November 17th, 2014
in Op Ed
by Rick Ackerman, Rick's Picks
The newspaper business is in a state of collapse, undermining the very health of democracy in America in ways that I shall explain. From a financial standpoint, the fatal problems of newspapers are well known, having begun with the encroachment of web-based advertising on crucial sources of revenue, most particularly classified ads. Adding to this problem is the death spiral of brick-and-mortar retail, a failure that has all but killed the big display ads that used to spread across two full pages. Newsprint and delivery costs have soared as well.
The result is that newspapers can no longer afford to cover the news. This is true not only for small papers with circulation of less than 50,000, but for big metros such as the Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, Dallas Morning News and the San Francisco Chronicle; and for newspapers with national or international reach, such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today. All have dramatically downsized, not only in width and thickness, but in the resources they allocate to covering even the most important stories.
Unfortunately, in an appalling number of instances, important stories are no longer being covered at all. I speak with first-hand knowledge, as the anecdotes below will attest. I was the state editor of a midsize paper myself, working for seven years at the Atlantic City Press after graduating from college in 1971. From my vantage point in the newsroom, I saw close-up how my employer's uncritical coverage of New Jersey's dawning casino era ultimately led to the ruinous fall of what used to be called the Queen of Resorts. The Atlantic City Press was a weak advocate for the town, and casino operators seized on this to make their own rules.
Why Atlantic City Failed
The city could have used a strong advocate, since, at the time, many of its political leaders, including two former mayors, were in prison. With no political oversight, carpetbaggers from Las Vegas (Steve Wynn being an admirable and honorable exception) descended on the town, building Boardwalk hotels that hindered or blocked access to the city's beautiful beaches. They tore down hundreds of cozy rooming houses of 1930s vintage, erecting in their stead gargantuan, charmless parking structures a block from the beach. They even took the most valuable piece of real estate on the island - the intersection of Boardwalk and Park Place, of Monopoly-board fame - and ran an elevated mechanical walkway across it. The town became a glittering slum, and the only way to revive it now would be to nuke the place and start over with those great beaches, renowned for having the finest, softest sand in the world.
I first realized that local corruption, even on a massive scale, had dropped off the news media's radar about twelve years ago. At the time, I attempted to blow the whistle on a major scandal tied to a $5 billion construction project in a big coastal city. An insider source had explained to me in detail how the general contractor had low-balled its bid, then soaked the city for add-on costs that tallied into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Few cities have the expertise to guide or challenge the biggest contractors when such deals are shaped, and the two parties are in cahoots most of the time anyway. In the not-too-distant past, however, it would have been the job of hard-nosed reporters to level the playing field to make sure taxpayers didn't get screwed too badly. Not anymore. I called a few top reporters who worked for big-circulation papers, but none of them would touch the story. I didn't even try to shop it to the local paper, since, like every other big-city purveyor of news, they weren't about to bite the hand that fed them.
Although this attitude has always inhibited coverage to some degree, editors' aversion to scandal involving local businesses has become entrenched over time as successive economic downturns over the last fifty years has taken their toll on cities. When they were richer, advertisers ruled in such matters, even to the point where one of them got an especially tenacious reporter transferred from his city hall beat to the boondocks. The reporter, a friend of mine who'd won a Pulitzer for investigative work, was the last impediment to rampant corruption in this city, which is widely known as one of the worst-run in America. After the reporter was "relocated," the mayor and his political cronies had free rein to do what comes all-too-naturally to many politicians - i.e., lie, cheat, steal, and glom as many perks, favors and bribes as they could.
The Stench of 'Privatization'
More recently, in my neck of the woods, Coloradans caught the stench of a highway privatization deal too late to do anything about it. U.S. Highway 36, once a turnpike, has been free to travelers since the 1960s. However, the consortium of six companies currently expanding it secured a 50-year contract to collect tolls of up to $28 on one of three lanes for the 58-mile round trip between Denver and Boulder. Not only that, any town along the way that builds a new road will put Colorado on the hook to reimburse the bondholders for the project, which is led by an Australian firm, for "poached" traffic. There was some brouhaha over the sweetheart deal's brazen lack of transparency, but by the time the controversy hit the newspapers at the eleventh hour, CDOT was able to diffuse criticism with just a few press releases.
Privatized roads are the wave of the future, and it's a scandal in itself that with all the road taxes we pay - on gasoline, tires, auto registration, etcetera - the states are too broke to build roads on their own. When privatized highways come to your neighborhood, don't look to the press to sort out the details, since the only news they can afford to print will come directly from the contractor's flacks and the highway lobby.
It is not just financial problems that have ruined newspapers. They have all drifted well to the left politically, unbalancing coverage so that the news media has all but ignored the biggest, most putrid scandal of them all, Obamacare. One of its chief architects, an MIT professor named John Gruber, has been caught on video saying that the plan was designed to hide the massive transfer of wealth - we're talking about a mountainous new tax here - that the Affordable Care Act required. Gruber said the ruse worked because of the "stupidity" of Americans. In another video that was recorded at a conference a few years ago, he even explained how the Massachusetts health plan he'd helped craft was funded in large part by tricking the federal government into paying for it. Democrats from Pelosi on down, lying through their teeth, are saying "Gruber who?" But unless you get your news from Fox, you wouldn't have heard of Gruber either, since the mainstream media has completely ignored the story thus far.
A Drift to the Left
If the choice is between reporting a political scandal that reeks to high heaven and ignoring it because it might harm one's political allies, even the best reporters can make the wrong choice. One of them is a dear friend, a West Side NYC liberal who earlier in her career was rated "outstanding" by Forbes MediaGuide. Only six others received this designation, which implies not only that they are "pacesetters for the entire news media" but that their work "consistently provides fascinating insight, and magnificent...provocative writing." My friend blogs on healthcare issues these days, but when I first met her 25 years ago she would have been mad as hell at the way in which Obamacare was being executed, if not at the concept of universal healthcare, and eager to rip the plan to shreds one legally sordid detail at a time. Far from it, there is no mention of Mr. Gruber on her website, nor even of the Constitutionally crucial issue, soon to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, concerning whether healthcare-plan subsidies are legal in the many states that did not set up exchanges.
Despite all this, I am optimistic that the business of gathering and reporting news will regenerate itself once it has decoupled from the exorbitant fixed costs of brick-and-mortar operations. The driving force will be the public's insatiable demand for news, particularly local stories. Entrepreneurs will find ways to exploit the fact that it's possible to cover events and issues in a city of 100,000 online with four crackerjack reporters and one news-savvy managing editor. Jettison newsprint, printing press operators, truck deliveries and editorial offices, then outsource copy editing and photography. Hire high-schoolers and wives of wrestling coaches to cover sports, since talented, sports-savvy stringers can be had for less than it costs to hire blues musicians. At this point you've reduced the cost of putting out an interesting and very readable newspaper to perhaps $600,000 a year - a very small fraction of what it costs to operate, to take one example, the laugh-out-loud-bad Boulder Daily Camera, my local rag.