Journalism's many crises

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

The word “crisis” is overused, as are the anodyne  “problem” or “issue.” (As in the highly flexible, “I have issues.”) Ordinary troubles become inflated into “crises” because crises sound somehow more dignified or electrifying. A problem sounds possibly serious, if hypothetically soluble, but a crisis sounds, as well, critical.

Yet the overuse might lead us to bend over backwards and fall into euphemism - calling a grave matter “a little difficult,” for example, as is common, for some reason, in American discourse today. There are crises. History proceeds by convulsions, not only increments - or rather, increments build up into crises, and before one knows it, the landscape has changed, one is living in a different world, and the world before it changed is barely conceivable and certainly unrecoverable. It was a foreign country; they did things differently there.

Todd Gitlin is professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the PhD programme in communications at Columbia University.

He has written twelve books, among them

The Bulldozer and the Big Tent: Blind Republicans, Lame Democrats, and the Recovery of American Ideals
(John Wiley, 2007),

Letters to a Young Activist
(Basic Books, 2003) and

The Intellectuals and the Flag
(Columbia University Press, 2006).

His website is here
In the case of the murky future of journalism, it is fair to speak of crisis - crises, actually. The landscape has changed, is changing, will change - radically. Just because the industry is crying wolf does not mean that the wolf is not nearby.  In the story, when the real wolf showed up, no one was ready. 

Four wolves have arrived at the door of American journalism simultaneously while a fifth has already been lurking for some time. One is the precipitous decline in the circulation of newspapers. The second is the decline in advertising revenue, which, combined with the first, has badly damaged the profitability of newspapers. The third, contributing to the first, is the diffusion of attention. The fourth is the more elusive crisis of authority. The fifth, a perennial - so much so as to be perhaps a condition more than a crisis - is journalism’s inability or unwillingness to penetrate the veil of obfuscation behind which power conducts its risky business.

Circulation and revenue

The surplus of crises has commentators scrambling for metaphors, even mixed ones. The Project for Excellence in Journalism put it this way in a recent report: “The newspaper industry exited a harrowing 2008 and entered 2009 in something perilously close to free fall. Perhaps some parachutes will deploy, and maybe some tree limbs will cushion the descent, but for a third consecutive year the bottom is not in sight.” The newspaper industry in the United States is afflicted with a grave and deepening sense that it is moribund, that the journalistic world they knew is vanishing; that it is melting away not just within their lifetimes but before their eyes.

The numbers virtually shout out that this is not paranoia. Overall, newspaper circulation has dropped 13.5 percent for the dailies and 17.3 percent for the Sunday editions since 2001; almost 5 percent just in 2008. In what some are calling the Great Recession, advertising revenue is down - 23 percent over the last two years - even as paper costs are up. Nearly one out of every five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 is now gone. Foreign bureaus have been shuttered - all those of the Boston Globe, for example, New England’s major paper. I recently met the Chicago Tribune’s South Asia correspondent, responsible for India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, with five years of experience there. Having been recalled to work on the Metro desk in Chicago, she resigned.

There is, in particular, the advent of competition for classified advertising, long the newspapers’ financial mainstay, but now available free online. In the recession, display advertising is way down.  Newspapers overall lost 83 percent of their stock value last year. You can buy a share of stock in the McClatchy papers, which used to be one of the highest-quality chains, for less than the cost of a single copy of the paper. The Tribune Company, which owns the Los Angeles Times and several other major papers, has filed for bankruptcy. So have the papers in Minneapolis and Philadelphia. The afternoon papers in Denver and Seattle have closed, and in Detroit, weekday home delivery for both dailies takes place only Thursdays and Fridays only; Monday through Wednesday, only a smaller edition is sold at newsstands.  This article is based on an address prepared for “Journalism in Crisis”, University of Westminster, London

Overall, newspapers remain profitable, in the low to mid teens, but several corporate chains took on enormous piles of debt when they made acquisitions in recent years (The Tribune: $13 billion in acquiring the Times Mirror Corp).  Chain ownership of local newspapers by corporations that trade on the stock exchange undermined them. With expectations of declining profits in the future, investors pursued what is cynically called a “harvest strategy” - bidding up their stock market value in expectation that profits would have to be harvested quickly, before the bottom fell out of their financial value. Profitability, they reasoned, would come from cost-cutting, which meant cutting back the practice of journalism. The chains cut back on coverage in order to try to compensate for the loss of advertising revenue. This has not won back readers. One prominent television commentator recently said: “The New York Times has 60 people in its Baghdad bureau. As far as I can tell, the Times doesn't have that many subscribers under the age of forty.” He was joking, of course. Of course.

