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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Column: Wither Journalism?

The emergence and seeming dominance of cyberspace may have improved variety and access in the media. One can be tempted to use the overused adage “the more the merrier,” yeah? Well, my industry (newspapers) is anything but the merrier for it. Real hard news is taking a bludgeoning, continually. I daresay that as publishers’ worries about gloomy bottom lines and cost-cutting trump obligatory quality, we risk surrendering the traditional role of the fourth estate. It’s really sad.

“So much of nothing.” That’s how I feel about the proliferation of blogging and bloggers. It is often an exasperating experience when I read another analysis on the media about how newspapers in the country are cutting staff and editions or engaging their online forays to fight bankruptcies or extinction. As someone who has put in a good number of years plying this trade, I am vested in the future of newspapers. Need I play the old record of the somber present day?

With your indulgence, let me state that the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism has published its report titled “The State of the News Media 2010.” It painted the grim picture that for “far too many American papers,” they run the “risk of being insubstantial.” I hope that day never comes when one of the primary sources of history will be dinosaurs of our modern age. If I was looking for the gravity of the situation, I found it in this section of the report: “The plight of the industry and the erosion of journalism’s civic contribution have caught the attention of Congress and agencies like the Federal Communication Commission. There is little consensus with government – or even the industry – about what action would help or even whether government can be involved without damaging traditions of independence.” Exactly. Nobody (at least not me) wants to see a government bailout of newspapers. But…

If the newspapers are failing today, it is definitely not because they fail to run as businesses. Take our very own Sacramento-based McClatchy consortium, which owns some 30 dailies and 50 non-dailies distributed in 29 markets nationwide. They took over Knight Ridder newspapers in an expansion move. The past couple of years have seen them struggle to just stay in business. They have cut a third of their payroll, overall. They will be putting up bonds to pay off bank loans. Even as McClatchy CEO Gray Pruitt reports a reduction in their quarterly losses, it is still in the double digits. They basically run on a variation of refinancing like a mortgage owner.

Professionals in the news business are expressing the major constraints they face everyday to maintain the quality of news amid a dwindling staff to work with. The Society of News Editors reported they lost 2,400 staff nationwide in 2007. That number bumped up to 5,900 in 2008. An equally high number was axed in 2009. Advertisement revenues continue to be lost to online outfits, and even an adaptation of online marketing models is not enough.

So as someone who wants stay in the news business, do you want to look to television for rescue? Not so fast. Rephrase: do you care about good old journalism on TV as much as yours truly? Recently, I read Ted Koppel’s article in the Washington Post titled “Olbermann, O’Reilly and the death of real news,” in which he lamented the appalling reality that journalism or news reporting as we know it is no more in vogue. He was lamenting the activist and opinion-driven mode espoused and mastered by FOX (or is it FOX NEWS?) that was borrowed by MSNBC, apparently because that’s where the action and big bucks flow. People want to see their biases and beliefs reaffirmed on TV. Koppel said that it is being clear that among the rights our founding fathers envisaged, the “latest” is “news we can choose.” He stressed the danger of other professions that tell customers what they want to hear, claiming that Bernie Madoff types abound in the media.

After some four decades in the news business, Koppel knows that hard news was always an expensive business that hardly brought in profits. The entertainment and advertisement departments had to carry the burden. Foreign bureaus are a thing of the past for most media outlets. And who cares? Certainly not networks that cater to advertisers trying to reach mostly young audiences, who don’t care much for hard news. Alternative means of helping save the fourth estate are needed, direly. Foundations, trusts and private contributors with a little help from government, such as PBS and NPR, get by. Well, maybe I earlier misspoke ’cause I get much of my news from BBC that is government-funded and big on variety and news content.

Applying to UCD, I chose film studies partly because it was profiled as a program for students interested in journalism. Also, I don’t want an “insubstantial” career. Should good old journalism go extinct, pictures continue to tell a thousand words.

Reach FAYIA SELLU at fmsellu@ucdavis.edu.

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