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McChesney and Nichols: The market cannot generate sufficient journalism on its own

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Robert McChesney and John Nichols Interview (1 of 2)

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, coming to you today from Washington. And joining us now is Bob McChesney and John Nichols. They’re the authors of a new book, The Death and Life of American Journalism. Thanks for joining us.



JAY: So, Bob, you’re a professor of communications. John, you write for The Nation from Washington. But you both cofounded Free Press, and you’ve been involved in this whole issue of the death of American journalism. Now you’re making some proposals to give it a new life. So let’s start with some assumptions, ’cause we don’t have too long, and I don’t think they’re tough assumptions, which is: American journalism, in terms of its financial model, is broken; in terms of its substantive content model is pretty broken too, especially when you look at the capitulation of most of the media around the Iraq War and since. So talk just a bit about the problem, and then talk a little bit about the solutions. John, kick us off.

NICHOLS: Let me, well, outline the problem, only because, while you know it and, well, frankly, a lot of your viewers are well aware of it—’cause this is a very highly informed network; let’s be honest—a lot of Americans still don’t fully understand the scope. And it’s not because they don’t want to; it’s because the media itself does a pretty lousy job of looking at what really happened. There are certain fantasies out there. One of them is that the Internet came along and it made it really hard to do newspapers. In fact, newspapers were in steep decline well before the Internet came into play. It also isn’t the current economic turbulence that somehow made advertising revenues go down. These are not the real problems. The real problem is that early in the 1980s you saw a pattern of big companies starting to buy newspapers across the country, and they also bought radio stations after the Telecom Act in ’96. There’s a lot of consolidation, but it was in the buying of these major newsrooms, the kind of core journalism outlets and communities across this country, for huge amounts of money, hundreds of millions of dollars. And then, as the advertising revenues—it’ll continue to slowly go down, and then rather more steeply. They had a great deal of debt, very little of the kind of revenue that they had assumed they were going to get, and they’re like, “Well, how do we cut corners? How do we make our wild overspending come even? How do we keep our investors happy? Give them 30 percent profits rather than the old 6 or 7 percent the newspapers used to operate on?” Well, they started laying off journalists. And what’s happened is that in the last two years we have seen more than 1,000 newspaper employees a month in the United States lose their jobs—more than 1,000 a month, more than 30,000 over the last two years. We’ve seen 140 daily newspapers just shut—not little ones; big ones: Seattle, Denver, Albuquerque, Tucson—across this country. And we’re seeing an incredibly rapid disappearance of journalism as we have known it. And also—and this is more important, ’cause you’re right in your question—you know, we know that the old media system wasn’t doing all that good a job anyway, letting elections be stolen, letting wars happen that shouldn’t happen; but we’re also losing that infrastructure that could have been better. And that’s the really scary thing, because if it dies away, we’re not going to be without news; we’ll have news, but it will just be packaged information from very powerful people, a lot of PR, very little journalism.

JAY: Well, it’s interesting. If the demise of newspapers starts pre-Internet and pre-big-slowdown-in-ad-revenue, it’s a bit like what happened in the airlines industry, where you have a merger-takeover mania, enormous debt to fund it, and then they have to pay the consequences of that. But does that suggest that it’s not just a commercial model that’s broken, then, and it’s more this kind of neoliberal merger craziness?

MCCHESNEY: No, it doesn’t. I think that just accentuated the core problem, if it was the commercial model. One of the illusions that Americans have had over the last 100 years is that the market will give us the satisfactory quantity of journalism we need, and then we could quibble over the quality. Maybe it wasn’t that good, we needed higher professional standards. But I think now we can see that that was just a temporary period in which advertising emerged rather dramatically in the late 19th century to provide the basis for most of the revenues for journalism, news media—between 60 and 100 percent of revenues, depending on the media. But without advertising, you wouldn’t have had credible, independent news media in the United States or journalism. And now advertising is fleeing; it’s jumping ship. Its relationship to journalism was always opportunistic. It had no great interest in journalism per se. It needed to support newspapers and broadcast news to accomplish its commercial ends. Now advertisers can go elsewhere. Oftentimes they no longer even associate with any content, let alone journalism, to accomplish their goals digitally, to sell their products. And we saw last year for the first time in history The New York Times received more income from nonadvertising sources than advertising. Ten years ago that would have been unthinkable.

