Sunday, March 09, 2008

Corporate Greed Continues Toll on Fourth Estate

It is both a long and short journey from a daily newspaper journalism job to being an advertising professor.

It was an unplanned journey. I didn't intend to end up here.

The journey was hastened in September 1997 when I started at the Las Cruces (N.M.) Sun-News. At the time, the paper was owned by MediaNews Group and run by William Dean Singleton.

Quickly Singleton became Public Enemy No. 1 to me. If the First Amendment had its own secret police, Singleton would just disappear one night. Everything that happens within MNG makes it appear to outsiders that his avarice knows no bounds.

If you've seen the movie Pretty Woman, think of the character played by Richard Gere. He basically bought up businesses through arbitrage, chopped them up, and left the victims for dead.

From the outside -- and a little more than a year on the inside -- it seems as if William Dean Singleton is nothing more than the newspaper's version of Edward Lewis. Slash and burn.

I admit that it remains possible that Singleton cares about any tenet of journalism, but I have yet to see evidence of any of it.

When I was a journalism intern at The Modesto (Calif.) Bee, I interviewed for a job at the Contra Costa (Calif.) Times. That paper -- then a Knight Ridder paper -- seemed like a great place to work. Instead, I returned to New Mexico for personal reasons. But just 11 years ago, it seemed like a great place to work.

Fast forward a few months more than a decade, and things are different. MediaNews Group now owns the Times. A friend works there now. No surprise that he just endured a round of buyouts that were backed by threats of layoffs. Slash and burn.

Across the Bay, there lies the San Jose Mercury News. I loved that paper. The Merc. One of the most important mentors of my life used to work at the Merc. We toured it during my Dow Jones Newspaper Fund training in 1997. I would have given almost anything to have worked there.

Back in New Mexico, I dreamed of getting enough experience to be hired at the Merc one day. But the Sun-News was not the advocate for the First Amendment of which I had dreamed as a journalism student at New Mexico State.

Instead I went to work every day in a run-down former Safeway store that assured violated numerous safety codes. My editors were great, but they were hamstrung with a tiny budget and a corporate structure that asked only how many ads have been sold.

As my wide-eyed idealism ran into the brick wall of corporate avarice, I pondered graduate school. I returned to study the economics of media industries. I wanted to know whether these corporate policies were as bad as I feared. Along the way, I changed direction.

Yet I still wonder whether the sad state of modern journalism was greatly hastened by the slash and burn policies of avarice that left consumers no good content to choose. I cannot believe that this greed has not taken a toll. It has with me. For the first time in my adult life, I do not subscribe to a daily newspaper. The quality of the local paper is simply too poor to justify my time.

Back in San Jose, things are not going so well. The blog post that started this missive was titled, "Insiders Take on the Slow Decline of the Mercury News." (See more at Mercury Falling here). It's hard to imagine all of these cuts in that glorious newsroom. It seems fitting that a Pulitzer Prize medal should be somewhere in the corner weeping.

Oh, did I mention that the Merc is a MediaNews "property" now?

During a recent lecture at Tech, someone said (I forget precisely whom) that when the last Baby Boomer dies, the print daily newspaper will die with him or her. That's probably true. And sad.

Admittedly I am partial -- and this clearly sounds alarmist -- but I cannot help but feel that the loss of real newspapering is a bigger threat to this nation's future than any terrorist.

I think I'll drive over to Barnes & Noble to pick up a copy of the New York Times just to feel nostalgic for a day.



Blogger Tim Laubacher said...

I've never worked as a journalist, editor, etc. for a news publication, but my first job was as a paperboy. I'll admit that my dad helped me with the route. It was something I enjoyed with my dad and my dog everyday after school, or bright and early on the weekends. It's one of those jobs where there's little praise for a job well done, but don't get a man or woman the news on time, and you'll surely hear about it.

I suppose in a decade or more, if daily print media does die, the equivalent of my first job would be as an Internet repairman. Middle schoolers everywhere can be equipped with ethernet cable, coax, and plyers.

2:29 PM  

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