From whom? Better to ask: On what is the press dependent? That answer relates to money, stability of employment, access to sources, and ethics.

The press is dependent on adequate financial support of the women and men who produce the press’s product — news stories. But newspaper company executives have not found their holy grail — a new, magical, digital revenue stream that obliterates the need for print display advertising. So they cut costs — by shit-canning those costly journalists.

Here are the twin tracks of trouble for the print news industry:


As revenue falls off that cliff, newsroom employment topples as well (more on this in a bit).

So news executives try to sell new products to raise more ad revenue — such as “sponsored content” and “native advertising,” which are simply ads dressed in the finery of news.

Then the next corporate brainstorm hits — now sponsored video is the answer. Really? Place more sponsored video where the news stories used to be? (It doesn’t really matter what the video shows, as long as people look at it, because eyeballs equal ad money. That’s news exec logic.)

The press is dependent on intelligent owners who demonstrate wisdom and courage in their decision-making. Where are the Katherine Grahams and Ben Bradlees of today?

Consider the former Tribune Publishing Co., whose journalists have won 92 Pulitzer Prizes. Today it is tronc (yes, lowercase “t”), which calls itself “a media company rooted in award-winning journalism, which harnesses proprietary technology to present personalized, premium content to a global audience in real time.”

Well, tronc may be “rooted” in award-winning journalism, but it’s hard to see what branches of that tree constitute “personalized, premium content.” If tronc is presenting to “a global audience in real time,” what will be the nature of its “content”? Probable answer: Lowest. Common. Denominator.

Who will produce this “content” for tronc and all those other media companies that have taken a deep dive into a vast digital ocean only to find there are plenty of other media fish in the sea?

The press is dependent on stable, reliable employment of its journalists. In the nine years I’ve written about newspaper layoffs, job levels of reporters and editors in daily print newsrooms have fallen almost in half. Yet every damn publisher who’s overseen the slashing of the newsroom staff has said: Don’t worry. The quality of our journalism will be unaffected. And that’s bullshit.

Here’s an example of Orwellean newspeak from the editor of The Boston Globe after two dozen layoffs and 17 buyouts last year:

Going forward, we have a big, talented, ambitious staff, among the absolute best in the business. We’ll continue to invest in the aspects of this organization that will allow us to flourish, just as we need to be ever more creative in how we go about our work. There’s no time these days to stand still, and from everything I hear in the room, no desire to do anything like that. You know this already but I’ll say it anyway: The Boston Globe is incredibly well positioned to thrive. [emphasis added]

(Ah, The Boston Globe: bought by The Times in 1993 for $1.1 billion; sold in 2013 to the owner of the Boston Red Sox for $70 million — a 93 percent loss.)

The press is dependent on meaningful access to news makers. That means being able to question effectively the politicians, corporate executives, and LeBrons of the world. But all three classes of sources have become information bullies. Their desire to control the message generally outweighs the ability of journalists to obtain meaningful access — the kind in which difficult questions are posed and honest (we hope), well-considered answers are offered. Social media often work for the bullies and against the journos.

It’s that digital ocean again, filled with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Medium, and blogs as plentiful as plankton. That sea of ones and zeroes allows politicians, corporate executives, and the LeBrons to blow off the press and face few consequences for doing so.

President Obama, ostensibly the leader of the Free World, averages about 20 press conferences a year. In the last 100 years, the only two-term presidents with lower annual averages are Presidents Reagan and Nixon. Such heavily scripted press conferences in today’s overly mediated world do not qualify as meaningful access to the nation’s chief executive. If you’ve watched a few, it’s easy to see why. The president will take questions from whom he wishes, not from anyone who wishes to ask one. He controls the agenda. That’s what modern politicians strive to do.

If the LeBrons want to break news, Twitter is their tool. If they’ve got a beef longer than 140 characters, they’ll call Derek Jeter, and soon their words (perhaps written by their agents) will appear at The Players’ Tribune. (Want to see “meaningful” news from President Obama? Jeter’s interviewed him.)

Journalists have become dependent on manufactured events — pseudo-events amplified by what a former librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, calls the “age of contrivances.” Such a pseudo-event, writes Boorstin, “is planted primarily (not always exclusively) for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced. Therefore, its occurrence is arranged for the convenience of the reporting or reproducing media. Its success is measured by how widely it is reported.”