JAY: What would be examples of that?

MCCHESNEY: Well, the standard for newspapers for 100 years has been 65 to 85 percent revenues from advertising. So now they’re under 50. And that’s the direction everything’s going. So now we’re back to the situation that really existed in this country for the first 100 years, which is we have to face a situation where the market will not generate sufficient journalism. It simply isn’t going to happen. The money isn’t going to be there, no matter what we do. There will still be resources for journalism, there will still be some subscription money, but it’s all going to be much less than we’ve ever been accustomed to. And that accounts for, really, the disintegration of journalism right before our eyes over the last five years, an ongoing process where it’s basically being eliminated as an enterprise.

JAY: Okay. So what do you say to people like Murdoch who say, “Well, I’m just fine, Jack. The Wall Street Journal, I believe I’m going to make money out of it. I’m making money out of Fox.” And the problem is people don’t want to buy what you’re selling.

NICHOLS: Murdoch’s not just fine. One of the things about Rupert Murdoch is that he’s done very well with a lot of bluster, but if you actually look at how well some of his projects are going, they’re not doing journalism any kind of realistic way. Fox’s model, for example, wasn’t to come into a market where there was insufficient journalism and put hundreds of reporters into the field to flood the world with a bunch of journalism. Even coming from a conservative perspective that would’ve been great. I would have been delighted. That’s not what Fox does. Fox puts Sean Hannity on, puts Glenn Beck on. They don’t have journalists associated with those shows. They go on and they have bookers—they book somebody to yell at somebody else.

JAY: I think on the broadcast side that’s pretty clear. What Murdoch would argue is, on the newspaper side, Wall Street Journal, he’s saying it’s going to be a real newspaper. And maybe what we’re looking at is three or four national newspapers. And does that model not work?

NICHOLS: Here’s the problem. The Wall Street Journal, which is—Murdoch makes a very big deal about the fact that they’re doing well. They do have a decent circulation. But this is a publication that should have natural audience. Let’s just say, who would the natural audience of The Wall Street Journal be? Millionaires? They should be the readers, right? Well, America has roughly, you know, 6 to 7 million millionaires. The Wall Street Journal doesn’t have 6 to 7 million readers. On their website it says, “We’ve got 1 million people who have paid to get some of our content.” Well, that means they’re reaching, you know, one seventh of the crowd that they should. That sort of penetration in the old days of newspapering would be called a failure. This is—what Murdoch is hoping is to be the last man standing. That’s true. There’s no doubt of that. He would love to buy The New York Times. He loves newspapers. I’d give him that. But to be the last man standing, that’s not sufficient journalism for a democracy.

JAY: And even if it is the last man standing, it will be the last man standing of a few newspapers for a section of the elite to read. So [inaudible] talking about most people.

MCCHESNEY: That’s right. So it’s a vast majority of Americans who aren’t wealthy, who don’t live in major metropolitan areas. What passes for journalism in this future we’re entering very rapidly is non-journalism. It’s scorched earth. In community after community in the United States today, there are hardly any journalists at all covering the community whatsoever, whatever their political views, whatever their orientation may well be. I mean, if you go to city after city, the newspaper, if it even exists any longer, is just a thin rag with hardly any original coverage. There’s no radio journalism. There’s no television journalism. There’s no blogosphere out there covering City Hall. That’s a fantasy. It simply doesn’t exist. We have elections taking place in the United States now in community after community, where no one who lives in that community have any idea who’s on the ballot. I mean, this makes the Soviet Union look like Athenian democracy.

NICHOLS: They literally don’t know that the election’s occurring.

MCCHESNEY: Don’t even know an election’s going on. This is an absolute, total crisis. And, Paul, if we get back to the point of the advertising model dying, what we do, well, the place we should start by looking is: what did we do for the first 100 years of American history before the advertising [inaudible]

JAY: Okay. Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s talk about solutions. So please join us on The Real News Network.

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Robert McChesney is the Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Illinois. In 2008, the Utne Reader listed Robert among their “50 visionaries who are changing the world”. Robert has written and edited 17 books, and his work has been translated into 21 languages.

John Nichols is the Nation’s Washington correspondent, and the associated editor of the Capital Times in Wisconsin. John has covered seven presidential races and reported from two dozen countries. He is the author or coauthor of eight books on media and politics.