Knight Ridder's woes and Excellence(?) in journalism
One of America's highest quality news groups, the Knight Ridder newspaper chain--owner of the owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Jose Mercury News, and the Miami Herald, is going away. Like many traditional newspaper companies, it's been underperforming for some time (see my Jan 17 entry, Can we save newspapers?), and it's finally going under--to be bought up by rival publisher McClatchy Co. for $6.5 billion.
Knight Ridder will be sorely missed. As American Journalism Review notes, Knight Ridder "was an amazing newspaper company. It was a newspaper company that stressed the newspaper more than the company. It really cared about the journalism. It made a lot of money, sure, but it invested enough in the product to do great work." Eventually, though, it stopped making enough money, and because it failed to squeeze out consistent 20 percent profit margins, it was ripe for cutbacks and then takeover.
Many see this as another body blow to solid high-quality American journalism--and a worrying development that is happening just as The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s third annual “State of the News Media 2006” report has been released. This is in effect America's annual report card for its media. And once again, the report is worrying.
According to Eric Alterman at the Center for American Progress, the report is very timely. With the McClatchy Co.-Knight Ridder news, "a new round of speculation about the health of the newspaper industry is well underway." Unfortunately, such bouts of anxiety about journalism's future are rarely misplaced. This time is no different, as "McClatchy immediately announced that it was selling off 12 of the 32 papers it inherited from Knight Ridder and the little-known fact reported by the San Jose Mercury News (one of the papers to be dumped by McClatchy), that eight of the 12 papers to be sold are union shops." While, as Alterman notes, this has all taken place since PEIJ study was completed, "the congruence of the two events simply added to an increasing sense of foreboding about the industry for nearly everyone who cares about its future."
Alterman notes that the PEIJ study confirms once again "something that many close observers certainly suspected: More and more news outlets are crowding themselves around fewer and fewer stories, hitting the public over the head with them until the blood flows from the cranium." This has little to do with the press acting as a viable Fourth Estate and everything to do with the pursuit of corporate profits.
The trouble, as I've written before in this blog, is that levels of public confidence in the U.S. mainstream media are rapidly declining, and this can be laid squarely at the door of corporate America's relentless desire to squeeze high profits from a medium that relies above all on its ability to function as a credible source of impartial news and information--and that requires investment. Last year at about this time I noted research by the Pew Research Center's Trends 2005 report, the National Opinion Research Center, and USA Today. (See here for a U.S. News take on the Pew report, by Jay Tolsen; and Nicholas Kristoff covered the issue for the New York Times - see my blog entry for a review on that piece.
It's worth reviewing again some pertinent statistics and points:
- 1. 45 percent of Americans believe little or nothing in their daily newspapers, up from 16 percent two decades ago.
Pew Research Center's "Trends 2005" report (available online).
- 2.Between 1973 and 2002, confidence in the press has fallen sharply, from 85% to under 60% - and the press is now almost at the bottom amongst public institutions (only beaten by the legal system).
National Opinion Research Center survey, 2004
- 3. A 2004 survey of 112,000 American high school students showed:
- 32% of them believe that there is too much freedom of the press
- Only 10% believe that there is not enough.
- 36% would prefer that the media be subject to government control
USA Today survey
Some comments and insights:
- "The public sees the [mass] media as self-centered and self-promoting."
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
- "I think commercial factors are the overriding factor shaping the collapse of professional journalism.”
Robert McChesney, professor of communication, University of Illinois
- "Media companies are more concentrated than at any time over the past 40 years, thanks to a continual loosening of ownership rules by Washington."
Ted Turner, CNN founder
- "As people move online, the notion of news consumers is giving way to something called 'prosumers,' in which citizens simultaneously function as consumers, editors, and producers of a new kind of news in which journalistic accounts are but one element."
Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, writing in The State of the News Media 2004
(Above comments all from U.S. News)