If you’ve worked as a journalist, then you know the word “planted” is a profanity in the newsroom. PR agencies seek to “plant” stories on behalf, and in service, of clients. So do advertisers. (Another word for “plant,” of course, is “manipulate.”)

Ever go to a concert sponsored by a beer company? How about a rally for Donald Trump — or any political candidate’s fundraiser or campaign event? Getting press coverage for a person, a product, an issue — that’s why PR exists. Given the enormous digital space available for news companies, demanding a reduced complement of journalists fill it means they’ll be covering more manufactured events. That’s why there are almost five PR professionals in the United States for each journalist. The ratio is that high because … where do you think the tens of thousands of journalists canned in the last nine years went to get jobs? That has consequences for journalism.

The remaining journalists now really need those PR folks, because they’re the road to fast, easy, often-clicked, often-shared “content.”

Journalists have become dependent on providing what people, through their reading and browsing habits, have shown they want. As the size of the millennial population equals that of the Boomers (the news biz’s declining, dying readership), the numbers of listicles, clickbait lures, and videobait teases increase.

I learned in the ‘70s and ‘80s journalists had to feed their audience two meals. First, feed readers what they want to know (Dear Abby, comics, and local sports). Second, feed them what they need to know — all those boring government meetings that eventually impact how their kids will be educated, how that will be paid for, whether the potholes on their streets will get fixed, and whether the highway superintendent is giving her or his cousin the winter salt contract without a bidding process.

As much as I want it to, my former world of journalism will not return. Too many of the newspaper biz’s readers have surrendered to what Boorstin calls synthetic novelty. Social media have reinvented and reinforced too many readers’ need to self-applaud. It seems no one wishes to deal with reality any more. Newspapers have, I believe, begun to cater to that desire out of financial necessity.

Readers know damn well what they want. They have voted with their clicks and their likes and their shares. But too many of the resources necessary to allow journalists to teach readers what they need to know have been eroded from the First Amendment-bred task of holding governments and corporations accountable. The latter doesn’t produce revenue in sufficient quantity. Not enough clicks. Too few likes. No shares. No retweets. Bad for business.

The press’s journalism has been dependent on a moral foundation that stresses accuracy, fairness, the provision of adequate context, the correction of error, the clear identification of sources, the revelation of sources’ agenda, the provision of ability of sources to respond, the avoidance of stereotyping, the refusal to plagiarize, and the desire to minimize harm. (Read the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.)

So it’s fair to ask: What’s the moral foundation, in terms of informing the public, of the business of journalism? Is it merely Chicago School economics — maximize shareholder income?

News companies are betting on sponsored content and native advertising to solve their revenue problems. But to allow corporations to shill in the guise of a news story is fundamentally deceptive and immoral. Lord & Taylor found that out when the Federal Trade Commission dropped the hammer on the fashion retailer, accusing it of paying “for native advertisements, including a seemingly objective article in the online publication Nylon and a Nylon Instagram post, without disclosing that the posts actually were paid promotions for the company’s 2015 Design Lab clothing collection.”

In a December 2015 policy statement, the FTC warned media companies that “an ad’s format is deceptive if it materially misleads consumers about the ad’s commercial nature, including through any implied or express representation that it comes from a party other than the sponsoring advertiser.”

Why do news companies sell “ads” that simulate news stories? Answer: Advertisers want it, and news companies want their money, so they take advertisers’ “content” and trick it out as “news.”

That demeans the work of journalists. Worse, if consumers learn that what appears to be, as the FTC has said, seemingly balanced and objective material is actually an ad, then the consumer is more likely to not differentiate between a real journalist and a fraudulent one.

On what moral foundation does such spurious business acumen rest?

Journalism has been dependent on schools of journalism to train young women and men in that moral foundation espoused by SPJ as well as equip them with appropriate tools of the profession.

But now, given fragmentation of audiences, diversity of media platforms, frequently clueless ownership, and devaluation of journalism by the public, what should these schools be teaching? I’m stuck with the need, I think, to teach three versions of journalism: I did it that way yesterday; today it’s being done this way; but tomorrow it ought to be done still another way — the public service way, whatever that will become.

America needs a robust, independent press.

The next time you hear that phrase, perhaps you should ask:

What do you mean by that?

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