Enjoying the Slow Death of America's Free Press

...Wall Street Greed Eroding Democratic Bulwark

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I'm a big fan of Albert Einstein's definition of insanity as "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."

So much so that after 40 years as a fan of the hapless New York Jets football team I now root for them to lose. I've learned to adapt the same cynical approach to newsroom layoffs as a journalism lifer, after being kicked to the curb twice in the past decade while doing award-winning work.

Why?

Because nothing exemplifies the sheer incompetence of the current generation of news executives like who they decide to keep come layoff time. Instead of retaining the best and brightest, they invariably keep the ass-kissers and sex traders who make them feel good about themselves and are least capable of anchoring a news team in distress. 

Cutting a struggling newsroom's best people only intensifies its downward spiral at a time when U.S. newspapers are starting to look a lot like the final scene in Beau Geste. With the remaining ink-stained wretches shuffling wearily between reporting beats once manned by two and even three three laid-off colleagues, much as the remaining defenders of Fort Zinderneuf shuffled between embrasures to fire the rifles of their dead comrades.

This is relevant because the slow death of America's free press took another step toward completion this month, with BH Media eliminating 249 positions at the 31 small and medium newspapers owned by financier Warren Buffett. The Omaha World-Herald, where I once worked, lost 43 of them. 

It's the latest setback for an industry which is vital to democracy and has declined so badly that it no longer fully discloses its circulation and employment figures. Our nation is careening toward tyranny in the absence of a strong, vibrant, independent press staffed by difficult, principled mofos who cannot be bought.

Newsroom employment fell 40 percent to 32,900 from 2007 to 2015 even as the U.S. population was growing 6.6 percent. The cuts have fallen hardest on veteran journalists who refuse to engage in clickbait - the practice of attracting readers via exaggeration and misrepresentation. Like intentionally misrepresenting every serious storm as "The Storm of the Century."

U.S. newspaper employment is probably under 20,000 now. Good luck finding public data for 2016 and 2017, much less the current year.

The crack Buffett team - which has amassed a financial empire with $702 billion in assets - just can't seem to figure out why no one wants to read the incredibly polite pablum produced by BH Media's skeleton news crews. Never mind the painful truth that today's top-heavy news organizations now have something along the lines of one overpaid editor or executive for every two reporters.

The abandonment of newspapers by their readers is one of the seven wonders of the world for the self-absorbed news executives responsible for these corporate train wrecks. Executives like BH Media CEO Terry Kroeger, who spent $125 million in 2001 ($177 million in today's dollars) to purchase three new German printing presses for The Omaha World-Herald. Seven years after the birth of the Internet.

Yes, really.

That's akin to paying top dollar for three buggy whip factories in 1915. Seven years after the birth of Ford's Model-T automobile.

The demise of America's free press wrought by Kroeger's generation of clueless media executives used to bother me when I worked in the mainstream news media. Much as I used to fret about being atomized by a Russian nuclear missile as a child during The Cold War.

I'd watch them fire courageous reporters and soften biting investigative exposes to avoid offending monied interests, and then cry out just like Major Clifton in the classic war film "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

"Madness," Clifton declared as his former commander's open treason caused several British and American deaths. "Madness."

The British commander had become so consumed with the challenge of building a bridge in the Southeast Asian jungle for his Japanese captors that he completely lost track of the bigger picture. Namely, that he was on the other side.

Today's publishers have taken the same course by throwing ethics, accuracy, and public service aside in their mad quest for online hits and short-term profit growth. Instead of policing the madness of Wall Street's "profits over people" mantra, they now embody those excesses.

It used to pain me to see courageous journalists stabbing eachother in the back to keep their jobs in this contracting industry. As principled editors were replaced by opportunistic posers and courageous investigative reporters by clueless wannabees.

Now that I work for the alternative media, I friggin love it. Much as I love "Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," a satirical film released in 1964 about the sheer madness of nuclear war.

I've never been a collaborator in the destruction of America's Fourth Estate, unlike so many of my professional peers. However, I have learned to derive a kind of sadistic pleasure from the horrible damage they've done to themselves and America; A pleasure the Germans call "schadenfreude."

Talk about riding a horse hard and hanging it up wet. Wall Street is parting out the gutless remnants of our free press right now like an aged nag in a glue factory. As if this essential element of a functioning democracy is a vestige of older times - like a desktop calendar or Rolodex. 

Well, the laugh is on you America. Because it's your freedoms which are going away and your working class heroes who are being destroyed. The laugh is also on publishers like Kroeger and Gannett's Rick Green, whose children will have to live in the ruins of a failing American empire and a failing democracy their greedy fathers helped undermine.

You have to love the way the Greed is Good crowd has brought the once principled and patriotic defenders of American democracy to their knees and forced them to fight each other for professional survival, like gladiators in the Roman arena. The best part happens when the modern-day sonderkommandos in management finally get laid off too.

