Downsizing of reporters, once a taboo topic, is covered regularly now in trade magazines and discussed openly at academic conferences. Consequences are debated, too, including unclear boundaries between news and opinion and old and new media in the corporate ecosystem that includes (AOL)Time/Warner, CBS(Westinghouse)/Viacom and Disney/CapCities/ABC.
Converged and assimilated names of those conglomerates symbolize a biological metaphor of mutual benefit. One branch supplies the platforms, another the technical networks, and another the content, often entertainment or information that also entertains, including “unbiased” opinion, celebrity “news” and “reality” television. Lines blur in the new media world. The only line that doesn’t is the bottom one: profit.
Profit undermines the point of reportage — community. Hodding Carter III asserted that eloquently during a speech I attended in May 2002. Carter, then chief executive officer of the Knight Foundation and an award-winning journalist and commentator himself, said: “Making money is no longer what (corporations) do so you can afford to do journalism. Making money is what you do.” Carter believes that media companies overemphasize annual profits, forgetting they once were “part of the entire civic enterprise in this country.”
“The public is not an outsider,” Carter added. “The public is the point of the enterprise.”
Sharing that opinion is Geneva Overholser, former Des Moines Register editor and now Curtis B. Hurley chairperson in Public Affairs Reporting at the Missouri School of Journalism. For the past several years, she has been a consistent, constructive critic of ecosystem practices. Overholser, also former ombudsman for The Washington Post, challenges industry and academe to move beyond widespread acknowledgement of — and find solutions to — the “undermining effect on journalism’s ability to do the job democracy requires of it.”
That also was the message, in April 2002, when Tim McGuire, then president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, asked editors to focus on readers rather than on profits, calling the corporate status quo “an ethics crisis.” He questioned how “values of great journalism can exist side by side with the profit demands of the marketplace,” noting that layoffs, newsroom cuts “and short-term financial imperatives cast a long shadow over our work.”
Three years later, the situation has worsened. According to the “State of the News Media 2005” report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 500 fewer employees worked in newsrooms in 2003 than in the previous year.
Last year’s “State of the News Media” report documented these disturbing trends:
* Between the recession of 1991-2000, newspaper advertising revenues climbed 60 percent with profits rising 207 percent. Increases in newsroom personnel were about 3 percent, “most of which then got wiped away during the 2001 downturn.”
* Newspapers have about 2,200 fewer newsroom employees today than in 1990 with “work once done by printers and composing room workers” migrating to the newsroom, adding more jobs “related to production rather than news gathering.”
* Data collected by journalism professor Joe Foote, Gaylord chairman at the University of Oklahoma, indicate the number of network correspondents “since the 1980s has been cut by a third,” with workload increasing by 30 percent during the same period.
* In local television, “average workload increased 20 percent between 1998 and 2002,” and “59 percent of news directors reported either budget cuts or staff cuts in 2002.”
The latest “State of the News Media” report notes the consequences of these practices — a larger trend in American journalism to repackage and present information, rather than gather it.
Advances in print technology are meant to keep reporters indoors, enhancing productivity, often at the expense of authenticity. Advances in broadcasting, however, are meant to keep reporters in the community. The latest satellite newsgathering technology, MVSAT, or “mobile very small aperture terminal,” packs a telecom center the size of a small suitcase, transmitting voice, video and data anywhere in the world at speeds up to 3.8 megabits per second, according to Broadcast Engineering, which notes that the system can be carried by one person.
Television news, equipped with such gizmos but overseen by the profit-minded ecosystem, is not immune to downsizing. Broadcasting has taken a cue from print media, using technology to reduce the size of reporting crews.
Mary Rogus, former executive producer for Pittsburgh’s WTAE-TV, teaches in Ohio University’s journalism school. She recalls when crews consisted of “a reporter, a shooter and an audio person.” Now, Rogus says, stations have condensed that crew to a “one-man band with a field remote unit,” claiming that “you don’t need those extra people because of technology. Well,” she adds, “those extra people made it possible to be a reporter,” especially in investigative journalism.
Add another ominous element: “convergence,” a new media term. Sometimes I think it means “automation of reporters.” Perhaps a more objective definition is “any combination of old media with Internet.” There’s the rub. It implies the job of a journalist is to sit in front of computer instead of a source. It also suggests that reporters must produce across platforms with continuous deadlines. As such, “balanced news” simply means finding two authorities with polar opinions.
It doesn’t matter if sources are lying, spinning, manipulating, hoaxing or misinformed. Fact-checking, once routine, has been eliminated at many outlets because it cuts into productivity, resulting in cases of plagiarism at newspapers, including The New York Times and USA Today. For every Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley, hundreds of reporters labor conscientiously in converged newsrooms; however, they have no time to check facts.
