News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to MinneKota@gmail.com

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Requiem for the Fourth Estate

Much discussion is taking place in the blogosphere about the forced retirement of political reporter Terry Woster from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. The parent company, Gannett, is cutting 10 percent of the jobs at its local newspapers because of a sharp decline in advertising revenues resulting from the economic crisis.

The most cogent comment on the demise of the news business comes from Bernie Hunhoff at South Dakota Magazine. His thoughts on the corporate media recall the reasons I ended my career as a full-time working journalist. The newspaper I worked for was owned by the two families that started the paper in the late 19th century. The editor of the newspaper was a half-owner. As happens with family-run businesses, no one in the younger generation in the families had an interest in continuing in the business. It became a point of discussion in our daily editorial meetings that the owners were looking for a buyer.

The inquiries were all coming from corporations. The younger editors began looking for jobs. Seven of us took out an ad in Editor and Publisher in hopes of finding jobs with reputable news organizations. In a short time, we all moved on, some to other papers, some to other businesses. I headed for graduate school.

The problem with corporate-owned media is the nature of corporations. Corporations are bureacracies. They operate on the same kind of self-interest that government bureaucracies do. The current economic plight of our country and the world, in fact, is the result of corporate management. Bureaucracies do not honor and reward high-mindedness. They cater to the greedy, the devious, the ill-intentioned. Their intellectual and moral guidepost is the bottom line. And so Gannett, which announced job cuts previously last summer, ordered a 10 percent staff reduction late last month. The objective is totally to carry out the management order. The quality of journalism is not a consideration.

An essential premise of corporate success is to elimininate competition and gain control of the market. Acquisition and merger produce more powerful corporations, but usually a decline in consumer choices and quality of products. The focus of operations is not the transactions at the point of sale but the bureaucratic maneuvering in the corporate headquarters. Corporations are in large part reversions to feudalism. They are obsessed with hierarchies and fealties and power and privileges. CEOs operate as dictatorial royalty with unreasonable wealth and power. Corporations are the obverse of democracy. And so when Gannett gets worried about its bottom line, the best journalists get cut. And the public is the ultimate loser.

Journalism has long departed from its function as the Fourth Estate. It is run by marketing people who try to contrive journalism as a product that must appeal to the fickle tastes of a consumer culture. Cable news channels such as CNN and MSNBC are run by people who think political wrangling sells better than straight news. The shows that are not done from an openly partisan perspective arrange confrontations between political hacks and let the bickering begin. Fox News is merely committed to disseminating the petit fascist propaganda line. And the blogosphere is a reflection of the cable news. People do not read blogs for news. They read them to have their preset notions confirmed and to find opportunity to vent malice at people with other preset convictions.

Some newspapers have managed to retain editorial accuracy and thoroughness. Others never tried. In the discussion about the media in South Dakota, the discussants seldom bring to their comments any knowledge of the purpose and practice of journalism as developed from the First Amendment and given the status of a Fourth Estate. In our Constitutional democracy, the four estates are the executive branch of government, the legislative, the judiciary, and the press. In South Dakota, the press's efforts to carry out its Fourth Estate function is sporadic at best. South Dakota newspapers are devoted to reflecting a conservative agenda, not reporting what government is doing or keeping a sharp eye out for pertinent news.

The loss of reporters such as Terry Woster is a step backward. There are a few very good reporters working in the state, but the news managers who decide what gets printed are either partisan censors or marketing bumblers. The Aberdeen American News is an example of the former. The Argus Leader is example of the latter.

While online news services and reporting are developing, and news organizations are finding ways to make them pay, blogs are not a replacement for professional news organizations. By a couple of recent counts over 24-hour periods, only about five percent of the blog posts contained any verified news. If the news was mentioned, it was as a launching pad for some blogger to twist the news into a condemnatory missile against some person or group.

Occasionally blogs do print some news. But the circumstance is like the proposition that if you put an infinite number of monkeys in an infinite room with an infinite number of typewriters, one of them would reproduce a classic novel. The blogosphere seems to be approaching infinity so an actual bit of information slips in now and then. A few bloggers do try to present opinions carefully derived from facts, but most of them are contriving and contorting facts to fit their prejudices.

A number of people who blog have questioned the purpose and wisdom of the blogosphere. Political blogs are filled with bickering, insult, libels, and falsehoods. Blogging has the aspect of drunken ranting down at the tavern, and many people prefer not to go there.

With the election of Barack Obama, there seems to be a shifting in the intellectual climate. Or it might just be fearfulness about the economic future. Possibly the audience for real news might grow and create a demand for professional journalism enough to attract advertising revenues.

More likely we'll be reading more death notices of real news organizations through cable news and blogs.

1 comment:

MoonSpinner said...

I just thought I would let you know that I really appriciated your posting, although it has re-affirmed some of my deepest fears about my profession.

I am currently working at the Rapid City Journal and each day as I work I can't escape the feeling that I am on the rocking bow of a sinking ship. Along with everyone around me I furiously bail water all day, but the bottom does not seem to be holding.

We can't bail enough water to find or patch the sources of the leaks and we are all currently soon to go under.

My only hope is that this sinking will eventually dismantle these corporations. After their demise I pray that people will still want the local news and newspapers will slowly come back with strength and re-establish themselves as the Fourth Estate.

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