This is not a good time for journalists in this country.
More than 300 daily newspapers have gone out of business whereas not long ago there used to be thousands of independent newspapers, radio and television stations. Now 80 percent of the American newspapers are owned by chains. Arkansas has about the same number of newspapers it used to have, but 40 of them are owned by multiple owners. Gannett, which once owned the Arkansas Gazette and now has the Baxter Bulletin in Mountain Home, has the most in the country — 96.
Today 10 companies own most of the American TV stations. And one-third of Americans have to listen to radio stations that are owned by one company. None of the Little Rock TV stations are owned by Arkansans.
Advertising and subscriptions of newspapers are dropping these days, and that’s serious because those are the only ways that newspapers make money. While 77 million people read a newspaper every day in 1970, only 54 million do it today. That’s why so many newspapers have shut down, and it’s obvious that without the chains, there would be even fewer now.
While there are still many newspapers and broadcasters telling us what is happening in cities, states, nation, the world and providing appraisals of those who run them, too many are more interested in income than journalism, especially the chains. So instead of criticism and investigative reporting, you are reading and hearing about the town kingpins, the big advertisers, the weather, sports, car wrecks, fires and humdrum besides a little that comes off the Associated Press wire.
Fewer young people have much interest in becoming journalists today, and some colleges have even stopped teaching journalism. One reason is that beginning journalists aren’t paid much. Also, they have to work on weekends and nights. Many young people grew up without ever seeing a daily newspaper in their home; their baby-boomer mothers and fathers didn’t subscribe because they started relying on TV for “news.” Their kids are now relying on the Internet, cell phones and the bloggers on the Internet.
Bloggers may be the most dangerous substitutes for journalists. Most of them are George Bush fans and are people who have nothing else to do. I hear from two or three of them almost daily, telling me the good work of the Bush administration and damning the critical, left-wing journalists. Of course, these bloggers don’t really know how to gather facts so they give me items from unreliable papers and magazines that adore Republicans and the Bush administration.
Bloggers are saying other papers and networks are prejudiced, and, of course, citing the reporters and even editors at 12 major newspapers — New York Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, etc. — who have been caught and fired because they were guilty of plagiarism and making up stories. Bloggers love to point to poor old Dan Rather, who is having to leave CBS because on “60 Minutes” he criticized Bush’s military career based on documents that later turned out to be forged.
Think about the fact that our country has had elections for president in which only 49 percent of the people voted. It’s not unusual for many towns in Arkansas to have only a couple of hundred turn out to vote in local elections. A local newspaper that practiced journalism could fix that provided that the people bought and read it. Parents, school teachers and colleges are making serious mistakes in not acquainting kids with newspapers and helping the papers stay in business.
David C. Johnston of the New York Times, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in 2001, was in Little Rock last weekend to talk to a conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors at the University of Arkansas. I cornered him for a few minutes and asked him why the Times had been so tough on Bill Clinton when he was president.
He said that was the work of Howell Raines, who, like Clinton, was from the South and a poor family. “He wanted to be above Clinton,” Johnston said. By the way, Raines was the editor of the Times who was fired after one of his reporters was found to be writing front-page stories of non-existent people and events.
I found Johnston as gloomy as I am about the future of newspapers in the U.S. He’s sadly sure that there will be fewer and fewer dailies, especially in big cities. No wonder. He said the New York Times pays $200 million a year to gather news. Small-town dailies will survive as weeklies, he said, as long as they are good weeklies.
“They will have to do two things,” he said. “Be a vigorous watch dog to make the government responsible. And work hard to get citizens to vote.”