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Home > Reading Room > Don’t let quest for profits co-opt the news media

SPJ Reading Room

Don’t let quest for profits co-opt the news media

By David Carlson, SPJ President

When I moved to Gainesville, Fla., in 1993, there were 17 newspaper racks in front of the building where I work.

Gainesville is not a big city, but quite a number of great daily newspapers from Florida and the nation were available in those racks.

I was like a pig in mud.

I could buy copies of the Miami Herald, St. Petersburg Times, Palm Beach Post, Tampa Tribune, Orlando Sentinel and more. I could also get The New York Times, USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.

Today, there are five daily newspapers for sale in front of that same building. Only two of them are from Florida.

The reason, of course, is money — return on investment. Circulation in distant cities rarely pays for itself. It also is evidence of how our business is changing, of how profit is becoming more important than journalism.

Throughout their history, media companies have been among the most profitable businesses. Even in today’s difficult climate, many newspapers turn an annual profit greater than 25 percent. One large national chain reportedly demands 30 percent profit from each of its newspapers.

Certainly, there is no sin in profit. It’s what makes America go ’round. Our companies have to be profitable to stay alive, but how profitable must they be?

There are some types of companies whose functions are more important than how well they line the wallets of their investors.

The sale in March of Knight Ridder, including the Miami Herald, Philadelphia Inquirer and San Jose Mercury News, is evidence of a worrisome trend.

It is a trend that has been building for some three decades. Until the 1970s, a large majority of newspapers were locally owned. Since then, many have been bought by large corporations. Now, about two dozen companies dominate, owning 39 percent of newspapers and 69 percent of daily circulation.

These big media companies are owned by investors and traded on the U.S. stock exchanges. Investors, of course, want profits, and the reality of Wall Street is that unless profits grow each quarter, stock prices will fall, and executives’ heads will roll.

But it is very hard to create bigger profits quarter after quarter, especially for newspapers. They are not growing. Circulation at most is declining by about 0.7 percent a year. To increase profits, they have few choices, and the easiest one is to cut costs.

That cost cutting resulted in the loss of about 2,100 journalism jobs in 2005. It also resulted in smaller, thinner newspapers with less local news and more fluff.

Perhaps ironically, the cutting also makes it easier for customers and advertisers to decide to quit the paper because “it doesn’t have anything in it.”

Worse, it enables, even encourages, public officials and the courts to narrow interpretations of the First Amendment and denigrate citizens’ right to know.

We, as an industry, are going to have a hard time arguing that we continue to deserve the protections of the First Amendment if our companies are more concerned with profits than public service. Our obligations are not just to investors.

I believe this is one of the reasons the pendulum has swung so far away from open government and freedom of information since the Sept. 11 attacks. Journalists are no longer viewed as pubic servants; we’re viewed as meddlesome profiteers benefiting from the hardships of others.

I know I am preaching to the choir when I tell you that the news media are a vital part of any democracy. We are the eyes and ears of the electorate. We provide a check against government power. We provide a way for the afflicted to seek redress. We help everyone understand issues and make up their minds about how to vote.

It is these vital functions — obligations — that are threatened by the quest for ever-greater profits at media companies.

Frankly, I’m not sure SPJ and its members can defeat a force as powerful as Wall Street. We may have barrels full of ink and airwaves full of broadcasts, but they have banks full of money. They OWN our companies, literally. But I do have a pair of suggestions:

First, join them. Buy media stocks. If you own even one share of a company, you have a right to be heard by its executives. You have a right to be heard at stockholders meetings. Tell them you believe quality journalism should be Job One, and profit should come second. Encourage your newsroom to go together and buy 100 shares or 1,000, if not in your company, some other.

Next, cover what is happening to our business. Let readers, viewers, listeners and Web visitors know how the quest for profit is changing journalism. Help them understand how those changes affect their ability to know what their government is doing and, in turn, their ability to govern themselves wisely. Convince your top editors that the old adage that says readers don’t care about journalists’ troubles is wrong — because they do care, especially when their welfare is at stake.

Finally, do these things in the right spirit, the spirit in which journalists always have done their work. Do them not to save your job or even to save journalism. Do them to help others. Do them to save your country.

David Carlson spent more than 20 years as a reporter, photographer, designer and top editor at newspapers before joining the University of Florida in 1993. He was an early developer of online newspapers and now is the Cox/Palm Beach Post professor of new media journalism and director of the Interactive Media Lab at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

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