Journalism is in bad shape

  Congratulations on a fine piece by Ray Ring, "The Big Story Written Small" (HCN, 10/13/03: The Big Story Written Small). I was a reporter in Arizona in the early ’80s who wrote extensively on environmental and development issues, and frequently found I had the field pretty much to myself. Over the past two decades, alas, environmental reporting became even sketchier and more superficial.

That said, I want to observe that the hollowing out of newsrooms is not unique to the Mountain West, nor is it confined to environmental and natural resources coverage. I’m currently editor of The Guild Reporter, the monthly publication of The Newspaper Guild-CWA, and in that capacity have had the unpleasant task of chronicling the steady decline of our craft.

One measure: Total newspaper employment peaked at a bit over 450,000 in 1990, declined in the recession in the first couple of years of that decade — then leveled off throughout the ’90s, despite a booming economy. Then employment plunged again in 2000 — and has continued eroding every year since, to approximately 382,000 today.

Fewer bodies may translate into greater "efficiency" in "news gathering," to use a favorite Wall Street "metric," but such measures say nothing about the quality of what’s being produced. The latter is evidenced by the continuing erosion of newspaper circulation figures.

As notable as employment numbers are the industry’s wages. Researchers at the University of Georgia reported Aug. 1 that the median salary for journalism graduates going to work at daily newspapers was a pitiful $25,000. And it doesn’t get much better for those who hang on: The median salary for all American journalists in 2001, according to researchers at Indiana University, was just $43,588. No wonder most newspapers have revolving doors to their newsrooms.

Such numbers might be defensible if the newspaper industry were ailing, but in fact they are the product of an investor-driven obsession with squeezing out ever-higher profit margins. Employees of any publicly held newspaper (as most of them are) returning less than 22 percent to 24 percent margins can expect layoffs, wage freezes and fewer "fringe" benefits, like decent health care and pension plans.

The bottom line here is that the media in general, and newspapers in particular, are so obsessed with the bottom line that they’ve lost sight of the unique role they were assigned within our democracy: To provide all of us with the information, ideas and context we need to competently govern ourselves.

Ray Ring did an excellent job of detailing the problem. Now it’s up to all of us to start thinking and talking about the appropriate response.

Andy Zipser
Washington, D.C.

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