The Hightower Report
Smaller Newspapers, Bigger Conglomerates; and Barons of the Mass Media Ignore the Masses
Smaller Newspapers, Bigger Conglomerates
Daily newspapers are getting smaller and shallower. The shrinkage is not from a lack of news but because the conglomerate chieftains and bankers who now control America's print media lack any commitment to journalism.
Newspapers are literally shrinking in size, both in terms of width and number of pages, which shrinks the news hole. Stories are not merely shorter; they're now "storyettes," often only four or five paragraphs.
The most damning shrinkage, though, is in the news staff, which, after all, is the heart of journalism. Conglomerate suits, focused on producing 30% or so annual profit for faraway investors, choke newsroom budgets to the gagging point – so there are fewer reporters to go get stories, no willingness by corporate editors to assign investigative reports that require long lead times, and more reliance on less-experienced, lower-paid, and part-time or contract reporters.
The Chicago Tribune, among other papers, is even shifting reporters to piece work. Rather than focus on journalistic quality, the news staffers get paid by the column inches they produce, putting a premium on quick, superficial reporting.
The honchos at conglomerate headquarters blame rising newsprint costs and declining ad revenues as their reason for slashing the news budgets. But their dirty little secret is that conglomerate ownership itself is the culprit. Not only are managers forced to transfer more money from news operations into the pockets of wealthy investors, but millions of dollars are siphoned out of newsrooms every month to meet the outrageous debt payments that top executives ran up in the newspaper takeover frenzy of the last few years. In other words, paying for the creation of the conglomerates – not newsprint costs – is what's killing newspapers.
Now there's a good news story. But I doubt you're going to read about it in your local daily.
Barons of the Mass Media Ignore the Masses
The MBAs and corporate bean counters who run America's newspapers these days blame the Internet, fickle advertisers, America's education system, unions, and even you and me – aka, the stupid public – for the ongoing decline in readership. There is, however, one group they steadfastly refuse to blame: themselves.
Thumb through the typical newspaper, and chances are you won't find yourself in it. Not you personally but working stiffs, regular folks, the hoi polloi. News corporations are in the business of mass media, yet they virtually ignore the masses, which just might be the one reason the masses increasingly ignore newspapers.
Last year, The Washington Post ran a front-page story asking why the public is "gloomier than the economy." Not a single worker was interviewed! No mention was made about declining wages, lack of health-care coverage, busted pension plans, or other real reasons that real people might feel a bit gloomy.
Also last year, The New York Times printed a story about the strength of the job market. Corporate representatives were interviewed – but not a single worker. Likewise, The Wall Street Journal did a piece decrying the fact that the promotion of free-trade deals keeps meeting "stiff resistance from organized labor." Not a single worker or labor rep was asked to explain his or her viewpoint.
In a study of economy-related articles in major news outlets throughout 2007, the Center for American Progress found that media barons focus on "elite sources" for their stories and ignore ordinary workers. The result is a dangerous, willfully ignorant narrowing of our nation's democratic dialogue, excluding the perspective of the majority of Americans.
The real bias of the media is not to the left or right but to the thin strata of economic elites at the top of our society. So it's no wonder that the workaday majority is seeking other sources of news.