Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover of America's Newspapers.
To be sure, the idea that the media should be free of governmental control cannot be stated too often -- especially in a time when media around the world are struggling for independence. But this problem should not obscure concern about the other important separation: that between editorial content and management, dubbed in the media world as the separation between church and state.
Read All About It! The Corporate Takeover of America's Newspapers by James D. Squires illustrates this problem. Squires, the former editor of the Chicago Tribune, argues that newspaper journalism over the last 20 years has been transformed in the commercial interest. This has limited its independence from both business and government and has undermined its traditional role as upholder of democratic values in the public interest.
Until the late 1960s, Squires argues, print journalism was dominated by the old newspaper families -- the Pulitzers, Hearsts and Scrippses -- who, in Squires' rather idealistic view, upheld the idea of the press as independent from all outside influence. At the Tribune, for example, the elevator for the editorial department did not stop at the management floor. The owners obviously influenced their newspapers' voices, but these voices were so diverse that a variety of editorial opinions flourished. In this diversity, Squires argues, lay the strength of the American free press.
In the early 1970s, however, all this changed. Threatened by the popularity of television and by monopolies such as the Gannett Company, newspaper managers started to compromise their independence and, thereby, Squires suggests, their commitment to the First Amendment and to the public.
A first step by newspapers was to go public -- to sell out to investors on Wall Street, who were more interested in profit than in good journalism. A second step was to survey the newspapers' markets to see how profits could be raised. Audience profiles were created and shared with advertisers. Editorial content was matched with advertisers' desired audience profiles, and the final responsibility for newspaper content came to rest with the business executive instead of the editor. So, Squires contends, ended the separation between church and state.
This change also led to the abandonment of the commitment to the public interest. Advertisers and investors desire the high-income, well-educated readers who make newspapers profitable. Publishers therefore do not seek higher penetration into the general market -- only greater presence in the wealthiest 35 percent of the audience. That is why, Squires argues, newspaper circulation has decreased over the years, particularly in suburban, low-income areas. For example, one of the first cost-saving moves at the Tribune in 1980 was to cut service to between 25,000 and 40,000 readers outside Chicago "whose numbers had never been counted in the rate base for Chicago retailers."
Newspaper owners are reluctant to admit that they are interested in only wealthy readers. One reason is that they legitimate their activities by wrapping themselves in the flag of the First Amendment. According to Squires,
[the press claims] the right to put vending machines on public
streets and in airports, the right to sit in courtrooms, the right to
have a front-row seat at the war -- all on the basis that it is an
institution exercising people's right to know. Never does it claim
the right to such access on the basis that it is in the business of
delivering advertising information for profit. This misuse of the First Amendment is, Squires argues, where "the dirty little secret of newspapering gets really dirty." This is one of Squires's most important arguments. He explains why the U.S. press is unwilling to admit that there are negative consequences of commercialization. Newspapers, for example, may be reluctant to publish articles about poverty and social injustice because these topics do not interest wealthy audiences. Or they may be unwilling to report critically about products or methods connected to certain advertisers or owners. As Squires writes:
Imagine NBC News, with General Electric as its owner, doing tough
investigative reporting on the company's role as a defense contractor,
or its problems with environmentalists [or] Time magazine
taking on the entertainment business [since its merger with Warner
Brothers]... Advertisers can also influence the editing of a newspaper so that the advertisements for a certain product are placed on the same page as news related to that product.
The commercialization of the newspaper industry in the 1970s, Squires argues, also violated the commitment of the press to act as a check on the government. To protect their profits, newspapers sought governmental favoritism -- for example, exemption from anti-trust laws -- thus threatening the independence of the press from the government.
Obviously, Squires argues from the traditional, idealistic newspaper man's view. The idea of any governmental involvement with the press is abhorrent to him. But so is the notion of newspapers' pursuit of profits. His unwillingness to accept any developments that threaten the independence of the press makes Squires an objective observer. This impartiality, along with his ability to interweave 30 years of journalistic experience with general economic trends, makes his analysis of the last two decades of newspaper journalism entertaining as well as convincing.
