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Non-News and Greed

In many publications, the editorial is indistinguishable from the advertising.

By PAM BERNS
    Obama has barely had a moment to breathe, but our economy is in shambles. We need help.  
    While our citizens have been crying for relief from a punishing health care system that excludes and bankrupts them, the same great minds who called universal health care “socialism” seem to treat the billion-dollar giveaways to the financial “elite” with no strings attached as free market imperatives—as if health care wasn’t.    
    Recent years of hands-off regulation created the catastrophe that we now find ourselves in. Greed has no limits. The managers who bundled worthless risky debt and renamed it AAA should be treated like the criminals that they are. This was not free market capitalism. It was fraud.   
    At a time when things are unravelling all around us, we need a free press more than ever to report independently and analyze these complicated issues. Brave journalists put their lives on the line every day to report the news.Without a well-funded press that is not tainted with corporate and political propaganda, our economy would collapse, selfish management would mow down environmental safeguards, and we’d never be able to find our way again.   
    But you wouldn’t guess that if you listen to the buzz everyday citing the financial woes of our current media. There are massive layoffs at nearly every newspaper and magazine. Everyone blames the revenue shift to the internet. But that’s not the only problem. As Advertising Age reports, the successful HuffingtonPost.com only generated $302,000 in revenue between January and August last year. That doesn’t pay for many salaries.           
    The largest single expense for most magazine and newspaper publishers is staffing. The next is printing. Most publishers find that the cost of every item on the expense side has also risen, especially paper. So it follows that when times are tight, newspapers and magazines are forced to look at their largest cost, the journalist. Chicago used to be a city with eight dailies. Recently, we have seen our city’s last two papers—the Chicago Sun-Times and the Chicago Tribune—face tough times.    
    Ironically, the Sun-Times was known by many as the liberal voice of the working class in the 1970s after the notable daily, the Chicago Daily News, folded. In those days, Mike Royko was a must-read. In its heyday in 1978, the paper’s undercover reporters even operated a tavern called the Mirage, where its reporters caught city officials accepting bribes. Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times in 1984. In 1993, Murdoch sold the paper to Hollinger International, now renamed the Sun-Times Media Group after scandals involving Hollinger’s chief executive. Today, after dozens of layoffs, the Sun-Times reaches a daily circulation of approximately 313,000 and 256,000 on weekends and reported losses in the seven figures last quarter. Our other city newspaper, the Chicago Tribune, is the 8th largest newspaper in America with a daily circulation of around 516,000 and 899,000 on weekends. Established in 1847, the paper was known to be a conservative-leaning publication and a supporter of temperance, limited government and free markets. Yet, in 1974, the Tribune published 44 pages of the complete Watergate tapes and followed by calling for President Richard Nixon’s resignation. More surprisingly, the Republican-leaning Tribune endorsed Barack Obama for president. In 2007, the paper announced a buy-out plan and a new chairman, real estate magnate Sam Zell. What followed was a cut of 80 newsroom jobs and a “to go” redesign, which included huge headlines, oversized photographs and a reduction in the amount of editorial as well as a 50 percent increase in its newsstand price. Last December, the Tribune’s parent company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, citing more than 8 billion dollars of debt.       
    Who assumed that taking the news out of a newspaper is what the public wants? There is so little for the reader in what has become a flyer with a bunch of ads. Does media exist merely to create profits? Where is the soul of the newspaper?    
    If you take a look at the current local media options, you will see that there are very few independent publishers left. Many of the publications in the Chicago area are actually parts of much larger national publishing groups. There are also the multi-magazine companies that own a great big piece of the publishing pie in the Chicago area. One company, Modern Luxury, runs five different magazines in this city, plus many in other cities. The Pioneer Press owns North Shore Magazine, which is part of the Sun-Times Media Group, which has also recently folded many of their suburban newspapers. Chicago Magazine is owned by the Chicago Tribune Company, along with two more Chicago-area magazines. Many of these multi-publication magazine companies bundle advertising together, aiming to squeeze out competitors.    
    Others offer their readers an editorial product aimed to please the advertiser. In many publications, the editorial is indistinguishable from the advertising. But what few talk about is the sell-out of editorial to the highest bidder (i.e., the company who spends the most on advertising).       
    In fact, numerous magazines in our city promise the advertiser an article on themselves if they run ads. They actually promise these “editorial features” in their advertising contracts. I’m not kidding. Some of these publications even let the advertiser write the article on themselves for publication. If you follow this track to its logical end, you will see that it may get too financially risky to their bottom line to print the truth. If the press can be compromised in this way, don’t readers eventually feel duped? You should.    
    Any publisher who abuses his or her ethics like this should not consider himself or herself a member of a free press.They surrendered their right to claim that label and responsibility.    Many of our city’s publishers have lost their way. The poor image of the journalist today is not a reflection of the ethics of the journalist. It is a result of greed that is rampant today. Or financial desperation. Magazines selling editorial, cheating advertisers on circulation and the taking the news out of the newspapers are but a tip of the media iceberg. Are we merely consumers? Or are we truthseekers?   
    Look at your nightly “news” on television. Much of the footage of the news is actually shot by the public relations departments in companies that expect coverage of their “non-news” items labeled as “news.” Lazy television executives find that using this footage is cheaper than actually paying journalists and photographers to cover real news. Without paying experienced professional journalists and photographers, we will be left to getting our information through PR companies (who get paid when their clients are covered). That’s not good enough. An informed public deserves better.

Published: February 07, 2009
Issue: February 2009 Design Issue