For decades Ed Fouhy was a media journalist working in the mainstream media. He covered the civil rights struggle in the South, Watergate and was Saigon bureau chief for CBS News at the height of the Viet Nam war. Along the way he won five national Emmys. In 1999 he shifted to web-based news, founding the online news service Stateline.org which covers policy and politics in the fifty states. On March 31, 2010 he gave the following survey of the crisis of journalism today for the Center for Global Justice.
Good morning and thank you for coming. My name is Ed Fouhy and today I’m going to talk about journalism — the world of news where I lived – very happily I might add – for 45 years. As you heard in the introduction I’ve worked in newspapers, television, radio and for the last ten years in online journalism.
My message this morning is a simple one: The economic foundation on which quality journalism rests has been destroyed and why you should care that it has been destroyed.
I brought you that message last year when you were kind enough to invite me to speak here. I painted a gloomy picture, some may recall. Turns out I underestimated how bad it was. Since then the decline in the economics of the news business has been accelerated by the economic recession.
But there are signs that something new and perhaps better than the system we had before might be emerging and we’ll look at that and meet a few of the people who may be inventing the future of journalism.
Let me start by describing my own transition from traditional journalism to the new system struggling to be born. I founded a news web site 11 years ago called Stateline.org. It focuses on public policy developments and politics in the fifty state capitals. It’s written and edited in Washington by a staff of five reporters and two editors; and it also aggregates newspaper coverage of state houses in all 50 states. It was created when state house news coverage began to go down hill.
State house coverage is a wonderful example of what happens when the economic foundation of journalism erodes. In 1999 I received a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts to investigate the state of state house news coverage. It was abysmal. Only about 500 reporters still on the job in the fifty capitals. Now that number is much lower, down to 348 full time newspaper reporters at the nation’s state capitols. This is a 32% decrease in a decade and at a time when the largest single non-defense spending bill in the history of our country – $787b – is being funneled partially through state governments to stimulate the economy. It’s as if we were in a tough neighborhood and the number of cops on the beat is being reduced.
Let’s look at Boston as our example. Back in the 90’s the Boston Globe’s state house bureau chief was offered a job as the newspaper’s fashion writer. She took it and no one applied for her job. The bureau was reduced from five to three people. The local TV stations have no full time state government reporter. The last one retired a few years ago and was not replaced. Is it any wonder that corruption has become so entrenched in Massachusetts? The last three house speakers have been indicted.
And it’s not the worst state. Think of the governors forced to resign in New York and Illinois, one just missed impeachment in South Carolina, and Sarah Palin resigned for convenience in Alaska where a Justice Department investigation, now in its seventh year, has already netted a U.S. Senator, a former house speaker and a state senator among others.
Let me just say here that I think American journalism is the finest in the world. In my career I saw and participated in covering three very important stories – Viet Nam, Watergate and civil rights – all three covered well. The nation faced important choices in regard to these three developments and the citizens of the nation, informed by on-the-scene journalists made the right decisions in each case. So the story I’m going to tell you today, while it’s grim in the short term, is a story of hope and optimism about the future.
First, let’s see just how grim things are. What’s the state of the news media? Newspaper circulation is reported every six months. The latest we have is from last October and here are the numbers: Overall circulation down more than 10%. Lowest since the 1940’s when the population of the United States was about half what it is now. 5900 jobs lost. Denver and Seattle became one newspaper towns, Detroit’s newspapers are delivered only three days a week. Top editors fired or resigned at USA Today, Chicago Sun Times, Portland Oregonian, Hartford Courant, Toledo Blade, New York Newsday, San Diego Union Tribune.
At several big city newspapers more grim news. The Boston Globe was up for sale last year – it’s owned by the NY Times. There were no takers even at a fire sale price. The Washington Post, lost six per cent of its daily circulation and 163 million dollars despite vigorous cost cutting. The Post Company also owns Newsweek and a number of television stations but it is the Kaplan testing service that is its biggest money maker.
The New York Times lost circulation last year, raised its prices substantially but reported an improved financial picture in the last quarterly report. Carlos Slim, the Mexican billionaire, loaned the paper a substantial sum of money last year and now owns roughly 17% of the stock.
So the big three newspapers have rearranged their rankings. The Times is now third in the number of copies sold daily, USA Today is second – it was first for a number of periods but the decline in business travelers hit it very hard because it’s given away in many hotels. The new numero uno is the Wall Street Journal. But that’s because it counts its online subscribers – they pay for the site – they count them with their subscription and newsstand sales. The Journal is owned by Rupert Murdoch, the Australian press lord. He also owns the trashy tabloid New York Post and FOX News.
