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.

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.

Newspaper penetration—the number of households looking at a paper—now amounts to less than 18 percent of the population, compared with 33 percent back in 1946. In its home market, The New York Times has a dismal 7 percent penetration. The New York Times Company, which, like the rest of the industry, used to reap tremendous profits, is one of the many publicly traded newspaper companies that have lost well over half their market value in the past two years. Just this past year, shareholders of publicly traded newspaper companies have lost 83 percent of their investments, according to Alan Mutter, an astute industry analyst, blogger and former newspaper city editor. Papers are throwing out employees almost weekly, cutting national and foreign bureaus if they have them, and slicing the actual size of the product, since newsprint is a huge cost. In some cases, entire newspapers are shutting down. Hearst Corporation is the latest to serve as executioner, announcing the likely demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer if a buyer can’t be found.

Elsewhere on the Web:

"You Spoke, We Listened"

The Chicago Tribune responds to reader critiques of its redesign. [File opens as a large PDF.]

As the seeming death spiral accelerates, a sense of desperation has led some to flashy redesigns aimed at attracting younger consumers. But little is working, and the diehard readers are left with a sense of getting less. All this helps explain an extraordinary Chicago Tribune admission in its own pages that a wholesale redesign had met with significant resistance (“You Spoke, We Listened”): reader complaints included “too many ads,” “too few stories,” “the paper is too loud,” “don’t jump stories to other sections,” “it’s too hard to find things” and “bring back my Business section.” This was soon followed by the announcement that the Tribune would begin to produce a tabloid version of its traditional broadsheet for single-copy sales (as opposed to home delivery), as if geometry could provide some salvation.

Meanwhile, websites are not obligated to spend money on newsprint, printing plants, or union drivers to drop their product at readers’ doorsteps. Yet they benefit from linking to all that work they’ve not done or paid a nickel for. And they supplement this borrowed reporting with user-generated content and material produced by freelancers who are paid a pittance or nothing at all. They’ve also opted for chat rooms and ongoing dialogues among their adherents—a laudable, democratic impulse, but one that often devolves into an unedited legitimization of stupidity and bigotry.

The websites’ revenue streams, despite their growing audiences, do not justify—at least in the minds of the executives who run them—spending on reporting and editing infrastructures. The corps of the Huffington Post, for example, consists of bloggers and columnists, including yours truly, working for free, or for what amounts to booze money. Yet the Huffington Post is now more popular than all but a tiny cadre of newspaper websites. Its achievement, like that of many websites, has been attracting distinct communities of people who talk with one another about a particular subject: politics, sports, parenting, and so on. Those people essentially become the site, and their involvement goes unpaid. Add to that a few blogs and a few stories and columns from the mainstream media and, bingo, you can have a successful site—especially if you have a marketing dynamo like Arianna Huffington.

This past presidential election also sadly seems to mark the death of newspapers as the prime influencers in presidential politics. The candidates quickly realized that the Internet and cable television were the first places to go to connect with voters—all the more so when there happened to be an avenue sympathetic to their agendas, or a social networking venue free from all that pesky editing and fact checking done by the old newspaper farts. In a constantly changing 24-hour news cycle, why wait for the daily paper to hit doorsteps the next morning?

Why should we care?

This matters because of the unique role journalism plays in a democracy. So much public information and official government knowledge depends on a private business model that is now failing. Journalism acknowledges and illuminates complexity, and at the same time prioritizes, helping us to evaluate the relative significance of developments playing out all around us. A very shrewd journalist-entrepreneur I know, Steve Brill, asks that one just imagine walking into a library and seeing the pages of all the books scattered on the floors and stairwells. To be sure, editors are human and subjectivity plays a role, but a newspaper places those pages—and thus the news—in some sensible order.

And, importantly, there’s a sense of social mission. Good journalism keeps public and private officials honest and helps citizens make thoughtful decisions. It does this by systematically gathering, processing, and checking relevant information, and by doing it with a spirit of independence. It’s how two previously unknown Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, put together the Watergate puzzle that forced the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon. And as they pursued their investigation, they, like all good reporters, followed certain commonly accepted ethical norms: You don’t take money from the people you’re covering. You don’t bow to special interests or to the economic interests of your employer. You confirm and reconfirm the accuracy of assertions and supposed facts and quotes. As an old saying used to go at the City News Bureau of Chicago, a now-defunct training ground for decades of reporters, “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”

Journalism at its best succeeded because of an accumulation of trust on the public’s part over the past 60 or 70 years—a general sense, now sadly on a southerly trajectory, that the final product merited both inspection and confidence. There was value in a reporter gaining true expertise in a given area, winning the trust of individuals, and ultimately using that expertise and trust to cover and break stories of relevance to a community. And with the local paper always the biggest home for advertisers in town, there was money to justify maintaining large staffs and the infrastructure necessary to be comprehensive and precise.

Journalism’s role may be as straightforward as covering the town council, or the closing of a local store. But it also involves large-scale matters that set a national agenda and impart a shared sense of urgency or of shame. Good journalism brings a sense of coherence to our diverse, fragmented, nation. The president, the postman, the podiatrist, the policeman can all pick up the same paper and see the same analysis of what’s important.

Are there contemporary examples of this kind of indispensable journalism?

Absolutely. Most of you are probably familiar with The Washington Post’s series last year on the conditions faced by wounded servicemen at Washington’s Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Reporters Anne Hull and Dana Priest spent six months cultivating sources and doing old-fashioned gumshoe work to unveil the deplorable state of the facility’s outpatient care and the callousness of its bureaucracy. It was their labors and talent that resulted in a shamed Bush administration ordering sweeping change.

There are also examples at the Chicago Tribune. In the late ’90s, a team of reporters led by Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong led a disturbing investigation into the state of Illinois’ death penalty, revealing how many people had been wrongly convicted and were sitting on death row. Their landmark series inspired the governor to declare a moratorium on executions. (My wife, Cornelia Grumman, was also moved by their work and won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for her editorials laying out how the system should be changed.)

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?