Journalists Failed Our Newspapers
America’s newspapers are dying, especially in the heartland. New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet predicted recently that "most local newspapers are going to die in the next five years." He called it the “greatest crisis in American journalism,”
It’s certainly one of them. Many of us would choose the mainstream media’s historic loss of public trust and accountability as the greater, though Baquet, a major player in that crisis, would probably rather not discuss it.
Both crises do share one thing in common: Journalists take no responsibility for either.
When it comes to newspaper deaths, journalists will tell you they are just victims of the digital age, the telegraph operators of the 21st century. Blame the internet, WiFi, or Craigslist. It’s a circle-of -ife kind of thing. They did what they could.
"I don't know what the answer is,” Baquet lamented. “Their economic model is gone.”
Actually their readers are gone. Their economic models remain in place.
In fact the most critical of those models is vigorously alive -- the buying, selling, and closing of newspapers by chains, media conglomerates (Baquet's own Times company being one), hedge funds and investment companies.
Nearly half of all newspapers changed ownership in the past 15 years, some more than once. One company alone, the investment firm New Media/GateHouse, owns 156 daily papers and 464 weekly and other community publications -- and it’s now in merger talks with the second largest group, Gannett.
Chains began delocalizing the industry in the 70s. Their method was simple: consolidate and destroy all competition. Build a monopolistic industry of cookie-cutter mediocrities managed by corporate bureaucrats. Suck out profits, cut costs, cut staff, gouge advertisers and sell when the property underperforms. (The same model is being used today to destroy local radio.)
Such financial machinations have long unsettled the industry. No one’s future is secure, crucial decisions are made from a distance and new hires are often transients fresh from their college indoctrination (I was one of them myself a while back).
Not all damage was done by the chains and financials. Journalists did much on their own when they turned hard left from liberalism into unabashed, agenda-driven journalism. Maybe it was the soul-sucking ethos of doubt and corporatism, leftist professors, the frustration of failure or something as simple as the influence of groupthink, a sickness that infects nearly all mainstream journalists today.
Whatever it was, things worsened about 5-10 years ago. Like their political party, they woke. The herd veered into identity politics and leftist agitprop. Racism and gender discrimination became industry mantras. And like all wokies, their sworn and openly-disdained enemies became the unwoke. Unfortunately, that’s over half the people who traditionally buy newspapers -- one more blow to an industry bleeding subscribers
Unspoken in all this is the quality of those entering these choppy waters. Who chooses a college major in a low-paying, seemingly dead-end industry? By one estimate, 2,400 journalists have lost their jobs so far this year alone.
Democrat Mark DeSaulnier of California, who recently introduced the Saving Local News Act, which would allow newspapers to become nonprofits, recalls that 25 years ago local reporters were “tough” and “knew local politics inside and out.” Now both quantity and quality have “dwindled.”
“I went from answering really intelligent questions to having to tell reporters where they could find things on the county website,” DeSaulnier says.
As journalistic IQ's declined so did respect for standards and traditions. Out went objectivity, neutrality, and truth itself.
Unfortunately for the industry, few people want biased newspapers. A Pew Research poll this month found fake news to be a bigger problem in most American minds than terrorism or even racism.
Clearly newspapers need a do-over. When customers stop buying, the product needs changing. Yet newspapers are basically the same as they were 60 years ago. The content model is obsolete. But instead of something new, readers are being given less news, smaller papers, higher prices, and more bias and partisan activism.
So is Baquet right? Is this the end of local newspapers? There’s no word yet of an attempted resurrection, no innovators coming to the rescue. The entrepreneurial spirit that exploded with the internet left newspapers untouched. They’re old news
But there may be a way to start over when the monopolists leave town. Redefine the role of newspapers. Change the mission. Journalists should be the public’s fact-gatherers, record keepers, and community archivists.
The broken windows theory that works so well in criminal justice should become the journalistic standard. Focus on the local. Don’t waste my time with information I’m bombarded with 24/7 from other sources. Tell me what happened down the street.
Most importantly, cancel the agenda. Nobody wants newspapers ruled by political correctness, partisanship, race mongering, or group think. Journalists should serve the community more like neutral librarians, trusted public servants, rather than quasi-official social engineers, justice warriors, and thought monitors.
Good local newspapers provide unique information and a special relationship with communities and individuals. They’re vital, and as is now clear, the internet is incapable of fulfilling their role. Unfortunately, neither are today’s journalists. They’ve failed to provide a viable, rejuvenated product. Somebody else will fill the void, but it could take a while.