My gutless colleagues at The Des Moines Register took this kind of fatalistic cowardice to a new low in 2014 when they actually held a party after a round of layoffs to thank management for kicking them to the curb. Some still defend those scoundrels in the desperate hope their jobs may miraculously reappear someday.

I was viewed as a troublemaker by some for publicly lambasting a manager at this ridiculous shindig who had pressured me to work overtime for free to keep my job. Until my blood pressure came unhinged and surged to 250 over 160.

And people wonder why American workers don't stand up for themselves any more.

How can any of us stand up when we're dragging around this much dead wood and being undermined at every turn by such wholesale cowardice?

I want to yell at the Omaha scribes who just got laid off: "All that ass kissing and what do you have to show for it. Not a goddamn thing."

And I want to yell at the overpaid managers who handed them their walking papers: "Enjoy it, because you're next."

Of course, to do that I'd have to know who actually got laid off and who kept their jobs. The two stories I've read in The Omaha World-Herald don't disclose that information, which is how journalism leads the business world by example these days.

Not.

Neither story mentions Kroeger's investment in soon-to-obsolete printing presses. They can print an incredible 75,000 newspapers an hour, which would be real handy if the Omaha World-Herald had 500,000 readers today instead of less than 100,000.

The financial millstones can probably churn through a new print edition in under an hour now.

What joy. With any luck Kroeger will cut the press run time to five minutes in another year.

(blank stare)

Back in the day, legendary newspaper editors like The Washington Post's Ben Bradlee and the New York Times Dean Baquet were commonplace. So were the principled stands these wordsmiths took on behalf of the public's right to know.

Today, most of the news field's top people are opportunistic posers who excel at clickbait, forcing employees to work overtime for free, compromising journalism ethics, advertising fraud, offending no one, and presenting the ability to post a story link on social media as a rare job skill.

They also kiss advertiser ass. Bigtime.

That's an important distinction because there used to be an ethical wall between the side of a news organization which generates advertising revenue, and the side which produces the news they sell. It was meant to keep monied interests from diluting the value of the news product by censoring negative stories about themselves.

The wall also prevented news executives from turning The Fourth Estate into a corporate protection racket. It existed because older generations of newsroom leaders understood that advertisers follow readers. Not the other way around.

In this former climate, The Omaha World Herald would have been covering Warren Buffett and his $87 billion fortune more aggressively. Instead of writing one blowjob story after another about the second richest man on the planet, who happens to be a down-to-Earth dude who abhors sycophants.

Many of today's newsroom managers don't seem to grasp the readers-first concept. Even as big advertisers like the HyVee grocery store chain start their own magazines out of frustration with shrinking newspaper readership. They've got millions of advertising dollars to spend but no viable community newspaper to spend it with.

The posers who run news today are too busy worrying about short-term profit growth to champion readers by investing in the long-term credibility of their own organizations. Case in point, the Omaha World-Herald's complete failure to subject Warren Buffett and his management team to the kind of scrutiny they merit. 

They've gone to great pains to avoid reporting about Berkshire Hathaway's over-reliance on insurance, which hurt it in 2017 and could do so again in a future clouded by climate change. Or writing a story about how the vaunted Oracle of Omaha came up short in news, and why.

Instead, the crew of docile rule followers there will take their pink slips with a servile smile and head into the professional oblivion of a struggling labor force which does not want them. A period of long-term unemployment and early retirement awaits some of them, along with divorce and suicide.

The painful truth is we live in a world where publicly traded companies systemically discriminate against older workers now, to lower corporate health insurance costs. This trend is invisible in the public forum because it's a little too hot for the members of The Omaha World-Herald's crack business news team and their fellow corporate cheerleaders in the mainstream news media.

All is not well in America, but many of the ills are being ignored by what passes for the free press today. Its remnants possess neither the ability nor the inclination to challenge flawed economic indicators like the 4.1 percent official U.S. unemployment rate in a nation where roughly 40 percent of adults have no full-time work. Much less report the downward spiral of America's publicly traded companies and their complete corruption of the two big political machines.

These modern-day collaborators write for advertisers like Wal-Mart and corrupt lawmakers like Donald Trump, while the knowing lies of clickbait eat away at newsroom integrity. 

As in, "Hey President Donnie, if you let me break that national story about arming teachers I'll write a softball story for you next week about Ivanka's time at The Winter Olympics. Deal?"

These trades are known as "access journalism" within the news field and the ass kissers who now pass for ace reporters excel at them. Sadly, the one thing they cannot do is produce the kind of courageous public service journalism which turns casual readers into subscribers and informed voters. 

The painful truth is that there's still a helluva lot of money to be made in the news business, but the Warren Buffetts of the world have to give readers the kind of gutsy stories which interest them to attract advertisers again. Safe stories which offend no one aren't the answer. Neither are the misrepresentations and sins of omission of the Right Wing Noise Machine.

