Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Cost of Covering the News

Posted By on Tue, Jan 19, 2010 at 12:44 PM

As the Flyer's Chris Davis reported online last week, there is yet another round of layoffs coming to The Commercial Appeal on February 1st. My condolences to those who will feel that pain. I've been there, and even though it was 20 years ago, I still get a hot flush of anger when I think about it.

Additionally, the CA has cut the size of the paper by 10 percent, effective January 14th. Most of the cuts come from the "A" section and will effectively reduce the paper's world and national coverage.

Frankly, I don't believe the CA is losing money any longer; it's just not making enough to make Scripps management and stockholders happy. I don't think the parent company is overly concerned about the quality of news its Memphis property gives to the citizens of Memphis.

Katie Couric
  • Katie Couric

And that's the problem with current journalism in a nutshell: It's top-heavy, concerned more with profit margins and executive pay and bonuses than getting news on the street. The CA, like most American newspapers these days, is a monopoly. It has no competitor nipping at its heels, forcing it to work harder. When reporters are more worried about losing their jobs than beating the competition, everybody loses.

The Flyer? Sure, we do what we can, but we have a tiny staff and budget and we are currently not a threat to become the "paper of record." The CA, for better or worse, owns the franchise in Memphis. They're the MLGW of news — and they're slowly turning down the lights.

The same dilemma is playing out with national television networks. NBC anchor Brian Williams makes $10 million a year; Katie Couric at CBS, $15 million; Diane Sawyer at ABC, $12 million; Anderson Cooper at CNN, $10 million. The average starting salary for a reporter in television news is about $28,000 a year. Can you imagine the kind of news coverage we could get if CBS spent, say, half of Katie's salary on reporters and researchers? Which do you think would give you a better sense of the situation in Haiti: Katie Couric and her hairdresser and handlers, or 15 reporters scattered around the island?

News ratings have fallen 30 percent in the past 10 years, and the decline continues. "Star-based" news is only part of the problem, but it's significant. So what happens after this system collapses?

The future is the Internet. We all know that. At least, we all think we do. That's how those of you reading this post probably get most of your news. And it costs you no more than your monthly wireless bill, or you're getting it for free at work. But eventually, someone's going to have to pay the people who actually go out and create the content — the "news." And whoever figures out how to create fresh content and make a buck, will remake the rules of news.

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