Here are some excerpts from another study, from 2008, by the Project for Excellence in Journalism:

Meet the American daily newspaper of 2008.

It has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects. Business coverage is either packaged in an increasingly thin stand-alone section or collapsed into another part of the paper. The crossword puzzle has shrunk, the TV listings and stock tables may have disappeared, but coverage of some local issues has strengthened and investigative reporting remains highly valued.

The newsroom staff producing the paper is also smaller, younger, more tech-savvy, and more oriented to serving the demands of both print and the web. The staff also is under greater pressure, has less institutional memory, less knowledge of the community, of how to gather news and the history of individual beats. There are fewer editors to catch mistakes.

And still revenue plunges, if not so much because circulation is shrinking than because business acumen did. Obviously newspaper companies have made many poor business decisions in recent years, from taking on mountainous debt to establishing a precedent of free internet access. When poor business decisions are chronic and widespread, you have to conclude that the companies have entered a twilight where anxiety has gotten the better of understanding. How stable even the New York Times can remain, given its own precipitous stock decline in the last five years, is unclear. Its two-tier stock arrangement, designed to preserve control within the Sulzberger family, may not insulate it enough if losses continue to mount. The Chandler family of Los Angeles, reduced to squabbling, ended its own reign there, and Dow-Jones’ Bancroft family sold out to Rupert Murdoch a year and a half ago.  The Washington Post Company seemed to have dodged the bullet by buying the testing company Kaplan, re-annointing itself an “education and media company”, and letting the tail wag the dog - Kaplan accounts for more than half of company revenue. But if that expedient has saved the paper, it is a more meager paper. A longtime foreign correspondent who took a buyout a few years ago told me that when he visited the newsroom recently, the old globe that pinpointed the Post’s foreign bureaus was gone - it would have looked too embarrassing.

To limit the discussion to the last decade or so both overstates the precipitous danger and understates the magnitude of a secular crisis - which is probably a protracted crisis in the way in which people know - or believe they know - the world.  In the US, newspaper circulation has been declining, per capita, at a constant rate since 1960. The young are not reading the papers. While they say they “look” at the papers online, it is not clear how much looking they do. We may well be living amidst a sea change in how we encounter the world, how we take in its traces and make sense of them, a change comparable to the shift from oral to written culture among the Greeks and the shift to printing with movable type in 15th and 16th century Europe. 

This shift has been in play, accelerating, disrupting theories of linear progress, or progress through linearity, for almost two centuries - from photography through film and television to the Internet, in the rise of screens and the relative decline of sequential text.

It isn’t my purpose here to try to sum up what might be gained and lost in such a transition—surely both sides of the ledger are active. Nor is it my purpose to lock onto some hard-and-fast black-and-white theory of utter, utter change in sensibility. The newspaper was always a tool for simultaneity (you don’t so much read a paper as swim around in it, McLuhan was fond of saying) at least as much as a tool for cognitive sequence. What if the sensibility that is now consolidating itself - with the Internet, mobile phones, GPS, Facebook and Twitter and so on - the media for the Daily Me, for point-to-point and many-to-many transmission - what if all this portends an irreversible sea-change in the very conditions of successful business? The question is not answerable. But that is exactly the point.  To navigate a business in such choppy seas is no task for the faint-hearted.

The clamor for attention

Attention has been migrating from slower access to faster; from concentration to multitasking; from the textual to the visual and the auditory, and toward multi-media combinations. Multitasking alters cognitive patterns. Attention attenuates. Advertisers have for decades talked about the need to “break through the clutter,” the clutter consisting, amusingly, of everyone else’s attempts to break through the clutter.

