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Long Live the News Business

By Robert Samuelson

WASHINGTON -- When I joined The Washington Post as a reporter in 1969, hardly anyone I knew in the news business considered it a business.

We belonged to a craft, a calling or maybe a profession. We didn't worry about the industry's "business model," a term we'd never heard. Economic realities occasionally intruded, usually involving salaries (always too low). But mostly we blissfully ignored the proposition that newspapers aimed to make money. We condescendingly thought that the moneymaking people -- advertising salesmen, managers -- toiled so that we could pursue our higher purpose, which was to inform the public. We were snobs.

We've been disabused of our naivete and arrogance. All our business models (for newspapers, magazines, network news) are now in retreat, if not rout. The Internet is grabbing our audiences and our ads.

Few of us imagined ourselves as heirs to textile or steelworkers, disemployed by new competition and technology. But we are. From 2000 to 2006, editorial staffs at U.S. daily newspapers dropped 4,000, or about 7 percent, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism. Cuts continue at papers, as well as at magazines and in TV newsrooms.

Now, Rupert Murdoch's offer to buy The Wall Street Journal for $5 billion, or $60 a share (a 67 percent premium over the pre-offer price), seems to be another blow. On the one side is America's best newspaper, winner of 12 Pulitzers since 2000. But its costly news operations make it, at best, marginally profitable. (Dow Jones, the parent company, doesn't provide separate figures for the Journal.) On the other is Murdoch, a media buccaneer whose News Corp. owns the Fox News Channel, MySpace and the New York Post. The fear is that Murdoch would corrupt the Journal's news pages by installing editors who would peddle his conservative views.

So it's journalistic integrity versus the almighty buck. The Bancroft family, which controls 64 percent of Dow Jones' voting stock, must decide which matters most. But this conventional view, I think, vastly oversimplifies. What the Bancrofts decide may matter much less than we think.

Murdoch pledges to respect the Journal's independence, and why shouldn't he? He's 76. Does he want to be remembered for destroying a national treasure? Moreover, the Journal's main economic asset is its reputation. Ruin that, and its circulation and ads will shrink. Murdoch proposes an independent board to settle disputes with editors and to approve changes of the top two editors. He told The New York Times that he would invest more in the Journal. "Murdoch spoke enthusiastically about opening new bureaus ... (and) says he is spoiling for a fight with the Financial Times," according to the New York Times.

What I think is occurring is that we news types are mourning our lost autonomy and power. We're angry that, like everyone else, we're subject to business and financial pressures. Editorial independence has subtly eroded. Decisions about what topics to cover (health, technology) are increasingly tailored to appeal to advertisers. Splintering media markets have weakened the economic base for news gathering. In 2005 and 2006, Time magazine cut its news staff by 14 percent, says the Project for Excellence in Journalism; it reckons that Newsweek's staff is half its 1983 level (though Web hiring has offset some losses). Even if the Journal rebuffs Murdoch, it cannot escape these pressures. It has already put ads on section fronts.

The changes involve more than economics. When I started, print journalism required two basic skills: reporting and writing. Now, journalists are expected to be multimedia utility players, feeding Web sites, posting videos and doing TV. Up to a point, this is valuable: finding new ways to engage and inform. But it's also time-consuming and detracts from reporting.

Just what constitutes journalism is less clear. Hitwise, a survey firm, counts 8,001 news and media Web sites. The largest (Yahoo News) has only 7 percent of the traffic. The qualities that are rewarded are shifting from diligent, curious and clear to tech-savvy, quick and edgy.

Still, the sky-is-falling view of the news business is vastly overdrawn. Parts of the news complex are expanding. Bloomberg News has 2,300 reporters and editors worldwide, up 300 from early 2006. Among most reporters and editors, journalistic norms -- respect for facts, an effort to be fair -- endure. Despite problems at individual news organizations, the public has access to more news than ever. People are no less informed. A poll by the Pew Research Center reports that in 2007, 69 percent of the public can identify the vice president, down from 74 percent in 1989; but 76 percent know which party controls Congress, up from 68 percent.

"The findings suggest little change in overall levels of public knowledge," says Pew. The real news about the news business is that it isn't collapsing. It's merely changing.

(c) 2007, The Washington Post Writers Group


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