Thursday, August 31, 2006

"How do you guys make money?

On independent journalism and the problems of conglomerated of news

In an era flooded by a tide of corporate interests, independent journalism in the 21st Century is finding itself sparsely retreating to only the highest ground. When the answer to 99 out of 100 questions comes down to one word—money— it should be no surprise that a visit to any new city will mst likely show the prevailing “alternative weekly” to be far from the root word of the phrase. Corporate giants, media companies and chains with the sole purpose of money grubbing and not news gathering are gobbling up weekly newspapers from the left coast to the right, from the largest cities to the smallest towns. The result is watered down “soft” news, special sections, entertainment guides and advertising pullouts. And as the people on the advertising side of the publications line their pockets while the publisher screams “mo’ money / mo’ pages,” the editorial side, the journalists, end up with their backs against the wall of a giant invisible dollar sign, one that’s essentially writing their paychecks. Any self-respecting journalist, however, knows that “Mo’ money” should really mean “Mo’ problems.”
What the pubic need to know are that companies outside journalism now own what we see and read, and the corporate purchasing of news outlets should be regarded as a serious threat. “Independent news will be replaced by self-interested commercialism posing as news,” reads a passage from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthal’s 2001 Elements of Journalism. Five years later they couldn’t be more right.
At South Carolina’s own (a political Web log) even their “press releases” show a real estate agent’s ad and a banner at the bottom recommending a vote on a partisan issue.
In America, our visceral desire to be free and democratic would have us taking to the streets if our government ever chose to take physical control of the news, yet we seem to have no problem with it if it’s Rupert Murdoch, Disney, AOL/Time Warner or a media group calling the shots from two states away.
“Today, in too much of our journalism, the public good is no longer the bottom line. The bottom line has in itself become the bottom line. Just glance at… formulaic local broadcast news… or stripped-down newspapers owned by chains headquartered in distant cities,” former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein (responsible for breaking the Watergate scandal with Bob Woodward) said last year. And he’s right; if journalism should be one thing it should be to provide the public with the information needed to be free and democratic. Not to make money. Alternative weeklies should go one step further; to offer the public information needed to be free and democratic, while offering alternative views that may be fired from somewhere off the political center.
But how is that possible when a free newspaper’s only form of revenue comes from its advertisers, the paper’s entire financial structure architected by quarter, half, and full-page bastions of unbridled and obvious self-interest?
If a prominent Columbia bank runs a full-page $1,000 ad with the daily newspaper, how is that paper able to responsibly report on an investigative story showing how most of the money from that bank is shot up I-77 and rarely ends up in the local economy at all? The short answer is— it just won’t be reported.
Similarly, if a weekly paper receives thousands of dollars in tax money from the City of Columbia, how are they then to report accurately and aggressively on corruption they see in city government? The answer is the same, they won’t— and the truth is they won’t need to—there will always be a cover story on fashion, paid for by their retail advertisers, to fall back on.
A long time ago there used to a rule in publishing that the advertising side and the editorial side should be separated by a physical wall. I’m afraid now that wall has been replaced with an Ethernet cable and a credit card machine and what is generally considered “news” might very well be a paid advertisement unbeknownst to most readers.
A few months ago an employee of a local political consulting firm asked me, “If we give you some money, would you write a story about the firm…or how does that work?” I wasn’t so much offended as I was shocked by the ignorance. It was a serious question. The woman asked it as though it were common practice in the business. I referred her to an account executive, saying the firm might consider a display ad instead. We never heard back. News stories, the firm probably knew, are always better for business than display ads; which leads to another serious question involving local journalism: Is it ethical for a paper to cover events sponsored by their advertisers, or to even cover their advertisers at all?
In April, City Paper ran an exposé on the 3 Rivers Music Festival involving what it saw as questionable financial practices preformed by the festival’s executive director. At the same time, the paper also knew the 3 Rivers Music Festival was known for spending lots of money in local print advertising and had approached them for an ad. Needless to say it would have been quite the conflict of interest for City Paper to accept ad money from them if they were reporting the money was questionable to begin with. On the other hand, as then-executive Virginia Bedford said in an e-mail to City Paper’s publisher about the article, “…is that how you treat everyone who refuses to advertise with you?” implying that a newspaper’s editorial, journalistic side should have cozy relationships with those who advertise with the paper and editorially “attack” those who do not. Another weekly paper in Columbia had a different take on the situation. They took the 3 Rivers ad money, hyped the festival as their front-page cover story, and then, after it was over, questioned the financial tactics of the event while praising the executive director but still alluding to possible misgivings by the organization (as if they had insider information they weren’t willing to share), probably, one: because City Paper already did, and two: so they could both save face at the end of their financial relationship. The whole time though, that ad money from two weeks ago was used to pay for the ink that printed it. A publication should be very careful in ethically covering entities giving them money, lest the public get a sense of who really creates the “news.”

- Corey Hutchins