Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Media titans should remember First Amendment

These cost reductions are false savings. Quality is eroded.


As the titans of American news media gather in Sun Valley at the annual Allen & Co. summit to ruminate about uncertainties of their industry, one devoutly hopes they'll set aside time during anxious talk of financial fortunes to remind themselves of centuries-old benefits bestowed by the First Amendment.

In the 45 words of the First, the press, unlike any other business, is elevated to special constitutional protection. This imposes on owners of organs of journalism implicit social responsibilities they're inclined to forget.

Today's U.S. press unhappily is treated more like a speculation commodity rather than a pillar of our freedoms. Once-great newspapers are mortally threatened with extinction. Shareholders demand higher rates of return than they demand of other corporations. A goal of 30 percent profit wasn't unusual among major newspapers.

With advertising revenues of major publicly-owned dailies plunging in the sagging economy, executive suites instinctively slash news personnel, shrink published pages and cancel commentary columns, among other tactics. These cost reductions are false savings. Quality is eroded.

Cuts have been bloody. New York Times columnist Timothy Egan wrote last week that 1,000 newspaper jobs across the country were eliminated in one week. My alma mater, The Miami Herald, ushered nearly 50 more reporters out the front door last week in a newsroom buyout, an act never considered in my 20 years there as young reporter and editor. The Arizona Republic, where I was publisher until 1989, also is shrinking staff, also unheard of in my 17 years there when owners found 10 percent profit satisfactory. The Washington Post has lost 200 newsroom jobs in recent years.

Some newspapers are outsourcing editing of copy to India, where even the hippest editors are total strangers to American vernacular. Worse, one small California newspaper briefly considered covering city council meetings by having writers in India remotely monitor them online.

And so it goes, remorselessly.

Despite sneering critics of "liberal" media, the American press has been indispensable to the health of our democracy. Newspapers audit government performance, provide vision for civic agendas, uncover corruption and venality, create archives of history, act as disseminators of great news events and trivial minutia to inform and educate. Today's vaunted Internet and broadcast news drain newspapers for their own news.

Without a thriving free press speaking its mind, one need only look to tyrannies where power stems from government-controlled media.

Sadly, more panic has erupted over how to reduce the price of gasoline than how to rescue the press from forces that threaten its devastating decline.

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