When I was a reporter covering something even remotely controversial, I was inevitably accused of writing it to sell papers. No, I assured people, that wasn't the case; it might have been true back in the days when people bought their papers from streetcorner newsboys and a big murder with a screaming headline was good for a few extra sales, but not today.
I was wrong, of course. Every story added up in people's minds, leading to their decision whether to spend the $100 a year or so for a newspaper subscription. It was just a little more indirect than in the old days.
But it's becoming a lot more direct. Newspapers and TV are making more decisions based on attracting readers and viewers. And that's why the FCC's decision to allow further media consolidation is going to be a huge blow to local journalism. For years, chains have been devouring chains that already had devoured local owners, increasing the pressure to meet Wall Street profit expectations. As newspaper and TV ownership consolidates further (and becomes more and more the same) that pressure will be even more overpowering.
An editor's job these days is much more than creating a vision for the news. It's to help create new products--and sell papers to particular demographics. As Durham editor of The News & Observer for four years, and four years before that as an editor at The N&O-owned Chapel Hill News, I saw what happens when corporate ownership takes hold.
And I'm convinced that The N&O's uncritical coverage of the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq is part of the result.
Before the McClatchy chain bought the paper from the Daniels family in 1995, the paper had begun an ambitious expansion into Durham and Orange counties. The paper, under editor Frank Daniels III, also underwent a remarkable expansion in staff and technology--and improved mightily as a result.
But with the McClatchy purchase, corporate accounting took hold. Advertising people were concerned that the newspaper's penetration--the percentage of homes taking the paper-- was declining in Wake County, its home base, as the county grew. It dropped below 50 percent, and alarm bells went off.
The new publisher, Orage Quarles III, came to our office and told us our most important job was to sell papers.
The newspaper's focus became improving readership in Wake County--an increasingly conservative, Republican place. The North Raleigh News section was created. Staffing in Durham and Orange counties was reduced. Stories were discussed in terms of their appeal to Wake County readers.
The N&O is filled with talented, professional, profoundly ethical journalists. No one will ever say they were told to skew news coverage for marketing reasons. But it's clear to me that editors at The N&O, which made its reputation as a leading, liberal Southern paper under Jonathan Daniels, did not aggressively look for stories that forcefully challenged the Bush administration on Iraq because they were afraid of alienating conservative, Wake County readers.
So what does this have to do with further media consolidation? McClatchy is considered one of the least profit-oriented chains in the country, one that puts good journalism first. There are also constant rumors that, being a medium-sized media company, it is ripe for takeover by another media giant.
To invoke the popular poster boy against consolidation: Just imagine what would happen to The N&O in the hands of a Rupert Murdoch. But that's the direction things are heading.