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Sharp reporting on economics of media almost gone.

The world of alternative print media has dramatically changed in recent years. Consolidation caused by the economics of scale, as well as the addiction to growth, has diminished the sharp edges and crucial opinion pieces from many alternative papers, many of which are part of business chains.

We know only too well what happened to our alternative newspaper.

The 30-year-old Rive(front Times, acquired in 1999 by the New Times chain, continues to produce some excellent investigative pieces, but the content that once engaged St. Louis readers--deeply informed and timely local stories--has largely disappeared.

The RFT used to be "must" reading for St. Louisans. No longer. It's hard to take a newspaper seriously that runs fake stories--and features content in both its print and online editions that can, at best, be described as juvenile.

The Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, AAN, lists 130 members, ranging in circulation from 8,000 (The Texas Observer) to 208,548 (L.A. Weekly).

Although having the lowest circulation, the 53-year-old, biweekly Observer has a national reputation for producing deeply informed, engaging journalism. Its circulation is based on paid subscriptions, but that's not the only thing that makes it unusual: It still believes in enterprise and investigative journalism, not pandering.

Of the 130 publications that are members of the AAN, 75 belong to companies that own at least one other media property, reports Editor & Publisher in its August edition. These 75 are owned by 25 companies, including some mainstream media companies, such as the Chicago-based Tribune Co. The biggest player is Village Voice Media, formerly New Times, which owns 16.

Village Voice Media was formed last year, after the New Times chain acquired the six Village Voice newspapers. A key factor behind the deal, Editor & Publisher reports, was New Times' desire to add important advertising markets, including New York City and Los Angeles. Before the deal, the two chains were represented by different national advertising agencies.

The deal allowed New Times to spread its formulaic brand of journalism, and, in the process, it drove off and silenced some unique and valuable voices. The crown jewel of the chain, the storied Village Voice, has gone through a succession of editors and lost or fired excellent journalists, such as Sidney Schanberg and James Ridgeway.

It's a shame, because the alternative press has served as an important check on the mainstream media, which has always had trouble reporting on its own shortcomings. With consolidation an inevitable trend, whe-ther by large or small media, the sources for key information become more limited, if they are available at all.

During Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.'s campaign to acquire Dow Jones & Co. and the Wall Street Journal, observers claim, reported every step meticulously. Will it continue that policy once Murdoch takes control?

It is not the practice of media companies to report on their economic well-being. The Public Editor Clark Hoyt of The New York Times headlined his July 22 column "Tiptoeing Around the Family Business." Clark writes, "The Times is a big story. You can read about it elsewhere." (Although Clark's criticism is valid, nevertheless, the paper has a "public editor," unlike the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which abolished its "Readers' Advocate" years ago.)

In St. Louis, one of the biggest local media stories was the proposed closing of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat in 1983. Under the Joint Operating Agency agreement between Pulitzer, the owner of the Post, and Newhouse, owner of the Globe, our two local daily papers shared business and advertising operations for many years. Only the editorial departments were separate. Neither paper ever reported details of the agreement. It fell on the alternative press, including this publication, to shed light on the JOA, including reporting details of the deal that silenced one of the city's important voices. (Roland Klose analyzed happenings exhaustively in SJR, which won the publication the 1983 National Lowell Mellett award.) Newhouse was amply rewarded for its decision to kill the Globe, getting to split Post profits for years.

That type of detailed reporting on the media, whether by alternative or mainstream media, has almost completely disappeared.

At publications in a few cities, such as the Bay Guardian in San Francisco, that information is still available. But in many others, including St. Louis, readers are kept in the dark.

Charles L. Klotzer is the editor/publisher emeritus of SJR.
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Author:Klotzer, Charles L.
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2007
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