That means writing for readers, instead of the country club set; employing crusading journalists, instead of sellouts; challenging social media's wholesale piracy of newspaper articles; and allowing readers to consume only the stories that interest them, instead of having to purchase an entire newspaper.

A big part of the solution is micro-charges. Those are the tiny charges the big credit card companies refuse to process.

The block-chain software utilized by Bitcoin has no problem with micro-charges, which means that readers could be charged a dime for each story they read or post online with this new technology. 

A story with 1 million readers all paying a dime would generate $100,000 in revenue.

And voila. An obsolete business model, which pimps out good reporters like prostitutes, is upgraded.

How hard was that?

Imagine if you could automatically pay a dime for each story you read or post online, instead of subscribing to every edition of a particular periodical. Would you do it?

Most people would. Especially in the $5 Starbucks cup of coffee crowd.

Why haven't the news industry's stunted executives figured this out?

They're too busy putting their feet in the intellectual footprints of their predecessors to blaze new paths. That's what happens when you're raised in an industry full of localized monopolies which place a premium on ass kissing. 

Sixteen years ago I sat in the Omaha World-Herald newsroom and watched an idiot of a design consultant alienate a talented, young business editor whose team had just finished first in the nation. The consultant was a former photographer who was convinced the newspaper didn't need a business section. He knew this to be true because he had no personal interest in business news.

Who hires such people?

Other idiots, higher up the idiot food chain.

Today, the most profitable news organizations in the world are all built on business news. They have names like Bloomberg, CNBC and Reuters. The Omaha World Herald's talented young business editor went to work for one of them and immediately doubled his salary.

The young business editor had guided me though a series of big scoops on IBP's sale, ConAgra's reorganization, Gallup's search for a new home, and Vlasic's bankruptcy. He was a demanding dude, who could be incredibly rude, but he was also really friggin good.

He was replaced by a small-town journalist with no appetite for big stories whose only business journalism experience was reprinting corporate press releases verbatim. As if she was in public relations.

The first assignment this confrontation-averse editor gave me was an article on the Blue Ribbon winner for canning at the state fair. I resigned the same day in sheer disgust after concluding that both she and the people who hired her were simply too stupid to work for.

Today, I look back on that decision from the accrued wisdom of middle age and realize I could not have been more right.

The idea of her policing the excesses of opportunistic CEOs and politicians is laughable. However, The Omaha World-Herald and much of the newspaper industry have been placing a premium on such docile employees for decades now. It's a big part of the reason so many readers have abandoned them.

Priceless centuries of institutional knowledge also have been squandered as older staffers have been replaced with new college graduates by HR teams obsessed with lowering newspaper health insurance premiums by any means necessary. Without regard to the fact that cub reporters are trained by the older journalism lifers they're forcing out.

What's the moral of the story?

Great news organizations and great countries are both built on the struggles waged by difficult, proud, courageous people. That includes cranky know-it-alls like me. 

Not docile trash.

You can only burden a vital industry like news with so much clueless deadwood before it starts to choke, and representative democracy along with it.

Our job is to challenge the powerful and champion the powerless. Not to make rich idiots and corrupt politicians feel good about themselves. 

That's Journalism 101 in every medium of communication, from cave drawings to smoke signals to The World Wide Web. It all starts with the telling of painful truths and with the courageous editors who clear the way for scrappy troublemakers like me to report them.

As for the new generation of financial professionals and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who think they're good at journalism merely because they're good at something else. Yeah, no. 

You can't apply a "monetize everything" mindset to an industry that lives and dies on its long-term reputation for accuracy and the telling of painful truths. Not, without destroying it and the democracy it underpins.

Col. Nicholson found a way to build a top-notch "Bridge on The River Kwai" and win his enemy's respect by completely ignoring the painful truth that he wasn't supposed to be part of their war machine.

The current generation of journalism shotcallers have engaged in a  similar form of collaboration by allying themselves with the monied interests they're supposed to watchdog. They've goosed short-term profits by cutting veterans journalists, selling newspaper headquarters, and embracing the publication of lies, exaggerations and sins of omission.

But to what end if it means undermining America's free press and representative democracy, and helping the Predatory 1 Percent marginalize the poor and faltering middle class?

Unless you want to end up staring around like a dumbass and muttering "what have I done?"

The painful truth is that journalism was never meant to be a for-profit industry, especially in today's high-speed trading climate. That's propaganda, which is profitable but doesn't underpin democracy. It underpins tyranny.

There used to be a difference.

Sadly, that distinction has been lost on the current generation of journalism shot callers amidst their obsession with forever profit growth. They're weak, stupid and ridiculously proud of themselves for monetizing the hell out of an American institution which once underpinned the greatest democracy in human history.

Just as Col. Nicholson once looked on his bridge with misguided pride, they now look on their diminished news organizations and think "by God I told them I could make news profitable and I was right."

A final thought: I had a profitable lemonade stand when I was 4 years old. Didn't make me John Rockefeller.


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