Newspapers: Good night and bad luck

Apropos of nothing but my own post-Christmas crankiness … The failing economy has given self-flagellating newspaper corporations the very thing they’ve seemed long destined to do: scavenge, and then destroy, their own business.

The Journal Register Company has perfected this with increasingly little camouflage. Its business model seems to essentially consist of buying a furnished house so that they can sell off the few useful pieces of furniture, while allowing (and, in many ways, facilitating through neglect) the plumbing, wiring, roof, and structure to deteriorate to a point where it will be more profitable to raze rather than sell as even a “fixer-upper.”

Gannett, meanwhile, seemed to work mighty hard to find new and innovative ways to accelerate its decline. Its philosophy of getting its readers involved might have presaged blogs and “citizen journalism” — but that philosophy has helped to destroy it.

As proponents of a news philosophy of less is more (while doing more with less), they’ve also long been a proponent of throwing the doors open and letting citizens into their newsrooms. There’s a nobel and well-intentioned aspect to this (along with what must have been considered a money-making and readership-increasing compenent, too). But a funny thing happened on the way to this new reality: citizens learned that they could perform “citizen journalism” quite nicely on the Web without needing a newspaper as a conduit or filter, thankyouverymuch. So, bye-bye newspapers.

In Gannett’s case, this perhaps is more a reckoning than an economic readjustment — in either case, that’s small consolation to the ruined lives of its former staff and their families laid-off from their newsrooms, er, “information centers.”

But apart from the notable exception of the betrayed ranks of the out-of-work, the real victims, dear readers, are ourselves.

Without the watchdog role of the newspaper — something that papers have long been shirking anyway — don’t be surprised to see more Blogojeviches; or rather, don’t be surprised if you don’t see them.

David Carr notes that the Gov. Blogojevich scandal underscores the still necessary role of newspapers, and I agree with him. But that role seems increasingly expendable under corporate ownership. At that point, what is the point?

There should be little surprise that Blogojevich’s henchmen (allegedly) thought it was even fathomable to get opinion writers fired from the Chicago Tribune — like the old, used-up workhorse in Animal Farm, perhaps the (alleged) hope was that their hides were looking much more valuable than their work — under the ownership of Sam Zell.

Cloak-and-dagger intrigue aside, the quality of journalism continues to fall, and has for a long time before 2008.

Is it so to difficult to see what a Hollywood actor can see in this failure, something Captains of Industry cannot (and could never) understand? Albeit George Clooney is talking about broadcast journalism, but the statement rings true:

“This is a movie about broadcast journalism and its responsibilities, which I think have been shirked,” he said. “I think a good many people would admit that they dropped the ball. This is a reminder of what is possible.”

—George Clooney, regarding Good Night and Good Luck,
2005 interview with David Carr, NY Times

[Update Jan 3, 8:23 a.m.: Added a somewhat relevant link (way above) and also noticed this great Editorial Notebook piece from the Times (via HuffPo) that says: “But, for now, there’s not much original local reporting on the Web, making it all the more likely that local government will get a pass. … It’s hard to see what would fill the void when its newspapers die. … If the power of journalism is measured by its ability to spark anxiety in government officials, it’s hard to imagine a more relaxing time to hold public office.” That’s more or less what I wanted to say before I got ranting (reminder to self) but I digress.]

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