Here’s an irony – if you add circulation from the newspapers’ web sites, they had more readers than ever in 2009 but revenue overall continued to decline. In the words of the New York Times media writer the decline is ‘stunning.’ Revenue fell 27.2%, down $10 billion from the year before, which was the worst year since the depression. Since its best year – 2005 – newspaper revenue is down 44.2%. Pardon all the numbers but it’s the only way to give you the scale of the industry’s decline. The best hope for newspapers is said to be the Internet but there was a decline there as well – nearly 12%. Classified ads which provide as much as a third of newspapers’ revenue was down 38%. How many people here have used Craigslist? You know the price is right – it’s free.
Magazines are also in trouble. Conde Nast is one of the country’s biggest publishers. The 2009 numbers are — 8,000 ad pages lost and for every ad page lost, as a rough rule of thumb, two pages of editorial content are lost. Some titles have just disappeared. Others such as Wired, Architectural Digest and The New Yorker are very slender indeed.
The Associated Press is a non-profit cooperative, the largest news organization in the world with 3,000 employees but 10% of its people were bought out or laid off last winter.
What about television? It’s the same story – ratings and revenue down. Local TV news lost about 450 jobs while air time devoted to news increased 10%. That is not a formula for better journalism and bear in mind a majority of Americans cite TV as their primary source of news.
But in the middle of all the gloomy news comes the Super Bowl and for once it was a good game on a night when much of the country had snow or bad weather that kept people in front of their TV sets and for one night it looked like the old days of network television with the nation gathered around the electronic fireplace. But day in and day out the number of viewers for network news programs has steadily declined since 1981 and the end does not yet appear to be in sight.
Late last month ABC News announced several hundred lay-offs as CBS News had done just a few weeks earlier. Fewer cops on the beat. David Westin of ABC News is trying to stay ahead of the wave that crashed on his news organization ten years ago. Here’s what he said about the cutbacks,”We can see that our entire society is in the middle of a revolution – a revolution in the ways that people get their news. We can have great success in the new world – but only if we embrace what is new about it, rather than being overwhelmed by it.” Note his use of the word ‘revolution.’
No one should weep for publishers or owners. They know that journalism is expensive. The New York Times spent $6m last year on their Baghdad Bureau, much of it, I suspect for insurance and security which produced not a single news story. CBS News was paying less but they decided a year ago to pull out of Iraq notwithstanding the fact that there are still more than 90-thousand American troops there in harm’s way. Publishers also know that quality journalism fueled decades of very profitable operations and lined their pockets with millions of dollars. But they undervalued their product – news – and missed the boat when the digital revolution began ten years ago. They gave away their only product. People embraced online journalism because it was and mostly remains, free.
For years the model of advertiser-supported journalism worked pretty well. But what’s the purpose of journalism? To sell products? I think we can agree it’s far more than that. I believe it is the duty of journalists to bear witness to what is happening in the world.
Google and Yahoo are hugely popular web sites that aggregate the news but pay very little to cover the news they distribute. They do not support the people who report the facts; people who describe the sound of the gunfire, the smell of death, the look in the eyes of the earthquake victims. Professional journalists are necessary if that sort of reporting is to be done with accuracy, independence and objectivity, the holy trinity of journalism values.
We live in a complicated world and we have to depend on journalists to sort out the important from the trivial, the spin from the facts, to analyze what we have neither the time nor the expertise to sort out for ourselves.
“Complex events require sophisticated analysis by professionals who witness them,” a critic said recently.
What happened to destroy the old model?
People changed their news consumption habits. They were attracted to the Internet by a cut in price. How many of you get your news online? You behaved as rational people do. When something is free, it’s popular. And news on the web, with few exceptions like the Wall Street Journal, is free. Publishers gave away their product, the news, in the 90’s when they were awash in money and now find they can’t begin to charge for it. The New York Times ran up a white flag last month and announced – very cautiously – that they will begin to charge their frequent fliers – those who repeatedly visit their web site – a fee starting in a year. The New York Times web site is the most popular newspaper web site by far. We shall see if it remains so.
And so we come to the villain or the hero depending on how you read this tale of change. The Internet has changed so many businesses – travel, finance, real estate, education, sales of books and other retail products — why wouldn’t it change the news business?
First, the most recent weekly count by Nielsen for the first week of February ’08, the most recent I could find, showed about 65.5 million Americans went online. So in a nation of 300 million there is plenty of room for growth. The audience for news on the web is large: 37% of Internet users report they got news online ‘yesterday’. The potential audience for news on the web is large – eight out of ten Americans over the age of 17 say the web is a critical source of information.
