What’s happening to the news?

Kai Ryssdal Feb 27, 2007

What’s happening to the news?

Kai Ryssdal Feb 27, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: There might be a glimmer of hope for the troubled Tribune Company. Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell is reportedly interested in buying the publisher of the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times and nine other newspapers. Tribune owns the Chicago Cubs, too, if you’re a baseball fan.

The company had put itself up for sale amid falling profits and a nasty fight with some of its shareholders. No word on Zell’s possible offer price. But Tribune might be thankful just to get a viable offer.

In a PBS Frontline documentary airing tonight, correspondent Lowell Bergman looks at the economics of the news business. And I asked him how the Internet has changed journalism.

LOWELL BERGMAN: The quantity has increased, but not the quality. It’s still an open question who produces the best quality information. The difficulty is here that real in-depth news is in danger, because the economics for supporting that kind of gathering of news is deteriorating.

RYSSDAL: There’s a disconnect, though, somewhere between . . . between people who are looking for the profit and people who are doing . . . journalism. If you look — and you do in this series — at the Los Angeles Times and newspapers, newspapers typically make as much as 20 percent profit. Isn’t there sort of a greed factor that happens here when that’s not enough for some of the people who are investing in these organizations?

BERGMAN: Well let me give you a little history lesson. Newspapers were making 40, 50 and 60 percent profits 20, 30 years ago. That’s one of the reasons when they went public and started selling their shares that Wall Street was so interested in them. Part of what’s going on here is a disappointment in the investment community is they see the level of super-profits that the newspaper industry once had shrinking so that they’re heading to the red. That’s part of what’s going on here, that Wall Street is disappointed and no longer sees a value in newspapers. The other side of the coin, however, is that newspapers have this . . . a unique public interest function. And I think we need to recognize that in and of itself and do something as a society to preserve it.

RYSSDAL: What about a free-market argument? That if the newspapers can’t keep up in a cut-throat, competitive environment, maybe we just let them wither and something better will come along?

BERGMAN: Newspapers haven’t been profitable over the last half century in a free-market environment. They’ve been given an anti-trust exemption so they could be major metropolitan newspapers with no competitors in most marketplaces. That’s a government, if you will, perk. The circumstances around that have changed. Newspapers, by the way, are in the constitution of the United States. Not just, as most people think, in the First Amendment. But the whole post office, its creation in the constitution, came because Benjamin Franklin and others wanted to have the . . . basically the free distribution of newspapers. So from its origins, newspapers have had various government guarantees because of its public service role.

RYSSDAL: Well with the web ascendent and newspapers and arguably broadcast on the decline, what winds up going away as these models change?

BERGMAN: Almost everyone agreed, that we interviewed on all sides of the question: we’re gonna lose some newspapers. We’re gonna lose some news organizations. We’re gonna lose some in-depth reporting, some investigative reporting. At some point, there will be a bottoming out. Possibly it will become a situation where you have to pay for quality news on the web. It may have significant effects on what kind of free information is available to the great majority of people who don’t want to do that or pay for it. So how this all plays out in the end is still an open question.

RYSSDAL: You and I obviously have personal and professional interests in the strength and character of journalism. How do you make other people care, though?

BERGMAN: Well part of the reason we did this series was to point out what some of the problems have been. Both in the issues like confidential sources and National Security reporting and now part of what I would call a “perfect storm.” This kind of struggle with U.S. government that’s been going on has happened in the past, as it did 35 years ago. The Pentagon Papers, the

Brandsburg case, the Watergate situation. All of that together created a situation of conflict with the government of the United States and . . . almost unprecedented in our history. But it came at a time when the broadcast news industry and the newspaper industry were both becoming extremely profitable and powerful. Where the economic base was there. Where they could resist the government, pay for the lawyers, do the kinds of things that they needed to do to expand their influence and protect their journalists. And that doesn’t exist today.

RYSSDAL: Lowell Bergman is the correspondent for the latest offering from Frontline. It’s called News War. Check your local listings, as they say. Mr. Bergman, thanks a lot for your time.

BERGMAN: Thanks for your time.

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