Wednesday, May 14, 2003

Are Profit Pressures Ruining Journalism?
A new era has dawned in American journalism. A New York Times editor describes its hallmark: "A massively increased sensitivity to all things financial." As competition grows ever more ferocious; as the audience continues to drift away from traditional news sources, both print and television; as the public's confidence in news organizations and news people continues to decline; as mainstream print and TV news outlets purvey more "life-style" stories, trivia, scandal, celebrity gossip, sensational crime, sex in high places, and tabloidism at the expense of serious news in a cynical effort to maximize readership and viewership; as editors collude ever more willingly with marketers, promotion "experts," and advertisers, thus ceding a portion of their sacred editorial trust; as editors shrink from tough coverage of major advertisers lest they jeopardize ad revenue; as news holes grow smaller in column inches to cosmeticize the bottom line; as news executives cut muscle and sinew from budgets to satisfy their corporate overseers' demands for higher profit margins each year; as top managers fail to reinvest profits in staff training, investigative reports, salaries, plant, and equipment -- then the broadly-felt consequence of those factors and many others, collectively, is a diminished and deracinated journalism of a sort that hasn't been seen in this country until now and which, if it persists, will be a fatal erosion of the ancient bond between journalists and the public.

Even the venerable Walter Cronkite is kicking against the mainstream.

Television's corporate chieftains, says Walter Cronkite, show little understanding of "the responsibilities of being news disseminators." They expect the news departments to generate the same sort of profits that entertainment programs do -- an impossible task. The newspaper business isn't much different, he says. "Stockholders in publicly held newspaper chains are expecting returns similar to those they'd get by investing in industrial enterprises."

The "tabloidization" of TV newsmagazines is strictly geared to ratings and profits. "A major tragedy of the moment," Cronkite maintains, is the use TV newsmagazines are making of the valuable prime time they occupy. "Instead of offering tough documentaries and background on the issues that so deeply affect all of us, they're turning those programs into television copies of Photoplay magazine." News executives know better, Cronkite says, and are "uncomfortable" with what they're doing. "But they are helpless when top management demands an increase in ratings to protect profits."