What’s attractive about the web as a platform for distributing news? It has the immediacy of broadcasting but the depth of print journalism. And the economics are attractive: there are no marginal costs as you add readers. Those qualities have attracted scores of entrepreneurs including me. As I mentioned at the outset I started a web site devoted to policy and political news from state capitals in 1999 with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts. It is a grand success with thousands of page views a month. But like most successful news operations on line it is a niche publication and does not aspire to attract a mass audience.
The problem for traditional news services is that the big web sites like Google and Yahoo did not pay them until recently to publish the news they pay to gather. And covering the news is expensive as we have seen. But an ad on the web costs only about one fifth what it costs on television, according to the Wall Street Journal. Yet newspapers continue to give their product away – that’s not a business model that can succeed.
So what? What’s the problem? Well journalists need to get paid so they can do their job, a job vital to a free society like ours. Journalists are truth tellers. That’s what they do. They have an obligation which they take very seriously to get the story right. But that’s not easy. More than three decades in Washington journalism made me an expert on how government dissembles, misleads and manipulates journalists.
See it for yourself: For an insider’s view I recommend a book called the “The Commission: the Uncensored story of the 9/11 Commission” by Philip Shenon an investigative reporter for the New York Times. It is an extremely well documented work of journalism that charts exactly how the government lied and attempted to cover up the facts regarding the terrorist threat before 9/11. Journalists like Mr. Shenon are our first and only line of defense against the abuse of government power.
Another example is Jane Mayer’s book “The Dark Side”. It documents the dissembling and misleading information given to us through the news media that wasn’t skeptical enough and unwittingly paved the road to war in Iraq. Jane Mayer writes regularly for The New Yorker. It is a Conde Nast magazine.
Journalism is expensive in ways that have nothing to do with money. Last year 71 journalists died, the largest number since score keeping began; 31 massacred in the Phillipines. Thirteen were murdered here in Mexico. They were covering the increasingly violent government war against the narcotraffickers. But if your job as a journalist is to bear witness, to find out what is going on and to find out what is going on even when powerful men don’t want anyone to know, journalism can be hazardous to your health. Russia is an example – both journalists and democracy are inconvenient and six journalists were murdered there in 2009. Guillermo Zuloaga, owner of the Venezulan TV network Globovision and a critic of the country’s president, Hugo Chavez, was arrested last week. His crime apparently is that he recently told an international gathering of journalists that Venezuela is a country lacking free expression.
A free press is essential to democracy and I think it’s fair to say democracy is slowly dying in Venezuela.
We’ve looked at the problem, now let’s look at what’s ahead. The fact is no one knows what the future holds, but some people have ideas.
Here’s my idea about the future: Google or a company that looks like it will figure out a way to charge us for the news we read on the Internet perhaps using the new Apple tablet called the iPad that will be introduced later this week. This company will track our news consumption habits, the sites we visit, how long we stay and they will charge us by the click or by the time we spend on a web page. That charge will be very small – a micro payment, a fraction of a cent a minute or something like that. Much of the technology to do this already exists. Media companies know about this technology and probably are waiting to see which one will take the plunge first. My experience in large corporations is that they are risk averse and they are aware that the first company to adopt this model will become either very rich or very dead. That’s usually the fate of innovators. If my theory is correct, the media will survive the slow motion disaster that I have described to you. They will, however survive in a form far different from what we see today. The down side is the news media will be even more stratified than it is now with serious readers going in one direction and non serious readers in another.
The mass media will largely fracture, A few big ones may survive. I hope so because we need a shared data base, which we once had thanks to the big media, a data base that helped us as a nation to make the correct decisions on issues such as civil rights, Watergate and the war in Vietnam.
I promised that you would meet some of the people who are inventing a new digital form of journalism. Recently with the support of J-Lab, a center in Washington that makes small grants to people who want to start local news web sites, and the Knight Foundation that supports J-Lab, I set out to find out how some of the small sites they helped to start are doing. I visited five in different states – New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New York and California. What I found is in a short video that will give you a feel for the people who I believe are inventing new, local, citizen-based journalism. As a group I found them to be dedicated, intelligent, and above all not cynical about that they are doing or why they are doing it. Some will succeed, many more will fail, as has occurred throughout the history of local news in our country. But someone will find a funding model that works, or more likely several funding models that can succeed in varying circumstances and different communities. We Americans are a talented and entrepreneurial people. We understand that democracy can succeed only when people have the information they need to guide and direct the government they have elected, and professional journalists are necessary to hold that government accountable.