As a journalism lifer nothing grinds my gears more than when some well-paid sellout in public relations starts opining about what needs to be done to save America’s faltering free press.
They always dance around the real systemic problems in lieu of useless solutions which assume the field still has a future, is adequately funded, led by principled editors and courageous owners, and staffed by journalism lifers with a commitment to public service.
The painful truth is the news industry has no future in the United States. At least not as a for-profit industry.
It’s now a shell of its former self, owned almost entirely by financial bottom feeders who are hollowing it out via cost cutting. The private equity funds and hedge funds who dominate news today aren’t selling news headquarters and replacing veteran journos with recent college grads because they think there’s a future in for-profit news. They’re simply exploiting a dying industry, the same way meatpackers salvage a cow or pig carcass.
Meaning everything is worth something to somebody: bones, hooves, hair, patriotism, skin, the greater good, and credibility. Even the truth.
Nothing is sacred to them except profit growth.
The only problem with this single-minded approach to monetizing our children's future is that this particular industry is an essential part of the American Way. A vibrant free press is critical to both an educated electorate and a functional democracy. Two things Americans don’t really have anymore and would very much like to have again someday.
As someone who has covered business and politics for much of my life, and possesses an unfortunate penchant for painful truths, I can tell you exactly what needs to happen to save the U.S. news industry.
1) Change the Business Model
Publicly traded companies are about profit growth and the news industry can’t compete with most of them. Not for investors and not for the political hookers who run our nation’s political protection racket in Washington, D.C.
So Step No. 1 is getting rid of the stock tickers and returning to either private for-profit ownership or a nonprofit business model. That way news companies like Gannett - whose shares are down a staggering 20 percent over the past three years - won’t be competing directly for shareholders any more with the Facebooks, Apples, Enrons, Exxons and Amazons of the business world.
2) Make Social Media Pay its Way
Right now, Facebook is the Napster of the news industry. This global trust is being allowed to undermine the news industry via illegal story sharing just as Napster was once allowed to decimate the American music industry via illegal song sharing. It's literally stealing the lifeblood from hundreds of companies, by stealing both their news articles and the ads which run beside them.
So Step. No. 2 is choking off Facebook and the rest of social media by putting every news story behind a paywall. That way they can’t steal our advertisers by stealing our stories.
If Facebook still wants to be in the news business afterward they can hire their own goddamn reporters and editors, and produce their own original news stories. Just like everyone else.
What’s the difference between Facebook and Napster?
Facebook hired political lobbyists and bought itself some political cover from our nation’s corrupt Congress and White House. That kind of rampant corruption wasn't an option for the original Napster just a few years earlier because it didn't have Wall Street's backing.
3) Empower Independent Political Candidates
The U.S. news industry has long had an incestuous relationship with the Republican and Democratic parties. Just as we do with most professional sports franchises, in the sense that while we write critical stories about them we almost never call their trusts into question.
In politics, that means ignoring third-party candidates and endorsing those from the two big political machines almost entirely. In sports, it means ignoring the continued existence of needless “owners” and the superior public ownership model of the Green Bay Packers. Which is owned by its fans.
Bottom line, we need to open things up and let the Bernie Sanders of the world breath. Because the Republican and Democratic political protection racket has allowed Facebook to rape us financially. And they have to pay for that.
As in zero name recognition, zero stories and zero political advertisements.
It’s called hardball and it works both goddamn ways.
4) Put Journalists in Charge of News Again
There’s been an ethical wall between newsrooms and advertising operations for centuries. It exists to preserve the kind of professional credibility which keeps readers and viewers coming back.
Today, financial professionals who think they’re good at everything because they’re good at zeroes are destroying that safeguard. Along the way they’re undermining the future of a U.S. news industry they have no business in and no idea how to run.
All they know is short term profit growth. They don’t do long-term credibility. They’re the reason why every storm is now the storm of the century on The Weather Channel and the names once reserved for hurricanes are now assigned to every rain squall and snow flurry.
Remember the folks at Gawker who made professional wrestler Hulk Hogan rich by running a sex video of him without his permission?
The top people there didn’t have a single journalism degree between them and didn’t seem to know even the most basic definition of libel law. Much like Ariana Huffington of the Huffington Post, Mutt Drudge of the Drudge Report and Andrew Breitbart of Breitbart website.
What they do possess is a willingness to compromise journalism ethics to advance themselves and their publications via the poison of clickbait, identify politics, biased journalism, traffic whoring and SEO bomb throws.
Gawker is gone now. It filed for bankruptcy last year after a court awarded Hogan $140 million in damages.
We need to bring back the wall.
Because it works.
5) Put Readers First Again
Painful Truth No. 9.4646 Gazillion: Advertisers follow readers. Not the other way around.
That means we have to stop writing for sources and advertisers and start writing for our readers again. As in the invisible masses we have all but abandoned.
That means putting the voices and faces of poor and middle class Americans in our stories again. Even though they don’t advance our careers as quickly as the rich people we meet at cocktail parties.
We used to have populist columnists with names like Jimmy Breslin and Mike Royko who championed the ubiquitous "everyman" at newspapers like The Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News. We need to bring them back too.
What about lifestyles of the rich and famous?
Fuck the rich and famous.
They’re not America.
Never friggin were.
Investing in readers by producing top-flight journalism is the best strategy in the news business, but it pays off in the long-term. Not the short-term.
Just look at the venerable New York Times, whose stock is up 115 percent since it stopped butchering its coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement for a more equitable distribution of America's benefits and burdens. It's elegant proof that investing in courageous journalism is profitable as well as patriotic, and playing the villain is both short-sighted and terminally stupid.
6) Death to Clickbait
You know when you see a freakish headline and the story fails to live up to it?
It’s the reason readers are being habitually deluged with stories about elderly brothers fighting over peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, while the needless corporate layoffs which force them to live in poverty are ignored.
It's a form of advertising fraud. As is setting up videos to automatically play; scattering a single story across multiple web pages, each requiring a key-click to continue; and the use of extensive photo arrays, each requiring a key-click. The trick is to tell advertisers each key-click and video view is being initiated by a unique visitor to your website.
The news industry has elevated clickbait in recent years, along with the online hits those garbage stories generate, because it’s also a way to pressure journalism lifers into abandoning their ethics. One of the unintended consequences is a plethora of newsroom managers who can’t write their way out of a paper bag, but specialize in removing context from stories to make them more salacious.
Accuracy be damned.
These folks have to go. Personally, I’d like the death penalty for them. If there was a firing squad I'd pull the trigger, but I understand that’s not realistic. For now.
So I propose instead that we take every no-talent click-bait specialist who thinks posting to Facebook is a job skill and lock them in the basement. What could be more fitting, given the race to the bottom they've orchestrated?
7) Ban HR From Newsroom Hiring Decisions
I was interviewing a candidate for a reporting position in 2008 who had an impressive resume and story portfolio. Only problem was that she seemed to excel at getting herself assigned to big events, particularly by socially challenged male editors with crippled libidos, but didn’t seem to be able to break stories on her own.
“Tell me about a story that you broke, which would not have been reported in your absence?” I asked.
She had absolutely nothing. Not one meaningful scoop to her name. Just a whole bunch of attendance award articles where she managed to get herself included in the huge press packs covering big events.
That may not mean anything to a human resources specialist whose only news experience is reading finished articles on their iPhone, but it means a helluva lot to those of us who produce the proverbial sausage. Because this kind of disconnect illustrates the difference between being able to break news and taking up space. Between being a crackerjack reporter and a poser.
It’s also the main reason we have to stop letting HR make newsroom hiring decisions. Journalists should be hiring journalists. Not human resources specialists whose sole obsession is keeping health care premiums and wages low.
They still think journalism is a commodity and sports agate is on par with solid investigative journalism. And it shows.
That’s why HR wasn’t involved in newsroom hiring decisions until the past decade. Painful Truth No. 8.5335 Gazillion is that the vast majority of them have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to the written word. Much less news.
We got bought by private equity funds seeking to camouflage their inability to grow news industry profits organically. Instead of adding readers via crusading journalism they opted to cut costs instead.
These wealthy morons figure all journalists are the same, just because they’re not smart enough to tell the difference between crackerjack reporters and posers.
The only thing they know how to do is add. They think kids cost less than veteran journalists, who command higher salaries and raise company-wide health insurance premiums.
What they don't understand is that inexperienced journos cost less because they do less. Sometimes four or five times less. In some instances you can’t even measure the difference because there’s just no way for them to write the complex stories produced by a journalism lifer with a decade of experience.
When I was at The Des Moines Register I was literally covering quarterly earnings for something like 12 of the 14 companies followed by our six member business reporting team.
Because nobody else knew how to critically analyze a corporate earnings report, much less understand its financial terms. They could regurgitate a corporate press release, but they couldn't mine one for financial obfuscation.
Meaning that if Wells Fargo told them they just laid off 10,000 mortgage servicing employees to "rebalance strategic resources," they'd write that. Without connecting the move to the declining housing market.
The same kind of stupidity which produced the Register’s useless business staff was at work a few years earlier at The Bond Buyer, when ownership decided we were going to cover the incredibly complex world of municipal bonds with kids right out of college. Never mind the three-year learning curve.
It’s been a disaster, but hey it looks good on paper. Until you look at readership.
Bad journalism doesn't sell. It never has.
8) We’ve Got to Get PR out of News
Public Relations is not news. Being in PR is about putting a happy face on whatever is being reported about your paymaster. Regardless of whether they’re North Korean Dictator Kim Jung-Un, fire ants, swine flu, or the payday lending industry.
Which is why my most vocal critics are public relation specialists whenever I write anything critical about any news organization.
These paid liars don’t criticize me because I’m wrong. They do it to curry favor with the unethical folks I'm criticizing. So they can trade favors with them later.
How else do you think some of the garbage you read gets in the news?
Painful Truth No. 2.3646 Gazillion is that a lot of laid off journalists have sold their souls by becoming PR people. It’s a deal with the devil and they try to have it both ways afterward by pretending they’re still journalists, instead of just shysters trading on their old journalism reputations.
Writing garbage stories about what ails journalism, as if the industry has a cold, is part of that charade.
Painful Truth No. 9.36374 Gazillion is that America’s free press doesn’t have a cold. It’s dying of Stage-4 political corruption and Wall Street excess.
Representative democracy in America is dying right along with it.