Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The media might not be the problem

But then again, they might.  They get a heaping helping of the blame for the sorry state of our public discourse today.  Let's begin with the sharpest takedown of the media business I have read in a long while.

For a long time newspaper owners everywhere could get away with anything because look, where else you gonna go, son? They could lie and cheat and steal, and there was enough slush floating around to mask the thievery and incompetence.

Plus let us face it, whatever newspapers were (and are) screwing up, local and national news programs were (and are) so awful that after the in-depth analyses of GOOD MORNING CLEVELAND and its ilk, the worst newspaper jock on his laziest day seemed like a Nobel laureate.

Now, though, there are other ways to get information out. There are other ways to find things and tell everybody. Failure and idiocy are exposed much, much faster than they used to be, and that has not been a boon for those whose stupidity was only tolerable because the profits made it so.

Yes, it's not just the print media that is the dinosaur struggling in the tar pit; even legacy broadcast media has all but gone down the drain.  NBC's travails -- like those of CBS and the dramatic collapse of integrity at 60 Minutes -- didn't start and end with Brian Williams.  Here's something devastating the LA Times wrote about the Sunday Morning Talking Heads show "Press the Meat" and Chuck Todd just yesterday.

"Meet the Press" likes to swank around as though it's our premier network public affairs program. Yet somehow its producers and host think it's all right to treat a manifestly ignorant statement about climate change as "a fun moment" involving a "fun little prop" -- and to pander to American anti-intellectualism by implying that the global warming debate is just too serious and boring to waste time on, like high school kids grousing about having to go to math class. One can almost hear the producers of "Meet the Press" going, "What, climate change again? Cue up the escaping llamas."

How low can the news departments of our major networks sink? We've already reported on the decline of journalistic standards at CBS' "60 Minutes," in the context of its flawed and credulous reporting on disability and the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. And now "Meet the Press," by endorsing a display of pure ignorance about an urgent issue of public policy as a "fun" prank, cedes the last shred of its credibility.

This also is no new topic.  The film Broadcast News took down the networks, their anchors, and the corporate layoffs in 1987, almost thirty years ago.  Remember the scene where Holly Hunter lectured her assembled peers about "not-news" as the gym floor full of dominoes tumbled on the screen behind her and the reporters all laughed?

I think I've told this story before here, but here it comes again, with some updated figures.

When I worked at the Beaumont Enterprise in the early to mid-1980's, the daily circulation was almost 90,000 and on Sunday, 115K.  Today it's under 22,000 daily, and less than 29,000 on Sunday.  When Hurricane Ike took out Southeast Texas 6 1/2 years ago, the paper's printing press was flooded and inoperable; they quickly sold it and laid off most of  the (unionized) pressmen.  Since then, the BE is printed by the Houston Chronicle and trucked over to make the morning delivery schedule.

When Hearst acquired it from Jefferson Pilot in 1986, the paper was running a 40% profit margin.

When I was at the Plainview (almost) Daily Herald in the late '80's, its circulation was 8K and 10K on Sunday.  I prepared the budgets for it; the Hearst daddies wanted 33%, but in reality it came in closer to 30.  Today the PDH circulates about half that number of papers, and also does not have a press or even a publisher on site.  It is printed in and managed from Midland, 180 miles away, where the circulation for the Reporter-Telegram was 24K and 30K on Sunday when I worked there in the early '90's.  Today that newspaper distributes just over 14K daily and 17K Sunday.

There are lots of good journalists doing very good work at the Houston Chronicle and the Hearst newspapers I worked for in the course of my ten-year career.  But the corporation itself is still run by greedy, self-serving people who care little about the people and not much more for the actual business of news.  Hearst is not unique in this regard as a diversified media conglomerate.  It just happens to be a private company, unbeholden to the quarterly statement but tightly yoked to a small group of William Randolph Hearst's grandchildren and a sham board of directors the heirs approve.

And for decades now they have hit their somewhat reduced profit projections mainly on the expense side of the ledger.

Monetizing news-gathering was a business even a fool could get rich from for nearly a hundred years (from the 1880s to the 1980s), and many fools did.  Even the smart people are having trouble coming up with creative ways to make money in the business these days... certainly the kind of money they once did.  That's not just been bad for media and its employees but also our democracy.  Without the watchdogs at City Hall and the state capitals and in DC, the politicians and their cronies have run amok.

This is a tale told many times before; there's just not much new to say about it.  Facebook and Twitter simply aren't suitable replacements.  But for a generation which previously got much of its news from Jon Stewart (not necessarily a bad thing) where will they turn?  It seems to be the same sources the rest of us use... with some notable distinctions, like blogs.

Approaching Idiocracy already, we all must be certain that we can find sources of information we can believe and trust.  And most importantly, discerning what is news and what isn't.

Notice I didn't mention Fox, Bill O'Reilly, or conservatives even once.


Gadfly said...

Sadly true and why I'd like out of the business.

Gadfly said...

I call bullshit on Schawbel's Point 1, which is directly undercut by his Point 6, since "branding" is advertising. If he's that dumb, and he represents the cream of Millennial brilliance, doorknob help us all.

PDiddie said...

Excellent point. It's also been the subject of some previous research that millennials don't even much care to drive (thus the rise of Uber, etc.). In search of the best data to buttress my premise, many of the others suggested -- as does Schawbell -- that they rely on blogs more than they do advertising. That I can believe, since there are several millionaire fashion bloggers.

To paraphrase Lloyd bridges from Airplane!... it looks like I picked the wrong topic to blog about.

Gadfly said...

Exactly. The FTC, on paper, requires bloggers to disclose any paid arrangements they have with particular companies to favorably blog about their products, but hell, how often is that enforced?