Now, media and not just messages clutter. Measured by the criterion of how people spend their time, the central activity of our civilization is connection to media. At work, at home, on the street, in the car, in elevators and malls, commuting or waiting, we spend much of our day in a torrent of images and sounds, navigating through it, filtering it, desirous of it and through it - sometimes immersed, sometimes floating, sometimes wading, sometimes choosing, sometimes engulfed. Success goes to the media, portals, and sites that attract attention.

Accordingly, not only has print circulation plunged, but the amount of time spent with newspapers is also declining. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in 2006, while “the total time that people spend with the news is largely unchanged from a decade ago,” still “the time people devote to reading newspapers is down from an average of 19 minutes to 15 minutes, partially because fewer are reading papers and partially because those who do spend a bit less time at it.” Just under one-fifth of Americans between the ages of 18 and 34 claim to look at a daily newspaper - which is not to say how much of it they read. The average American newspaper reader is 55 years old.

Of course significant numbers of readers are accessing - which is not to say reading - newspapers online, but the amount of time they seem to spend there is bifurcated. In roughly half of the top 30 newspaper sites, readership is steady or falling. Still, “of the top 5 online newspapers - ranked by unique users – [the] three [national papers] reported growth in the average time spent per person: NYTimes.com, USAToday.com, and the Wall Street Journal Online.” One thing is clear: whatever the readership online, it is not profitable. 

As for national television news, the median age of evening news viewers is 61. The average age at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News is over 65. The average age of all network TV viewers just crossed 50.  The median age in the United States is 38. Cable news audiences spiked up during the 2008 campaign, but then subsided. Even local news, the home of "If it bleeds, it leads", has seen viewership decline.

Media saturation

The undermining of newspapers is the product of many converging factors, which I would summarize under the heading, "media saturation". Media saturation is the product of compound, feverish competition for the attention of persons that is capable of being monetized - and it works. There is, of course, the rise of the Internet. There is the increased time Americans spend working and commuting, which is that much less time for newspapers.

It is true that newspaper websites are gaining readers, or visitors. Unique viewers are estimated to “add 8.4 percent to the average newspaper’s readership, making up most, but not all, of the audience decline.” Still, even online ads fell last year, by 0.4 percent, and add up to less than 10 percent of newspaper revenue. 

As for public television, the situation is equivalent. Public funding amounts to roughly half of the budget of the nightly News Hour; corporations donate the other half in exchange for vanity quasi-commercials.  But in the age of "maximizing shareholder value" over the past few decades, corporate support has declined. Foundations have taken up some of the slack, but their own endowments have taken a beating, and they’ve cut their grants too. Public radio is a bright spot, with 13 percent of Americans saying they regularly get most of their news from National Public Radio (NPR). These are disproportionately the college-educated and older.

The"opinion" blog

Now, the rise of opinion blogs and sites gives reason to think that political discourse is far from dead - even, perhaps, more absorbing, at least for the young, than the old regime of newspapers and television. The 2008 political campaign generated unusual interest from young people, who told pollsters they “get their news” from the internet (although it’s far from clear that their claims can be taken at face value). But it is worth considering that very little of the hard nuts-and-bolts work of reporting is done by internet sites. Almost all current-events blogs collect news from newspaper sites or the handful of internet sites that commission actual reporting (as opposed to commentary, informed or not). The blogs do amalgamate and “connect dots,” and the connecting of dots is a necessary function of a journalism that enables people to intervene in governance.

An example from a website, Talking Points Memo (TPM), with which I’m associated. In 2006, seven United States attorneys were dismissed in midterm by George W Bush’s Department of Justice. These dismissals were made known locally. They were unusual. Local reports were amalgamated at the national level by a de facto collaboration of TPM readers who posted such stories, in effect improvising a national newsroom. TPM reporters conducted their own investigations. A pattern emerged: the US attorneys had been fired in order to prevent investigations of Republican politicians or because they refused to initiate investigations that would damage Democrats. Congressional hearings ensued. The upshot was that nine high-level officials resigned, including the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales. Eventually, the Justice Department Inspector General declared that the process used to fire the first seven attorneys and two others dismissed around the same time was "arbitrary," "fundamentally flawed," and "raised doubts about the integrity of Department prosecution decisions."  A necessary condition for this rectification was that an assortment of scattered facts was collected into a larger, more penetrating story. This is a prototype of the practice of journalism.

