Getting Off Our Asses And Picking Up Notebooks

When I was working as a reporter, the places that employed me gave me freedom that was almost unprecedented in the U.S. newspaper world today. Small dailies don’t send their reporters to the Middle East, but mine did. Even smaller dailies don’t let their reporters rabbit-hole off for weeks at a crack on some photo essay/meditation about our homebuying patterns and family traditions, but I got that chance, too. It spoiled me fucking rotten, in fact, to the point where I was an insufferable brat if I didn’t get to do whatever story I damn well pleased.

But even in this environment of incredible freedom there were limitations. Geographic: Certain places weren’t covered because there weren’t enough readers there to justify putting a reporter in. Certain types of projects were avoided because they took money and time. And as resources shrank, the battles about where to put what bodies and money remained got more and more intense. That’s not a slam of any one place or group of people, really it’s not. But it is indicative of a constant in journalism, this blanching at every bill, this worry that the next thing you do is gonna cave the roof in on you, and we can see the results of that cautionall around us now.

Whereas Tribune and other companies are trying to push profit margins beyond 20 per cent, the Times views that level as an upper limit, and even a warning that it is not investing enough in its core business. Neither does it have to worry about distant owners, or other corporate priorities. Mr Tash said: “If you’re Gannett and Louisville has a bad quarter, someone has to make it up.”

Reporters say the focus has fostered stability and helped the Times to rival the Miami Herald as Florida’s largest newspaper.

“I’ve worked at other papers where they’re worried about travel costs, worried about how many notebooks you use, or long distance bills,” said Wes Allison, a correspondent based in the Washington bureau. “At this paper, they’re worried about going for the story.”

Think about that. Think about your business, if you have a small business or know somebody who does. Think about what a 20 percent profit margin would mean to you or your acquaintance. And it’s considered newsworthy that a newspaper has decided tostop there, instead of cutting back and cutting back to drive that number up a quarter of a point. You know what they call newspapers that pull in 22 percent, 23 percent profits? “Struggling.” I kid you not.

And all the while, news corp CEOs make millions. Companies send billions back to their stockholders. And the newsrooms get speeches about how times are really, really, really tight.

The relentless chase for more and more profits has turned what used to be an honorable trade and a public service into just one more money-making machine, and people like you and me, we don’t count in that scenario. Our cares and concerns don’t count. So we have to make our own media. We have to support what we want and oppose what we don’t, and we have to reject the false doomsaying going on in press circles today. No medium is doomed unless its practitioners give up on it.

I bring rapacious profit-mongering up during our fundraising week not to be hilariously ironic but to remind us that this is how we better our journalism. I’ve seen what good journalism can do, journalism that’s supported by its community and valued by its practitioners and it is awe-inspiring, I do not exaggerate, it is symphonic in its beauty and power.

I’ve seen what journalism is like with no limits except the confines of the reporter’s ingenuity and the editors’ skills, and that’s the kind of work that lifts you up and justifies your whole big damn existence, the kind of work where you go home that night and you don’t have to worry if you made a difference, because oh, holy hell, do you know you did.

I bring this up during our fundraising week because over the past year I’ve seen blogs expanding outward to be the journalism we want to see in the world. Blog books like the one I worked on and the one Firedoglake’s raising money for, blog videos like the ones Scout brings to our attention here every day; we’re using the Internet to expand our influence into spheres that were closed to us before. We’re gonna do more in the coming months, and it’s going to be amazing to watch. You want to be a part of that, otherwise you wouldn’t be here, talking to us, helping us grow and find new ways of working to make our country better.

There are no limits here, save the limits of our ingenuity, and the support of our readers.

If you’ve already kicked in, thank you! If you haven’t, please give if you can.

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6 thoughts on “Getting Off Our Asses And Picking Up Notebooks

  1. If you have not already seen it, you should definitely rent “Fierce Creatures” (speaking of profit margins, etc).

  2. In all fairness, newspaper profit margins have historically been a bit higher than those of manufacturing in general because it historically has been a capital-intensive business: The price of entry began with ten or 20 mil for a printing press. (Whether newspapers truly needed to own their own presses is a matter of debate and for another time.)
    That said, Al Neuharth got to be head of Gannett by pushing its newspapers to ever-higher profit margins, particularly when PM papers started dying off in the 1970s and many newspapers became monopolies.
    But the price of entry isn’t a press anymore; it’s, like, $10K for a Sun Web server and you can put that on your credit card. (Well, maybe YOU can.) Thus, these high profit margins the industry has gotten used to are NOT supportable long-term. And as newspapers become more Web-oriented, they begin to look less like the manufacturing operations they have traditionally looked like and more like the service operations they truly are. And everything else being equal, service operations make smaller profits.
    Newspapers need to decide whether they’re going to remain in the journalism business because journalism is expensive. And if they are going to remain, they need to manage a graceful but permanent decline in profit margins to a lower, but sustainable, level that will allow quality journalism while still providing a decent return for investors.
    Such a level might not, in fact, exist, which is why I suspect accountability journalism will, fairly soon, become the province of nonprofits.

  3. OK, you got me with this one – donation submitted. In the ancient past, I earned a journalism degree and worked for a local paper for a year before deciding that poverty was overrated (and it seemed like any real journalism was pretty rare in the Reagan years). You guys do a great job on keeping us up on the news – love the gaggle, the New Orleans reporting, all the great commentary and snark.

  4. “Such a level might not, in fact, exist, which is why I suspect accountability journalism will, fairly soon, become the province of nonprofits.”
    If by ‘nonprofits’ you mean bloggers, then this has already happened. Do you see any ‘accountability’ in journalism at the moment? Neither do I.

  5. At the national level? A little. Not much.
    At the local level? Yeah. It goes on, against some formidable obstacles.

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