Dispatch January 2009

When No News Is Bad News

A former managing editor of The Chicago Tribune probes the collapse of the newspaper industry and tries, mostly in vain, to find hope for the future of journalism.
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To give you an idea of the state of journalism today, I probably couldn’t do better than to tell you something about John Crewdson, a big, burly guy just past age 60, with whom I worked when I ran the Washington bureau of the Tribune. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his work on immigration at The New York Times in 1981, and is one of the premier investigative reporters of his generation.

Twenty years ago, Crewdson revealed (in a Tribune article so expansive it merited its own special Sunday section) that it was in fact a French research doctor named Luc Montagnier who had discovered the AIDS virus, rather than a self-promoting American, Dr. Robert Gallo, who had claimed full credit and been showered with media attention. To investigate the piece, Crewdson spent months wading into dense, difficult material, becoming almost as conversant in the science of AIDS as any researcher. (And just this year, Montagnier’s work—and Crewdson’s—was prominently rewarded, when Montaignier instead of Gallo received the Nobel prize for the discovery of the virus.)

Among other great Crewdson pieces was his 1996 series about people dying needlessly of heart attacks on commercial airliners, which resulted in all airlines now carrying defibrillators on board. (If you survive a heart attack at 30,000 feet, thank John.) And more recently, Crewdson dug deep into the Bush administration’s secret “rendition” program, matching tail numbers with FAA records, among other painstaking work, to unearth such disturbing details as the fact that a Boston Red Sox owner had been allowing his Gulfstream jet (sometimes used by the team) to be flown by the government on these covert flights.

Any one of Crewdson’s 15 to 20 major exposés would be the highlight of most journalists’ careers. But this fall, not long after Montagnier learned that he would get his Nobel, John Crewdson got his walking papers, shown the door by new management at the Tribune. A solemn farewell party was held at a Mexican restaurant near the Washington office that he had been given 24 hours to vacate.

In journalism’s new Internet-dominated landscape, in which attitude and attack are often valued more than precision and truth, handiwork like Crewdson’s is seen as taking too long and costing too much. His situation is hardly unique—the other investigative reporter at the Tribune’s D.C. bureau was told to leave at the same time, as was the top investigator at the Washington bureau of The Los Angeles Times, which is also owned by the Tribune Company. But as an example of journalism’s very best, Crewdson's dismissal is a symbol of the extent to which the news media are imploding. And that implosion is a development with far-reaching implications.

Newspapers have been and remain by far the largest source of news coverage and analysis in any city or town. Without the local paper, the TV and radio stations would be in difficult shape, despite the good work they often do. The most popular websites—Yahoo, the Drudge Report, MSNBC.com, CNN.com, the Huffington Post, you name it—also rely heavily on the work of newspapers, more often than not appropriating and linking to their stories without providing a penny in payment. As I write, the headline on the lead Huffington Post story is about the Bush administration “Burrowing Political Appointees into Career Civil Service Positions.” Upon closer inspection, this Huffington Post Story turned out to be a truncated version of what was in fact a quite interesting Washington Post story. (And upon even closer inspection, the actual story made clear that this had been common practice among all administrations in their final days and cited about 50 examples of the Bill Clinton administration doing the same thing.)

The cooption of that Post story serves as a clear reminder of the extent to which newspapers serve as daily tip sheets for other media outlets. The Chicago Tribune has—or at least had—many more reporters and editors than all the TV stations and radio stations in town combined. Far more than CNN or Fox or CBS or ABC News. Traditionally, it brought in $100 million to $200 million more in revenue annually than all Chicago’s radio stations put together. But now a stunning decline in advertising revenue has broken the traditional business model for all papers. (There were weeks in the early part of 2008 when the Tribune began to fall behind conservative weekly revenue projections by more than $1 million. And in seemingly no time, its editorial department has gone from 650 employees to about 470.)

Classified ads, once the mainstay of newspaper advertising, are scarce—headed to Craigslist.com and other websites, where you can place your ad for free or for pennies. Other key advertising categories, notably auto and real estate, have also plummeted. Meanwhile, the price of newsprint is skyrocketing, despite declining demand.

Adding to what is essentially an advertising-driven calamity is the reality that though the U.S. population has more than doubled in the past 60 years, absolute newspaper circulation this year will be lower than in 1946. A younger generation wants its information online, and newspapers and magazines have obliged by, after first being too slow to embrace the Internet, giving their content away online for free. Content for which, I might add, they charge their traditional subscribers hefty sums in print. But even as other sites profit by aggregating and linking to their content, most newspaper websites themselves are austere, dull, and technologically backward, relying for revenue on the evaporating supply of low-cost help-wanted, real estate, and auto classifieds.

The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune are among those organizations that have spent many millions of dollars covering the Iraq War, with each outlet paying for multiple reporters, translators, full-time drivers, guards, bullet-proof armored cars, year-round office space, office managers, and security consultants with intelligence backgrounds to provide threat assessments. And all of them give that work away for free online.

A friend of mine who was at dinner with a top Times executive asked why the paper had stopped walling off and requiring paid subscriptions for some of its online content. One factor, the executive said, was that a prominent columnist had voiced chagrin about fewer people reading his work. My friend wonders why, if the paper was giving away the columnist’s work for free, it shouldn’t have had him work for free. Perhaps he’s got a point.

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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