Monday, December 12, 2005
NEWSPAPERS: Columbia professor sees news cuts as creating downward spiral
PUBLISHED: December 12, 2005
On the op/ed page of Long Island Newsday
(a Tribune Co.-owned daily newspaper
Staff cuts are a disgrace to journalism
Profit-driven media companies trimming muscle, not fat, are bad news for
democracy, readers and business
BY TODD GITLIN AND OLIVIER SYLVAIN
(Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology, and Olivier
Sylvain a PhD candidate in communication, both at Columbia University.)
Everyone trying to lose weight should know that the trick is to cut fat
and not muscle. This is not a lesson media companies have learned.
Last month, Private Capital Management, a $32-billion money management
firm, issued a sell-or-be-gone ultimatum to the board of Knight Ridder,
the second largest newspaper proprietor in the land. And Knight Ridder has
just received preliminary takeover bids.
The prospective sale presages bad news for readers and reporters, and
likely in the long run, for business, too. PCM is Knight Ridder's largest
stockholder, with 19 percent of the shares. Knight Ridder owns 32 daily
newspapers totaling a circulation of 8.5 million on weekdays and 11
million on Sunday. Its five largest holdings are big names in journalism:
The Philadelphia Inquirer, San Jose Mercury News, The Kansas City Star,
The Miami Herald and Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Knight Ridder's news
service alone has 42 correspondents, several of whom have been responsible
for outstanding coverage of the much-hyped weapons of mass destruction
issue in Iraq.
Newspaper companies are setting sliding goals and then defining themselves
as business failures. When he became chairman and chief executive of
Knight Ridder in 1995, Tony Ridder declared that the chain's profits of 8
percent weren't up to snuff - that the company should be able to make 15
percent. Ten years later, Knight Ridder makes upwards of 20 percent, but
that's no longer enough for Wall Street, with the stock price sliding. The
chain's biggest stockholder is restless. It has no soft spot for
newspapers. It has a soft spot for more - not more news or stronger, more
comprehensive news, but more profit next quarter and next year.
In this Knight Ridder is not alone. The Tribune Co. said it cut 900 jobs
this year at media outlets including The Baltimore Sun, Los Angeles Times
and Newsday, despite publishing profits close to 20 percent. The liberal
group Moveon.org Civic Action has recently protested against Tribune,
among other companies, charging that Tribune cut jobs this year while
garnering $586 million in profits on its publishing operations - up 19
percent over last year.
Indeed, virtually every major newspaper holding company in America has
announced reorganizations, sell-offs, buyouts, and - most alarming to
anyone who cares about journalism's watchdog role in a democracy - staff
cuts. By whacking back staff, newspapers are cutting the very
newsgathering resources that are their wherewithal. They're cutting
muscle, then cutting into bone. This is not only a disgrace to American
journalism; it's a myopic business plan.
There is little question that publicly traded newspaper companies must,
like others, create shareholder value. But as executives, board members
and shareholders seek maximum returns, some of the same companies
offloading reporters have been earning in double digits even as their
circulation declines. Still, under worsening market conditions, to think
that newspapers can be nearly as profitable as broadcasting properties -
with their 30 to 50 percent returns (on free licenses, after all) - is
For one thing, electronic media, particularly the Internet, are giving
newspapers a run for their money. The Pew Research Center reports that 23
percent of Americans say they go online for news every day, up from 15
percent in 2000. This trend in online news consumption is highest among
young people but not limited to them: About 30 percent of Americans
between the ages of 30 and 49 cite the Internet as their main source of
news. People who don't start reading newspapers young rarely acquire the
habit later in life.
The chains are running scared from the very business of news gathering. In
doing so, they're likely tilting into a downward spiral. Shedding
reporters, they'll sacrifice scope and depth, range and investigation.
This will probably cost them still more readers. Losing readers, they'll
lose advertisers and revenue, too.
Instead of succumbing to short-term strategy, publishers need to think
about new services they can offer both online and in their dead-tree
editions. Specialized reporters can prove indispensable to readers.
Meanwhile, shorter, shallower articles by fewer reporters may alienate
more readers than they attract.
To investors thinking only of comparative returns, newspapers are
immaterial - simply the occasion for profiteering. The readers' interest?
Irrelevant. The public interest? Be damned. No one can guarantee that
better newspapers will make more money, but newspapers need investors who
care about their products even if they could make more money selling
pornography, soft drinks or widgets.
Copyright 2005 Newsday Inc.
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