Mistakes, monopolies and the value of diversity

Last week I wrote about a recent trip to Yosemite and a quiet wildlife moment interrupted by urgent honking from another vehicle—a hurried driver rushing up from our rear. But the column read as though my husband and I had blared our horn at the deer repeatedly.No, my husband and I didn’t honk at the deer in Yosemite. We were in no hurry to see them wander off into the forest, and there were no other cars on the road at that moment.

I didn’t lose sleep over this. I hadn’t screwed up something critical like the city budget, a power plant’s megawatt potential or stock prices. Once I wrote a longish story about a heroic cop and used the wrong last name throughout the whole piece.

Mistakes happen in a deadline environment.

That’s one small reason I’d argue it’s important for a society like ours to maintain a rich, diverse media. There are other reasons—like media biases and corporate profit agendas.

Once again, the Federal Communications Commission seeks to relax bans on cross-ownership of newspapers and broadcast stations in 20 U.S. cities. What’s the big deal?

Fewer companies equal less diversity. A large newspaper company can maintain its probable monopoly on the local daily paper and, in addition, do TV. To save dough and please stockholders, reporters may do double duty for TV news and the paper. That means fewer perspectives, fewer second opinions, fewer media watchdogs.

It’s argued that this might save newspapers from ruin. That’s a flawed assumption. Though they aren’t raking in dough the way they once did, newspapers aren’t losing money. The typical newspaper with a 100,000 circulation reaps about 15.6 annual pre-tax profit. That’s triple the profit margin of Wal-Mart, reported Lowell Bergman on PBS Frontline’s News Wars. Bergman cites newspaper benchmarking reports from the International Newspaper Financial Executives.

The companion website for the PBS report, aired in February, explains that Gannett, which owns 90 U.S. papers including the Reno Gazette-Journal and USA Today, has recently enjoyed a 21.4 percent pre-tax profit margin. That’s quadruple Wal-Mart and in excess even of Exxon’s 17.9 percent profits.

That’s not enough for newspaper stockholders. Ad sales are down, and building glorious and easy-to-navigate online newspaper (like that of the RG-J) is a pricy proposition.

So the bottom-line media wizards developed a plan. At Gannett, like dozens of other media companies, veteran news folk were invited to take a hike.

“Like a drunken surgeon, the media has responded by cutting off its most important limb: journalists,” writes Sean Condon in “Journalism’s State of Emergency” in the most recent Adbusters.

See y’all later, experienced reporters.

Hello, TV news crews?

The thought of expanding media markets for companies that value immense profits over public service makes me queasy.

It’s not a left-right thing. We wouldn’t want media under the exclusive control of, say, Hugo Chavez or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. We shouldn’t want our news filtered exclusively by real estate tycoon Sam Zell or Rupert Murdoch.

Will the internet save us?

Without a rich mix of traditional journalism, bloggers will have little about which to blog. With fewer reporters, online newspapers will have little to offer beyond gushing advertorials and wire service copy.

On YouTube, a minute-long video of a laughing baby has been viewed 28 million times. Cute but not helping me vote knowledgeably in 2008.

A.J. Liebling observed, “Freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.”

We need many owners backing professional journalism that watches politicians. Dogs corporations. Makes mistakes. Rights the record.