I attended a lecture last night at our local public library. It was “The Death and Life of American Journalism”. The lecturer was Robert McChesney, a professor at Illinois – Champaign-Urbana.
His research indicates there are about 60,000 paid journalists in the United States (down from about 130,000 about 5 years ago). About 1,000 are getting fired every month, and he thinks that number will only accelerate as advertising dollars shift to other media and the newsrooms of America become even less economically viable. You do the math: in about 5 years that could mean we have no more free press in the United States.
A couple more interesting numbers: according to his research, newspapers today print 70% less ORIGINAL stories than they did 20 years ago. And, out of the stories they do print, 86% were written by PR people, not news reporters. And most of those PR pieces are published unedited, not fact checked. So, the vast majority of our “news” is written by people who are paid to spin in favor of their benefactors.
What does this mean? Why should we care? Today, in most of our towns, very little government is covered. When was the last time you saw a summary of your city council, board of education, park district, library board, or county government meetings? Sure, you can wade through hours of local community TV and watch the meetings yourself (I can in Batavia, anyway), but how many citizens will do that as opposed to reading a summary of what was discussed and how the votes went? So, the citizens end up uninformed and government and private interests get to conduct their business with no one watching, no one reporting to the taxpayers. Who else is going to do it?
One of the audience asked about “citizen journalism”. The professor acknowledged that citizen journalists (primarily bloggers) do perform a role, but they lack two important things to truly replace what we are losing: resources and institutional clout. Most bloggers do not have the resources to truly cover city government, much less larger scale stories – good journalism, like good investment banking, must be compensated. To think that proper reporting can be done after hours, part time, is not realistic. But, more importantly, the reporter needs backup – an institution that commands respect (“I’m Kevin, from the Wall Street Journal, do you have a comment?” – that call usually gets returned – not so much when it’s “Kevin, the blogger”), has lawyers to defend our freedom of the press, and some security so the powerful cannot eliminate your livelihood when they don’t like what you are reporting.
His solution is public subsidies. He says all the other industrialized countries subsidize the press, some (Germany) in the tens of billions. The reason is an acknowledgement that the free market cannot support journalism. The business model, advertising, is now “broke”. And, he asserts that the advertising business model was an anomaly anyway. Prior to around 1860, the United States subsidized the free press heavily, primarily through the Post Office. When advertising revenues began to make news reporting economically viable, we stopped the subsidies. I’m not sure about government supported journalism, but free market approaches don’t seem anywhere on the horizon either.
Who benefits from the demise of journalism? Ask yourself who would prefer to operate without scrutiny? Is this a future we want to bequeath to our children?