Corporations have failed American journalism. Reporters have not failed corporate America.
That is a distinction I think is vitally important in the debate on the future of journalism as we move beyond the current collapse of the mainstream media.
I am not arguing the inherent evilness of corporations. The fact is the arc of American news outlets, as an adjunct of the Industrial Revolution, has followed nearly exactly the economic arc of the steel, coal, auto and nearly every other manufacturing concern. At the beginning, when innovation is high, steely-eyed entrepeneurs with energy and vision create successful businesses.
These successful businesses attract investors, who then demand an ever-increasing profit to justify their investments. Eventually, the only way to achieve such returns is for these successful businesses to aggregate. Along the way, numerous trends are seen: the “professionalism” of the workers (i.e. journalism schools); incorporation of new, labor-savings technology (i.e. pagination, digital photography); an increasing reluctance for costly risk-taking (i.e. failure to invest). When hard times hit, corporate managers (who have long been seperated from the day-to-day production of the core business) look for ways to cut their way back to prosperity. The easiest, quickest way to achieve this is to slash the workforce, the people who actually keep the business in business.
Gannett is the single best example. This week, the nation’s largest newspaper chain announced a jaw-dropping 60 percent reduction in earnings. More jaw-dropping, however, is the fact the company is still making a profit. How is this possible? Because, unlike the automakers (and this is where the arc diverges just a bit), the profit margins, defined as the difference between the money spent and the money brought in, has been so huge up to now, an average of about 30 percent for small to mid-sized newspapers.
But, of course, this profit margin has been maintained at an enormous cost to Gannett readers in the form of newsroom layoffs.
The pursuit of money is the American way, and corporations exist to create profit. The First Amendment, in fact, envisions journalism, like religion, as a private concern, apart from government. That means in order for professional journalists to exist there must be money attached to their efforts.
If corporations turned journalism and the news into an industrial concern (as, indeed, it always has been), then how can this be undone? How can we seperate the work of the reporter from the interests of the investor. This is where new technology, rather than enslaving the journalist, can free him or her. See future posts for much deeper discussion of how that can be done.