Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Scary Times for the Press; Scarier Yet Without It


On Memorial Day I stayed with a college friend, a professor at George Mason University in Virginia who has always been keenly attuned to the news. I've known Peter for nearly 40 years, and when Kathy and I visit, we often sit around the breakfast table, reading and discussing the news. But this time something had changed. Peter has cancelled his subscription to the Washington Post. He reads online. So does my cousin Stephanie, who recently cancelled her subscription to The Boston Globe.

I asked both how they think news organizations will be able to provide them with news if no one is willing to pay for it any more. News web sites, I pointed out, lose money. While traditional news organizations have built these sites to maintain their branding, their bottom line gets a little worse each time a paper subscriber cancels and starts reading online. Judging from the free fall in newspaper circulation in this country, neither my friend, my cousin, nor thousands of other Americans are terribly worried about it.

They should be. These are scary times for a free press in America. Not only has the news industry been weakened by declining readership, but its advertising base -- particularly classified ads -- has shiftly sharply to the Web. Some papers are holding on by their finger nails. For example, my old newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News in California, has been taken over by a new publisher known to slash news budgets to increase profits. The Mercury News was part of a Knight Ridder newspaper chain much respected throughout the second half of the 20th century for its investment in quality news. No longer. As of July 1, it will have sold its holdings to the highest bidder (and there weren't many).

With the decline in profits has come a decline in trust (a measure of declining quality perhaps?). A 2005 Pew Research Center poll reported that just 54 percent of Americans in 2004 believed most of what they read, down from 84 percent two decades earlier. Meanwhile, bloggers on right and left attack the traditional news media as too biased, too cautious, or both.

And if the weakened American press doesn't have enough to worry about, the Bush administration is making noise about possibly prosecuting reporters who publish classified information. So far the story is speculative; it hasn't cracked Page 1. But if and when it happens, will anyone care?

I can only hope so. Because whatever their faults -- and there are many -- the news media in this country, and newspapers in particular, currently offer the best hope of sustaining a robust democracy. We have a president who adheres to the law when it suits him. (And often it doesn't, which is obvious in everything from domestic spying by the National Security Agency to the rewriting of the codes of military conduct as they apply to prisoners of war.) We have a Congress, dominated by the president's party, that seems to find its voice only when the FBI raids its Capitol Hill offices. We have a Supreme Court -- a new Supreme Court -- that just yesterday ruled that whistle blowers in public offices are out of luck if their bosses discipline or demote them for making public the failures of their own agencies.

For all its shortcomings, the American news media -- and especially the newspapers that still invest in independent reporting -- are the best ally the public has. I don't mean to be pollyanish. But I think it's time for more Americans -- particularly those concerned about our eroding civil liberties -- to rally around the press instead of throwing spitballs at it while it fades away. By all means, make the news better. Scream and holler when reporters get things wrong. Hold them accountable. But to do that, you've got to read what they write, not just read the kvetchings of bloggers who complain much more than they report.

For my part, I'm going to keep working on my friend Peter and my cousin Stephanie to renew their subscriptions. If you don't buy a newspaper, start doing so. And tell your friends they should, too. Maybe some day soon, news organizations will figure out a way to make money off the Internet. But they haven't yet. And democracy is too valuable to give away for the savings of 50 cents a day.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Wonders of Technology


I started this blog two months ago. Then I pushed a button, and it vanished. This morning I rediscovered it somewhere in cyberspace, like a note wrapped and sealed in a bottle aimlessly adrift just offshore. Strange, this word of bits and bytes, the stored detritus of billions of lives.

And so I guess I'll have to get back to blogging. It beats muttering to myself or screaming at the television. It's cheaper than therapy (you know, for muttering to myself or screaming at the television). It's a measure of one more life in one more year of America's metamorphisis to ... who knows? And I wouldn't want to miss out on being spied on by the National Security Agency.

So I'll hold down my new space with a quote I enjoyed from the Introduction to "The Best American Essays 2004."

Writing is a window. It opens onto vanished feelings and vanished worlds. Often it is the only window there is, the only access we will every have to those things. it is more than a mere record, like a photograph, because it is also a sensibility, a point of view, a voice. It is the place where, fifty or a hundred years from now, people will go to see -- or to hear -- what it was like to be alive when we were alive.
-- Louis Menand

Back to Blogging, I Guess

This blog will reflect on news, views and the manipulation of both in this century of spin.


I started into this blogging business last January, primarily as a way of forcing myself to write more often. My blog then was Musing on And after a year of weekly posts I ran out of time and out of steam.

But too much is changing in the world around me and the news business to sit idly on the sidelines. And so I thought I'd once more add my voice to the chattering masses in the hope something good can come from all this noise that is blogging.

The traditional news business is in big trouble these days. Last week my old newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News, was sold -- along with all other Knight-Ridder newspapers -- because the chain's profit margin was "only" 16.6 percent and one big stockholder wanted bigger returns.

Just who ends up owning the Merc and Knight-Ridder's other top newspapers remains cloudy.
But the American newspaper landscape once again has gotten smaller -- the voice of American journalism that much more homogenous.

I'll reserve this space over the next year or few to commentary about the news, how it's being reported and how it's being distorted. I'll write less frequently but I hope as personally and professionally. As always, I'd love to see whether anyone out there in the wilderness finds me. If so, stop in for a digital cup-of-coffee. There's nothing I love better than a warm fire and a few sparks.

Jerry Lanson


Jeffrey Seglin said...


Good to see you back blogging.

A lot of noise has been made about Knight-Ridder's decision when going public to offer only one class of stock. By doing this it allowed Wall Street to put pressure on the newspapers to perform better and better each quarter. If two classes of stock had been issued as other newspaper chains did when going public, it might have eased some of that pressure. Or that's how the current thinking goes.

What I'm wondering is whether you see the current sell off as a sign that the fading health of newspapers in the U.S. or as more of an indication of what can go wrong when Wall Street is allowed to step in and put profit pressure on newspapers to perform better financial quarter after quarter so the stock price improves. Does it suggest that issuing only one class of stock gives over too much control to investors who know little about the business and are driven solely by a desire to see their stock price rise?

This quarter-to-quarter short-term thinking is part of what I think caused some of the companies caught up in the corporate scandals of the past four years to go astray.

So I'm wondering if you think this recent sell off of the Knight Ridder papers is a sign of newspaper health fading or more a sign of the myopic behavior of corporate investors to look for short-term returns that could wreak havoc on the long-term health of a company.

7:32 AM