Wednesday, July 30, 2008

News business is news-worthy

This is a response to a Chicago-area resident who is confused about why so much attention is being paid by area news organizations to what seems like the endless rounds of job layoffs taking place at the city’s newspapers.

His opinion was expressed earlier this week on the WTTW-TV program “Chicago Tonight,” when he wrote a letter to the station expressing disgust with the amount of coverage that had been given in recent months to the business problems confronting the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times and other news-oriented publications.

HE SEEMS TO think this is a case of reporter-types letting their egos run amok, thinking that their professional livelihoods are somehow significant enough for everybody to know about.

This letter-writer would prefer it if NO airtime or column inches of newsprint were devoted to the inner workings of newsgathering organizations (or should I say business entities that sandwich a few inches of “news” in between the steadily declining amount of advertising pages they manage to sell).

That attitude bothers me, and NOT because I am a person who has devoted my professional life to the gathering of news and analysis out of some belief that helping my fellow citizen better understand the world around them was somehow a worthy contribution to our society.

I have always been of the belief that the problem with the news business is that it is poorly covered – organizations that are more than willing to devote time, money and staff to uncovering the sleazy business dealings of other corporations in their community suddenly adopt all that secrecy they ridicule others for when the business is themselves.

I THINK WE need more intelligent reporting about why newsgathering organizations with significant staffs and traditions and capabilities to dig up more information than any other are suddenly being challenged economically.

I, for one, want to know why the newspaper thinks the way to achieving long-term financial solvency is to slash the size of its product – even though the advantage newspapers have over other forms of news media (and often do nothing to take advantage of) is that they offer more space and can go into more detail on any given story.

Now if one wants to argue that constant stories about layoffs (60 more editorial staffers will soon depart the Tribune) tend to sound alike and become just another meaningless number, that is one thing. Few publications are doing a decent job of covering the news about themselves.

We need to get more thorough reporting and explanations about the advertising situation, which is the real bulk of the newspaper industry’s problem.

TOO MANY COMPANIES that used to look to those full-page newspaper advertisements and ad inserts as the only way to reach a mass audience now realize that too many people (when they buy a newspaper) reach in and throw away those inserts before they start to read the newspaper.

By comparison, increased advertising through the Internet gives companies the option of tailoring their ads in a way that will focus specifically on the people they are trying to reach – much more than can be done with a newspaper where an insert has to be provided for every single copy of the paper, regardless of whether it is sold or if it is sold to someone who does not fall into the economic bracket the advertiser would like to reach.

There’s also the simple fact that Internet advertising is so much cheaper – it can be a few bucks for each ad, which has the potential to be seen around the world (although some businesses gain nothing by having their ads seen outside the local community).

Instead of thousands of dollars to publish that full-page advertisement (tens of thousands if one is going for one of the national-scope newspapers such as the New York Times), it can be a few hundred overall, with individual websites receiving a miniscule amount of the financial cut.

FOR EXAMPLE, THIS weblog recently became part of a network that is selling some advertising. That display ad near the top of the right-hand column is rather elaborate by Internet standards (compared to those links one can click on to buy reduced cost Viagra or similar products), yet my share of the proceeds for the first week that ad was on the site came to a grand total of $0.54.

While I realize that figure will increase in the future and that there are some websites and weblogs with much more significant readership than I have managed to achieve in seven months of operation, I am not alone in making puny dollars from selling advertising on the Internet to support their coverage of the news.

That is what people need to understand when they think it is totally acceptable for websites to replace newspapers, and why I think it is bad for one to think there is too much coverage of the news business’ financial problems.

If newspapers really are going to shrivel up and die (like some of the Internet’s biggest proponents desperately want to believe), I think we the consumer of news and information need to know why.

SINCE IT IS not likely that anything will fully replace the newspaper of old as a product that can generate the kind of income that can support a full news-oriented staff, we need to know why the kind of information we can get is going to become less and less available.

And in the future, when newspapers (and the more prominent websites, I believe) are supported financially by organizations that think it is in their best interest to run their own publications, we need to know that the types of news we will be getting are the stories that promote the interests of their publisher.

Some people might not have a problem with that concept, provided that the publisher/ideologue is honest about what causes they are promoting. I for one think the news business should be covering this saga.

It is one that affects all of us.

THERE’S ONE OTHER question that is popping into your minds. My answer to it is, “No.”

The current setup where one who wants to find out something about the business dealings of a newspaper needs to “read all about it” in their direct competitor is not adequate.

Having to rely on the Chicago Sun-Times to tell us why the Tribune is going to (again) slash its staff to bits and shrink the thickness of the overall newspaper is not right. Nor should we have to rely on “Mother Tribune” to inform us about all the flaws of “The Bright One.”

The business partisanship gets in the way of producing a clear account of what is wrong. Each paper is going to be more than willing to over-hype the flaws of the other.

IT’S LIKE THE situation in the recent past when the Sun-Times’ financial problems were coming up in court hearings related to former owner Conrad Black. The Tribune devoted endless amounts of space to letting us know every obscure detail about the paper.

In retaliation, the Sun-Times took advantage of an ongoing situation involving the Tribune Company and the Spanish-language sister newspaper to Newsday, whose officials were involved in some scandalous detail involving over-reporting of their circulation.

The Sun-Times’ coverage of New York Hoy’s circulation scam read too much like retribution for every nasty word the Tribune wrote about Black.


EDITOR’S NOTES: More than 1,000 jobs have been lost by Tribune Co. newspapers ( across the United States during the past year.

WGN-TV’s general manager lost his long-time secretary in a recent round of staff cuts at the company’s (,CST-FIN-feder29.article) media properties.

Tribune Co. is looking towards developing an advertising product that would send classified ads ( to an individual’s cellular telephone, in hopes of generating the kind of revenues needed to keep the company’s publications afloat financially.

No comments: