The Columbia Journalism Review has offered an explanation for why the newspaper business is gasping for air. After a generation of acquisition, consolidation and cut-throat competition that left many markets with a single reportorial voice, the lone victor became bloated or cocky or lazy, or some combination of the three.
Competition is good, remember. It nourishes aggressive reporting and distinctive, creative approaches. With a lack of competition in the local news and information business, too many papers, even some of the more ambitious ones, allowed their voices and personalities to wither. Too many editorial pages toned it down and slid into the inoffensive and boring. Too few embarked on crusades. Corporate owners, too, encouraged a play-it-safe culture. Too many newspapers rounded off their ragged edges, but lost the spark. When the advertising and readership began to recede, so did resources, and those weak habits and attitudes began to reveal themselves like the fish on the beach before the tsunami.
Despite the wisdom in this analysis, I wouldn’t expect the industry or the regulatory agencies to correct their self-destructive behavior. In fact, the pattern is even now repeating as the FCC prepares to fast-track more media consolidation. The CJR holds out hope that competition will emerge from new venues, i.e. the Internet. But that is where I depart from their view. First, the Internet does not constitute competition if the the web sites are owned or controlled by the same media megaliths that run the conventional media. Second, whatever passes for competition on the net can’t fulfill the local function that a newspaper will.
In the end, the arrogance and greed of the corporations that run print journalism will almost certainly destroy it. The decline in quality will accomapany a decline in professionalism and ethics. We’ve already seen examples unfold in the form of plagiarists (Jayson Blair), fabricaters (Janet Cooke), propagandists (Armstrong Williams) and whatever Jeff Gannon was. The solution, as with all monopolies, is to break them up and re-introduce real competition and diversity. It’s a tall order but it’s the only straw available for grasping.