Stryker McGuire: “Lousy economics are constricting information”
18 May 09

stryker-resizeWith the media in decline, we shouldn’t assume that news journalism will survive

No one –– in particular nobody who’s paying attention to the work of Index on Censorship –– doubts the dangers inherent in the deliberate suppression of information. Journalists are killed, writs are issued, radio stations are knocked off the air, websites are blocked –– these things we know about. What we sometimes don’t fully appreciate are the accidental ways in which information flows are staunched, resulting in very real damage.

The lousy economics of the publishing industry today have probably constricted information more than all of the dastardly means above put together. Those of us who wring our hands over the death of newspapers –– a cataclysm that is much further advanced in the United States than in the United Kingdom –– tend, in our nostalgia, to focus more on the paper part of the word newspaper than the news part. So sad to be without the gentle slap of the Guardian on the doorstep, without the feel and sound of dead trees in our hands. But, we reason, the news is still there –– online or on air.

Don’t count on it. We seem to be awash in information, but we’re not, not really. If we’re looking for real news, we might drown in countless gigabytes of data, but much of what we get is recycled, repackaged and ultimately repetitive. Have a look at this interesting perspective in by one of this webzine’s founders, Gary Kamiya.

Among other things, Kamiya quotes John Carroll, a former editor of the Los Angeles Times (he resigned a few years ago in the face of cutbacks that he felt would result in a lowering of the paper’s editorial standards), who has estimated that 80 per cent of all online news originates in print. Many online editors, including Kamiya, would concede that the 80 per cent figure is low.

As newspapers die off, so too will reporting. This is the dirty secret of the crisis in journalism. For newspaper and news magazine publishers, the cost of reporting is second only to manufacturing and distribution. A one-person bureau in Baghdad, with the considerable support and infrastructure that it requires, can easily chew up $1m a year. As Kamiya points out, US newspapers lost $64.5 billion in market value last year, their worst year in history. You’ve got to eliminate a lot of bureaus and reporters –– and news –– to soften the blow of those kinds of losses.

Someday soon, we’ll begin to see detailed analyses of the cuts in reporting staffs and what it means not only for high-profile news events like Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, but low-profile ones like … well, we won’t know, will we? In the short term, bloggers and citizen journalists will take up some of the slack. In the longer term, newspapers and magazines that are now mostly on paper will have migrated to online homes, revenue from advertising and new-fangled methods of charging for content will pour in, and reporting staffs will increase in size and influence once again.

In the meantime, we all pay a price. I ran Newsweek’s London bureau for 12 years until last year, when I moved into a contributing-editor role. It was by far the largest bureau outside of the States, with a half-dozen variously recompensed journalists, support personnel and a few interns. Nine years ago, Newsweek won a prestigious award from London’s Foreign Press Association on people-smuggling networks between China and Europe. Working with me on that story were 15 reporters in a dozen countries.

Newsweek is one of the few news organisations that could then afford to mount such a reporting effort. Today that kind of reporting muscle-power would have to be the exception rather than the rule. That’s such a shame. As Kamiya writes, “A world without primary reporting will be literally less human.” Less human means fewer and fewer eyes across the world reporting back to the rest of us.

Stryker McGuire is a contributing editor at Newsweek magazine, the founding editor of International Quarterly, and an associate at Lombard Street Research, an economics consultancy in the City of London.

This article also appeared on Comment is Free