CJRColumbia Journalism Review

July/August 1998 | Contents

Cover Stories/Values
Money Lust
How Pressure for Profit Is Perverting Journalism

by Neil Hickey
Hickey is CJR's editor at large. Additional reporting for this article was provided by David Cudaback, former editor of Institutional Investor.

brenda starr Some random testimony from the far-flung precincts of journalism:

"If a story needs a real investment of time and money, we don't do it anymore." The speaker is a forty-something reporter on a mid-sized Illinois daily. "In assignment meetings, we dream up 'talker' stories, stuff that will attract attention and get us talked about, tidbits for busy folks who clip items from the paper and stick them on the fridge." He adds ruefully: "Who the hell cares about corruption in city government, anyway, much less dying Bosnians?"

* A prominent network television newsman complains: "Instead of racing out of the newsroom with a camera crew when an important story breaks, we're more likely now to stay at our desks and work the phones, rewrite the wire copy, hire a local crew and a free-lance producer to get pictures at the scene, then dig out some file footage, maps, or still photos for the anchor to talk in front of, or maybe buy some coverage from a video news service like Reuters, AP, or World Television News. If we had our own correspondent and camera covering the story, we'd damned sure get something nobody else had, and be proud of it. But everything now is dollars and cents. When you're worried about how much it's going to cost, and you have to justify your decisions to your bosses, people are less willing to take risks. The journalism that gets on our air just isn't good enough, and it's a damned shame."

* A radio news director laments that his big-city station is cutting its news staff to the bone, virtually eliminating local news, and grabbing national news from a satellite-delivered network feed. "That immediately shows a big gain in cash flow, so the owner can sell the station for a huge profit to one of the big chains, whose owners care nothing about public service to this community. One more journalistic voice is being killed off in the pursuit of profits. It's very sad."

* The editor of a profitable national magazine who's been ordered to reduce his budget 10 percent a year says: "OK, the first year I'll cut stuff I probably should have cut earlier anyway. Next year I'll have to reduce the number of editorial pages in every issue. In the third year, for damned sure, it's got to be people that will have to go: editors, writers, fact-checkers, art department staff. Then I'll hit a wall. Sooner or later I will have so cheapened the product that it will just go out of business. That's simple arithmetic."

A new era has dawned in American journalism. A New York Times editor describes its hallmark: "A massively increased sensitivity to all things financial." As competition grows ever more ferocious; as the audience continues to drift away from traditional news sources, both print and television; as the public's confidence in news organizations and news people continues to decline; as mainstream print and TV news outlets purvey more "life-style" stories, trivia, scandal, celebrity gossip, sensational crime, sex in high places, and tabloidism at the expense of serious news in a cynical effort to maximize readership and viewership; as editors collude ever more willingly with marketers, promotion "experts," and advertisers, thus ceding a portion of their sacred editorial trust; as editors shrink from tough coverage of major advertisers lest they jeopardize ad revenue; as news holes grow smaller in column inches to cosmeticize the bottom line; as news executives cut muscle and sinew from budgets to satisfy their corporate overseers' demands for higher profit margins each year; as top managers fail to reinvest profits in staff training, investigative reports, salaries, plant, and equipment -- then the broadly-felt consequence of those factors and many others, collectively, is a diminished and deracinated journalism of a sort that hasn't been seen in this country until now and which, if it persists, will be a fatal erosion of the ancient bond between journalists and the public.

"It's the biggest story in American journalism," says Ray Cave, former managing editor of Time. Regrettably, it's also the least reported story in American journalism.

Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of The Oregonian of Portland and former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, told the ASNE convention in April that reporters "wonder whether their editors have sold out journalistic values for business ones. They long for the inspiration provided by leaders with abiding passion for the gritty world of journalism." She added that in some companies, "the talk has shifted to financial and marketing imperatives to such an extent that journalists have concluded their owners are blindly driven by Wall Street, and unconcerned about the quality of journalism."

In March, Los Angeles Times media reporter David Shaw wrote that while newspaper readership has been on the skids for more than thirty years and competition from cable TV news, the Internet, and magazines is on the rise, "stockholders and stock analysts have been demanding newspaper profit margins equal to -- and in some cases greater than -- those generated in earlier, less turbulent times."

Television's corporate chieftains, says Walter Cronkite, show little understanding of "the responsibilities of being news disseminators." They expect the news departments to generate the same sort of profits that entertainment programs do -- an impossible task. The newspaper business isn't much different, he says. "Stockholders in publicly held newspaper chains are expecting returns similar to those they'd get by investing in industrial enterprises."

The "tabloidization" of TV newsmagazines is strictly geared to ratings and profits. "A major tragedy of the moment," Cronkite maintains, is the use TV newsmagazines are making of the valuable prime time they occupy. "Instead of offering tough documentaries and background on the issues that so deeply affect all of us, they're turning those programs into television copies of Photoplay magazine." News executives know better, Cronkite says, and are "uncomfortable" with what they're doing. "But they are helpless when top management demands an increase in ratings to protect profits."

News chiefs themselves perceive that the press is perilously compromising quality in pursuit of gain. Nearly half the nation's editorial and business-side executives surveyed in a January Editor & Publisher poll think press coverage in general is shallow and inadequate, and fully two-thirds say newspapers concentrate more on personalities than important issues. J. Stewart Bryan III, c.e.o. of Media General, Inc., and publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, told E&P that serious news is being sacrificed to profits as papers reduce news holes and produce softer stories. Said he: "I don't think we can put the bottom line ahead of our commitment to quality."

Journalistic values haven't completely disappeared, says Kurt Andersen, columnist for The New Yorker and former editor of New York magazine. "But they've been significantly subordinated to the general ascendancy of market factors, especially the maximizing of short-term profit." Magazine editors, he points out, "are much more explicitly responsible for business success than in the past. I'm not saying it's black and white; some of that has always been there. It was light gray, now it's dark gray."

Even Brenda Starr, the comic strip reporter, has gotten into the act. She lamented: "Sometimes I think newspapers care more about profits than they do about people."