Very few online sites practice the unearthing of facts. For the most part, they opinionate - which is a useful but parasitic activity. It may consolidate opinion among those who feel the need to have opinions; it may bolster feeling; it may mobilize people into political action. But the circulation of news bits originally gathered by newspapers and other dead-tree journalistic endeavors does not preserve reportorial jobs. It does nothing for the economic viability of the mainline press. It speaks to networks of readers who cluster around the opinion sites purposively. They do not stumble upon the big news having looked into the paper because of an interest in sports, comics, or crossword puzzles. 

Journalistic careers?

The revenue that sustains the online sites comes almost exclusively from advertising. Subscriptions, in general, do not work (The Wall Street Journal is the great exception in the US). Precious few full-time reporters make a living from the internet. Most blogs and other news sites are written by people who make their living in other ways, or are working for vanity owners willing to lose money (for a while), or are promoting their freelance careers. Increasingly, internet journalists will be forced to make their livings with “day-job” careers - like professors.

What this means for journalists starting out is that expectations for journalistic careers are in the process of shifting. It is foolhardy to expect to make a career climbing a single ladder in a journalistic establishment now. Many of our own students at the Columbia Journalism School seem to understand that from the start. As a result, we may recruit more adventurous students - in my view, not a bad thing, though the danger is that adventurousness comes with a steep price of ill-preparation.

What's the business model for serious reporting?

The question that remains, the question that makes serious journalists tremble in the US, is: who is going to pay for serious reporting? For the sorts of investigations that went on last year, for example, into the background of the surprise Republican nominee for Vice President, Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska. Planes to Alaska from the lower 48 states were suddenly choked with reporters from mainstream media. What with the cost of flying nowadays, how many online sites, even the handful of nonprofits supported by public interest foundations, could afford to send a reporter, even if they had the will, drawn in part by the scent of family scandal? A couple of new foundation-supported nonprofit news sites are just starting up to do original, especially investigative, reporting, a development greatly to be welcomed. Voiceofsandiego.org has won attention, with a staff of 11 including 6 reporters and a photographer. Minnesota’s MinnPost.com has a staff twice the size. In Paris, mediapart.fr hopes to sustain itself with a few tens of thousands of paid subscribers. Such enterprises seem to be well launched. What they will amount to is anyone’s guess.

Authority

Arguably the erosion of trust is journalism’s deepest trouble as well as the one longest in the making.  Seen from the public’s vantage point, there is a crisis of authority. Do we believe what we read? Should we? What does it mean if we don’t? Surveys establish that newspapers have been losing public confidence, as have television networks and local broadcasters as well. Overall, CNN is no more trusted than Fox News.The local paper is not viewed much differently than the New York Times. According to one recent study, fewer than one in five Americans say they can believe “all or most” media reporting, down from more than 27 percent - a rather low figure in itself - five years ago. From the news organization’s point of view, there is a crisis of credibility, and attendant anxiety. If the public doubts that objective journalism is possible, on what basis can journalists claim professional status?  On what does their standing rest? In what sense do they matter in the life of the society? Should they fasten themselves to the mast of objectivity or free themselves altogether from its strictures - and in the latter case, how should they proceed?

Journalism’s legitimacy crisis has two overlapping sources: ideological disaffection from right and left, and generalized distrust. Between them, they register something of a cultural sea change. The authority of American journalism has, for a century or so, rested on its claim to objectivity and a popular belief that that claim is justified. These claims are weakening. Americans remain suspicious of political life in the first place. “The pursuit of happiness” is understood as first of all a private pursuit.  As Daniel Bell once wrote, America’s “sociological foundation was the denial of the primacy of politics for everyday life.” Private life deserved to be protected from the State - the American Constitution was founded on that promise. Perhaps the great genius of the newspaper was not simply in the invention of reporting but in the paper’s ability to serve as the great aggregator, so that something of a public sliver or even a polygon if not a sphere was created by the sum of all papers, as incidental readers accumulated into functional publics.

