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.

In 2005, David Jackson reported on the growing problem of home mortgage fraud in Chicago’s poorest communities. His piece, which shed light on loopholes in the system that gave birth to the sub-prime mortgage debacle, warned that the problem “now threatens to become a national financial epidemic.” If only more people, including regulators, had paid attention.

And last year, prior to a wholesale change in the newsroom’s hierarchy and my exit, The Tribune won the Pulitzer Prize for its investigative reporting on product safety hazards for children, including lead-painted toys from China, and a dangerously flawed type of baby crib. The reporters’ painstaking research and the expensive testing they commissioned by independent labs resulted in major product recalls and changes in manufacturing policy. Lives were surely saved.

But that sort of work is under assault and, with it, the resources to cover a community. In Springfield, Illinois, for example, the full-time State House press corps has dwindled in just two years from 32 to 24. The Tribune has cut back from two State House reporters to one, and the big papers in Rockford and Champaign have closed their bureaus altogether. This means that the very arena where the real political and lobbying shenanigans play out—the state legislature—gets dramatically less scrutiny. And as the old aphorism reminds us: When the cat’s away, the mice will play.

Is there hope for good journalism?

Nobody knows what business model, if any, can sustain serious journalism in today’s economic landscape. One thing that seems clear is that attempting to recreate the past model, in which media entities were owned by publicly traded companies, would probably be a mistake. The access to capital is ultimately overshadowed by the perils of downturns and fiduciary responsibilities to shareholders, who may insist on cost cutting in the hopes that a stock’s price will rise and that Wall Street will be satisfied. Or, in the case of public companies dominated by a single family, there will be absolutely inevitable family rifts and the likely desire of younger generations to cash out, especially if a stock price is falling.

As for other options, there’s the allure of the British Broadcasting Corporation or National Public Radio models, relying in part or entirely on government, private, or non-profit funding, along with some viewer or reader support. The Brits even pay a specific tax to support their news services.

Another—some believe better—alternative may well be private ownership and the hope that entrepreneurs like Steven Brill will come along, who understand both journalism and the business world. But such entrepreneurs must come up with gambits to make their products viable.

When it comes to newspapers per se, one might consider dumping such hidebound business practices as dirt-cheap subscriptions. Traditionally, you can buy a paper on the newsstand for one price but pay considerably less for the wonderful luxury of having it delivered to your doorstep in a plastic bag. Amid plummeting advertising revenue, such a practice is nonsensical. Instead, why not raise prices substantially, prove you deserve the hike, and market quality newspapers as just that: quality products? It’s absurd to be charging less for this daily miracle than for a candy bar, and in the process increasingly losing status. Every time I stumble into a newspaper on the dirty floor of a public bathroom stall, I think, “Boy, is this fitting, given how we essentially give this away.”

It’s a fragmented market and, just as there’s a place for Fox News, C-Span and Jon Stewart’s take, there may also be room for niche papers of various sorts. But the prime hope should be to make newspapers truly smart and comprehensive filters of all that’s going on in the world—not just portions of it—and to reach an audience that can be unabashedly sold to prospective advertisers as the upscale niche that so many crave. Go up, not down, while still seeking to entertain (don’t ditch sports, comics, and so on). Do serious research and, for the first time, do truly aggressive and effective marketing; hire a superstar to lend cachet to the product, be it Oprah, Derek Jeter, Tiger Woods, or Warren Buffett: “Hey, folks, want to be as smart and successful as I am? Want to be really cool by knowing what’s going on in the world? Read a newspaper.”

Newspapers should also consider serious partnerships with local school systems in which the paper is part of the kind of civics instruction that’s so increasingly rare these days. The link between newspaper readership and the ultimate act of citizenship—voting—is clear, so convince both a local political and education establishment that it’s in everybody’s self-interest to raise student awareness of the world.

One of the magazine world’s curiosities has been the rising U.S. circulation of The Economist, while Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report continue their decline. The Economist has unabashedly positioned itself as the highbrow alternative, and even raised its prices substantially. It hints at how really good newspapers might have a chance of once again being associated with a certain social status. But, of course, that would mean delivering qualitatively, far more than most papers are today, and being far more tactical in not rehashing what people are convinced they’ve already seen on TV or online. Incrementalism and business-side cowardice won’t provide a template for success.

Let me end with something I stumbled onto while reading an old issue of The New Yorker magazine. In a fine piece on the American press, the writer Eric Alterman mentioned a 1978 play by the dazzling British playwright, Tom Stoppard, called Night and Day. It’s about foreign correspondents, reporters motivated not by dreams of fame or riches but by the goal of getting great, unique stories in difficult places.

In that play, a veteran photographer named George Guthrie is talking to a young journalist. Guthrie says, “People do awful things to each other. But it’s worse in places where everybody is kept in the dark. Information is light. Information, in itself, about anything, is light.”

The question is, how much light can you have if you aren’t willing to pay to look into military hospitals in Washington, into those on Death Row in Illinois, into whether those wooden Thomas the Tank Engine toys made in China are safe, into the safety of school lunch programs, into whether people needlessly die on airplanes, or even just into whether there are obvious conflicts of interest on the local zoning board?

And lastly, we have to be brutally honest with a final, crucial question: Even in our democracy, are there enough people out there who care whether the light of serious journalism is allowed to fail?

Presented by

James Warren is a former managing editor and Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Tribune who writes for The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and is a political analyst for MSNBC. He has previously written for the Atlantic on Kissinger and Nixon.

This article is adapted from a speech on “Democracy, the decline of Mainistream Media and Rise of the Internet” at the University of Chicago, Harris School of Public Policy.

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