In “Hack of All Trades, Master of None,” Tory Healy reports in Ryerson Review of Journalism that one Toronto writer, in what was once The Globe and Mail’s composing room — now a convergence center — gathers facts, writes a newspaper story, edits and tapes it, does a standup for TV, and then codes the work for the Web. Increasingly in Canada as well as the United States, reporters must appeal to the McLuhanesque global village where media converge the way video, audio and text do streaming in a desktop.
There are respected advocates for convergence, including Forrest Carr, news director for WFLA-TV, owned by Media General, Inc., whose properties also include The Tampa Tribune. In “Common Convergence Questions” posted on Poynteronline.org, Carr tackles the query, “Must reporters of the future be equally skilled in print, TV and online?” His answer was “no,” that news on deadline is a full-time job in television, newspapers and Web. Then he added: “No matter how you slice it, there must be full-time posteriors in chairs to make these jobs happen.”
Note that comment on posteriors. Reporters who multitask in chairs are absent from communities. That is the problem with technology proliferation in general and convergence in particular.
Then there is the marketing. Here is how technology writer Mark Glaser defined “convergence” after attending a symposium hosted at the University of Florida. In his posting, “Lack of Unions Makes Florida the Convergence State,” appearing in Online Journalism Review, Glaser asserts that convergence can be defined “as TV reports filed by newspaper reporters, or weather maps in newspapers that are co-branded by local TV affiliates, or combined Web operations by a newspaper and TV or radio station in one market.”
Some may dismiss Glaser’s comment as a humorous attempt to define convergence, but they also may note the marketing terminology is on point.
Marketing skews truth to align it with target market. In a recent conversation, John Kaplan, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and professor at the University of Florida, praises most major network and daily newspaper reporters, “tabloids and Fox aside,” for efforts to keep editorial bias out of the news. He also bemoans downsizing in local and cable TV news but mistakes a symptom — lack of objectivity — as the disease.
“News is more slanted than ever,” he says. “What happened to objectivity?”
Profit killed it, I maintain, in the name of productivity. Opinion sells better, because it can be aligned with demographics and psychographics of a target audience.
“That is the disease,” I say to Kaplan. “Everything else is a symptom.”
He concurs. In the past, he recalls, there existed a wall between editorial and advertising because the more factual the report, the better the news sold. Based on that, The New York Times became the “newspaper of record,” and CBS News was its electronic counterpart during the Murrow era. Now some accuse both of slanting to the left. That is fine, because it opens a niche on the right for Fox. ABC, NBC and CNN crowd the middle.
Niche marketing works for lifestyle magazines, allowing writers to editorialize conversationally because they know the target reader’s profile. Not so with news disseminated by circulation area or public airwave, defined geographically. The audience — too vast to stereotype via psychographics — requires fact, objectivity and balance. Nonetheless, reporters in a converged environment often editorialize, especially on television, because consultants know that niche sells. How else can network news compete with cable, appealing to future generations reared on infomercials? According to the “State of the Media” report, citing CNN’s “The Most Trusted Name in News” and Fox’s “We Report, You Decide,” media operate in an age of “niche fragmentation,” undermining the “one-size-fits-all newscast” whose roots trace back to diverse community.
Community journalism suffers in the new corporate environment. Too many executives believe that downsizing reporters and upgrading technology correlates with prosperity. They forget that freedoms in the Bill of Rights are responsible for prosperity, not technology. If anyone should remind them of that, it should be professors whose own downsizing correlates with that of reporters as universities pour billions into information technology that used to go to faculty, further eroding a literate electorate. Professors can make a difference. But the digital sand in the hourglass has almost emptied.
My answer to this problem sounds Pollyannaish, but it has worked at ISU’s Greenlee School: Appeal to alumni, using their influence to effect change in corporate practice; celebrate events that affirm news values, especially the First Amendment; support organizations that defend press freedoms and public access, including the Committee to Protect Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors Inc.; partner with family-owned or family-controlled companies or ones dedicated to service or civic journalism; work with state media associations and foundations, safeguarding rights of small publishers and station owners; and, above all, hire downsized reporters to teach basics before asking students to work across platforms.
These suggestions do not differ dramatically from ones that former ASNE President McGuire suggested in 2002. “Buy into, promote and live the values of the First Amendment,” he also advised, in addition to making “a personal contract to create a sound business and serve the public interest.”
I spoke with McGuire in September to see if his position had changed. It hadn’t. A few months earlier, as Reynolds Distinguished Visiting Professor at Washington and Lee University, McGuire gave an address that put the present situation into crisp focus. “It is time newspaper corporation CEOs and publishers come to grips with history — the history they are writing. Those executives must start imagining that if newspapers are indeed in the death throes, it is they who will be judged. The media history books could well show them watching their industry die for a few percentage points of profit.”
Michael Bugeja, who directs the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, is author of Interpersonal Divide: The Search for Community in a Technological Age (Oxford University Press, 2005).