Fragmentation has derailed that model. Insofar as newspapers and television news are forfeiting their authority now, and people who do want more than a smattering of news are increasingly congregating around talk radio, cable television, and online sites that match their ideological preconceptions, we are entering unknown cultural territory. 

What happens when postmodern suspicion becomes generalized?  Pessimists think that the society’s ability to adapt to real-world change is impaired. Optimists, who tend to be younger, think that journalistic refashioning and collaboration can produce a model of “distributed knowledge” convertible into the foundation of a positive political transformation. Whether or not we are haltingly working our way toward a productive “revaluation of values” in journalism, I have no idea.

Deference

No survey of the journalistic landscape, even one this superficial, can omit the journalistic failings that are generated not by particularly poor business decisions, not by technologically-assisted fragmentation and media supersaturation, but by the abiding, classic and characteristic sin of journalism: deference to authorities. 

We have seen in recent years two devastating failures to report the world - devastating not simply in their abject professional failures but in that they made for frictionless glides into catastrophe. The first was in the run-up to the Iraq war, when the major media tossed away skepticism in favor of cheerleading on the question of Bush’s commitment to the existence of a Qaida-Saddam alliance and on the question of WMD. Official mea culpas in the New York Times and Washington Post only acknowledged after the fact how the reporting was sexed up, how “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy,” because journalists did not hesitate to defer to government officials whose cornering of the national security market and mastery of the manipulation of the objectivity fetish went unchallenged.

More recently, we have the run-up to the financial crisis, where (as a study in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review establishes) the overwhelming majority of articles in the ostensibly critical-minded financial press looked upon the housing-credit bubble as a miraculous achievement of nature. In this case, the authorities deferred to were the bankers, deregulators, and financial analysts whose stake in the bubble was sizable and whose mastery of arcana, and/or ability to obscure the proliferation of nonsensical gambles in the name of unrestrained market rationality, was held to be definitive.

Given these grave failures of journalism even when it was operating at greater strength not so long ago, one might say that rampant distrust is a reasonable and even a good thing. Walter Lippmann famously wrote in Public Opinion 85 years ago that journalism was an instrument of public purpose, an effort “to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.” The press’ failure to connect dots, to piece together the facts and meaning of developments in their profusion, broke the crucial link in the chain, the one that Lippmann summarized in the operative words: “on which men can act.”

So even a forthright and broad-gauged address to the crises of circulation, revenue, attention and authority will not restart any Golden Age. It would be foolish to expect it. It is not as though journalism is the only rotten pillar of global society. Journalism cannot be relied on when breakdowns in public trust and intelligence are severe, as long as the political system benefits from institutional myopia, and great fortunes thrive on public ignorance. 

Resolutions

It always warms the heart and calms the mind to follow a discussion of crises with an unveiling of resolutions. The sequence has a pleasing cadence, even when it has to strain for justification. The present case is one of those occasions when talk of resolution is - to say the least - premature.

One reason is circumstantial. The coincidence of crises makes an exit strategy scarcer. How much of the travail of 2008 can be ascribed to the Great Recession, and how much is structural, a function of Internet competition, declining attention, and declining authority all at once? The Project on Excellence’s conclusion is that “roughly half of the downturn in the last year was cyclical, that is, related to the economic downturn. But the cyclical problems are almost certain to worsen in 2009 and make managing the structural problems all the more difficult.”

Notice the reference to “managing the structural problems.” They cannot be solved, they can only be managed. The unavoidable likelihood, pending a bolt from the blue, is that the demand for journalism will continue to decline and that no business model can compensate for its declining marketability. No meeting of newspaper people is complete these days without a call - some anguished, some confident - for a “new business model” that would apply to the online “paper.” The call has been issued over the course of years now. It might be premature to say so, but one might suspect that it has not been found because there is none to be found. 

