The past 12-18 months have been difficult for many, personally and professionally. One group of professionals that has been especially impacted by the economic downturn is newsgatherers: reporters, editors and their ancillary co-workers, including ad reps, backoffice administrators, community affairs liaisons and the like. I happen to interact with these people on a regular basis as part of my job duties, and on the whole, folks in the news business haven’t had a happy 2009. Some individuals have disappeared as their positions were eliminated. Others have suffered through rolling “furloughs” of several days and (in many instances, weeks) without pay. Still others have taken severe pay cuts.
The economic malaise is certainly a major reason for the upheaval at daily newspapers and broadcast stations. Yet the future of news was already under pressure because of changing consumer habits that are re-shaping how news and information is obtained. Newspapers have been pummeled by the one-two combination punch of declining ad revenues and diminishing circulation as readers migrate to online sites or ersatz “news” shows like Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show.” For broadcasters, there’s just too many channels — literally — from cable to online to downloabable programming, from which viewers may pick and choose. The holy grail of consumer choice, it turns out, is a mixed blessing — the myriad options available to consumers to get their news (or ignore it) — is eating away at the foundation of traditional forms of journalism. The downturn simply accelerated that process, forcing media companies to slash costs across-the-board in hopes of staying afloat.
One friend of mine, a broadcast general manager who combines a steely business sense with deep compassion for the people in his employ, has endured endless struggles attempting to steer his organization through this deteriorating situation. When we last got together for one of our every-so-often breakfasts, he looked exhausted, as if he had just pedaled cross-country on a bicycle with two flat tires. What, I asked him, was most needed to turn things around. He answered quickly: “people need to start buying cars.”
Perhaps he was exaggerating — maybe too little sleep and too much coffee. But thinking about what he said has stuck in my head. In our interdependent world, it’s not such a stretch to say that the future of news gathering is in a very direct way linked to consumers’ willingness to purchase an automobile or truck or some other big ticket item like a fridge or new furniture. Frankly, this is a bit of a comeuppance for those of us who grew up believing (not with a little naivete) that the gathering, reporting, editing and disseminating news somehow was and should be impervious to outside influences, including economic collapse. We felt, or we convinced ourselves, that journalism was too important, too fundamental, to suffer the vagaries of business cycles that impacted everyone else. Reporters, columnists and editors reinforced this point of view, arguing that just when calamity is upon us (9-11, war in Iraq, or stock market meltdowns) the news media is needed even more to describe what’s happening and analyze the causes.
We know better now. The news media enters 2010 under severe financial strain. The major media companies are putting a brave face on the situation, but just beneath the surface, the business model of traditional journalism is eroding away like a Louisiana levy dike. Newsrooms are being decimated and bureaus closed. Videographers with litle or no journalism training are now reporters. Newsrooms that used to compete are now sharing reporting and editing personnel, thus limiting perspective and interpretation. The networks that are flourishing have all but abandoned objective journalism to the whims and peculiarities of partisan “info-entertainers.” Perhaps worst of all, public opinion surveys reveal a vast public indifference to all this, as if daily journalism was not at all relevant to their lives.
This couldn’t come at a worse time for citizens. With fewer reporters deployed to cover and analyze hugely important issues like health care reform, the environment, and terrorism, careful consumers of the news have a difficult time ferreting out reliable, respectable coverage. There is, thankfully, still consumer demand for high quality journalism, but what’s not yet clear is whether people will pay a premium (or anything beyond free) to sustain quality news gathering. When the New York Times — far and away the benchmark of superior news reporting and analysis — begins cutting newsroom staff, it’s time for everyone to begin worrying.
Meantime, executives and managers in the media business, like my friend, are desparately seeking answers to right their ships and set a new course to prosperity amid a future that seems intractably uncertain and ill-defined. Who’d have thought that for journalism to survive and fight another day, we’d all be asked to do our part beyond buying a newspaper subscription. Like buying a car.