Despite Squires's eloquence, his opinions are scattered and his arguments are difficult to follow at times. For instance, Squires on the one hand blames the corporate managers themselves for the transformation of newspaper journalism. In his opinion, these people have no sense of the ideals of the press. They sold themselves for profit, let themselves be trapped by Wall Street and advertisers and bought, without thinking, the info-tainment culture of television. Now, these executives are so "addicted to careerism, personal wealth and peer pressure" that they cannot digress from their chosen path.
On the other hand, Squires argues that the late 1960s witnessed a new communication environment that demanded a strategy for change. First, in Squires's words, "the rise of television reduced the number of newspapers and forced the survivors to try to appeal across a wide spectrum of readers." Second, new communication technology made traditional newspaper production costly and inefficient. Third, the monopolies, with the Gannett Company at the forefront, developed a strategy based on profitmaking and corporate interest that made it difficult for other newspaper owners to compete using traditional management techniques.
In sum, even if Squires blames individual managers for the corporate takeover of newspapers, he cannot avoid considering factors related to the industry's structure. He does not, however, explain how these different factors fit together. Nor does he propose alternative strategies for newspapers or ways in which they could have avoided the corporate encroachment.
Confusing also is the role of Allen Neuharth -- the man who built the Gannett Company from 27 small dailies with revenues of $250 million in 1963 to the 93 newspapers, satellites and billboards that earned $3.4 billion in 1992. The book implies that Neuharth represents everything that Squires dislikes: In contrast to the old newspaper patrons, Neuharth is described as being interested in profit and power for their own sake. He was the first media figure to approach Wall Street, essentially rewriting newspapers' philosophy regarding profitmaking.
Yet, Squires seems to admire Neuharth, depicting him as a "marketing genius," a strong individual who does not lack morals after all. For example, Squires points out that Neuharth made efforts to employ minorities and women in all levels of his empire. Furthermore, Squires describes Neuharth's role in the corporatization of newspapers as forced by the pressures of "two opposing forces: loyalty to journalism's traditional obligations [...] and the stark financial realities of continuing to use newspapers for that purpose." Squires even argues that the changes might have occurred with or without Neuharth and that they helped newspapers to "survive longer than they might have done otherwise." Thus, Squires seems to exempt Neuharth from the individual responsibility that he lays upon his followers. For these figures, Squires has no sympathy: These "less innovative and less courageous bureaucrats, who could not formulate their own style and tactics" created the real problem.
What, then, will happen in the future? Obviously, Squires has no hope for the so-called bean-counters, arguing that they will never "accept smaller profits in the interest of better and more traditional journalism." For Squires, traditional journalism has therefore faded away, and the corporate news media are here to stay.
Since the majority of the print media is dominated by corporate executives, the only hope for good journalism, in Squires's view, is "the resurrection and reestablishment of brand-name credibility among the electronic information sources." Squires argues that figures such as CNN founder Ted Turner and the old newspaper families such as the Sulzbergers and Grahams will uphold the commitment to good journalism. Squires implies that they may also expand their purview, lending their names to broadcast media.
The only chance for the values and traditions of a free press to survive, however, lies not in the world of media but in the world of non-profit foundations and educational institutions, according to Squires. Ironically enough, it may be the symbol of the corporate takeover, Allen Neuharth, who pioneers the way.
Neuharth has already devoted the work of his tremendously rich Freedom Forum -- formerly the Gannett Foundation -- solely to the preservation of free speech. In two years, the foundation has saved, for example, the Oakland Tribune -- the nation's largest minority-owned newspaper -- and created a center on First Amendment law at Vanderbilt University. Similar projects have been established by the Tribune Company's Robert R. McCormick Charitable Trust and the trust of the newspaper magnate John S. Knight.
Once again, Squires sets his hopes on the strong individuals who are willing to devote some of their wealth to good causes. In the old times, it was the stately newspaper patrons; today, it may be the profitmakers of Wall Street. The question is whether this will be enough. In the same way that it is comfortable to believe that a Ross Perot will fix the political system -- and interestingly, Squires served as media adviser for Perot's presidential campaign -- it is convenient to think that an Allen Neuharth will save the freedom of the press. Yet, certainly, as Squires acknowledges, the issues are too complex for such a simplistic solution.
Thus, the question remains: What can be done? James Squires has effectively raised this challenge. It is now the responsibility of those who care about the freedom of the press to respond.
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|Publication:||Journal of International Affairs|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1993|
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