The repute of journalism as a force for Enlightenment rested heavily on the assembling of what was, in a sense, an accidental public. Even in times of high circulation, the readership of newspapers came through two fairly distinct channels. There was an amalgamation of citizens charged, or charging themselves, with the task of knowing their world better in order to govern themselves. These readers were frequently partisan. In the 19th century, they had their own newspapers. Even in the 20th century, with the promotion of the ideal of objectivity, they were often interested parties. This amalgam was supplemented by a wide array of readers who were drawn to the newspapers to consult features, recipes, comics, sports reports, and movie schedules, and who, having been drawn there, grazed past news of the wider world and became passingly familiar with the actions of governments and other prime movers.

The fact that large numbers, even majorities of the population, were drawn to the news became a resource for reformers of all stripes. Public opinion - which was a phantom, as Walter Lippmann argued - was there to be mobilized because the public assembled itself around the breakfast tables and on railroad cars, reading the papers. With the decline of the newspaper comes the decline of the unitary public as a force capable of being mobilized.

This doesn’t mean that the new media dispensation is a bulldozer set against democracy. The success of the Obama campaign last year in turning the Internet into a force for mobilization makes that plain. Still, the new administration groans under the weight of its obligations, and whether it can sustain that mobilization remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the diminishment of news continues, and much as we are in the business of stripping away our illusions, there is no way this can be good. As the sociologist Paul Starr has recently argued, the coverage that suffers most as newspaper costs are cut is the local- and state-level coverage for which there is the least independent demand. In the chronically corrupt state of New Jersey, for example, there were 50 reporters assigned to cover the state capital twenty years ago; now, 15 remain. The major national newspapers will survive in some fashion, I don’t doubt (much). But the middle levels are crumbling.

Proposals to shore up newspapers, to rescue them from the consequences of their horrendous business decisions, tend to point to to point to two possible sources. Both, in turn, rest on public policy.

One way to go is financial support for nonprofit foundations, charities, the likes of which own newspapers in a few cities, and are, selectively, supporting reporting through nonprofit websites like ProPublica.org and Voiceofsandiego.org.  Of course, the very existence of nonprofit foundations rests on tax policies that advantage their creation. So in the end, it is public policy and only public policy that will determine what kind of journalism survives.  

A few weeks ago, at Senate hearings, Steve Coll, a former managing editor of the Washington Post, proposed that Congress make it easier for news organizations to refound themselves on nonprofit bases and moreover to subsidize reporting now being shut down. Many proposals are circulating: tax subsidies for newspaper subscriptions; new advantages to nonprofit newspaper owners. If there were a national endowment that poured money into serious reporting via local boards dominated by professional (platform-neutral) journalists, it could do a great deal to wall off the journalists from the smothering embrace of the state. 

Or the unregulated, laissez-nous-faire market. Even in the US, we're rapidly running out of alternatives to public finance. Perhaps it can still be said that the experience of the BBC demonstrates that financing can be heavily insulated from control. The US, lacking the license fee, has more trouble.  Still, even in the US, it’s time to move to the next level and entertain a grown-up debate among concrete ideas.

Can a public board give representation to a range of voices, including nominees by Congress, thereby improving the odds that decent reporting survives the ineptitude of newspaper publishers? I don’t know. Are the BBC and Channel 4 models for hands-off subsidy? I don’t know that either. 

What I do know is that journalism is too important to be left to business interests. If there were any doubt as to what newspapers at their best can accomplish for the public good, you need look no further than the British parliamentary scandal.  If there were any doubt that the best American newspaper is worried about the coverage that newsroom shrinkage is preventing, take this headline, from page 3 of the New York Times of May 21st: "Death Row Foes See Newsroom Cuts as Blow"

Leaving journalism to the myopic, inept, greedy, unlucky, and floundering managers of the nation's newspapers to rescue journalism on their own would be like leaving it to the investment wizards at the American International Group (AIG), Citibank, and Goldman Sachs, to create a workable, just global credit system on the strength of their good will, their hard-earned knowledge, and their fidelity to the public good. 

A crisis is a terrible thing to waste, as Rahm Emanuel said. I hope my next talk can be called "Building New Foundations from Garbage".