Skip to main content

Cause of journalism’s woes? Tech changes, yes, but partisanship, too

By Carl M. Cannon
Real Clear Wire

For the American media, 2024 has been a fiasco. And it’s still only February.

Nine days into the new year, highly respected Los Angeles Times editor Kevin Merida resigned rather than tolerate another round of layoffs and the meddlesome ways of a billionaire publisher and his progressive political activist daughter. Two weeks later, California’s largest newspaper announced it was shedding 20% of its staff, including half of its Washington bureau.

Sports Illustrated was still reeling from an ethical lapse that cost its CEO his job (the magazine used AI to generate news stories under fake bylines) when management told the staff in a seven-minute Jan. 19 Zoom call of mass layoffs. Many SI journalists were terminated that day via email.

Earlier that week, new Baltimore Sun owner David D. Smith met with the apprehensive staff of his new acquisition. The meeting didn’t go well. Smith, a television executive, told the reporters and editors at the venerable 187-year-old daily that he hadn’t read the paper in years. That didn’t stop him from insulting the quality of their journalism. Nor did Smith disavow his previous critique of U.S. print journalism as being “so left-wing as to be meaningless dribble.”

Perceived bias wasn’t the problem at The Messenger. Jimmy Finkelstein, publisher of the 2023 startup, positioned his online newspaper squarely in the middle. No matter; it went belly up after less than a year, having burned through $50 million. Every employee was let go, most of them without severance, and the website went dark.

On Feb. 13, Paramount Global announced it was laying off 800 employees in its worldwide workforce. Among them were 20 CBS News journalists, including accomplished investigative reporter Catherine Herridge, who is currently fighting a First Amendment case, and Washington correspondent Christina Ruffini, a previous Edward R. Murrow Award winner. The cuts were announced two days after Paramount reaped hundreds of millions of dollars in ad revenue from the most-watched Super Bowl in history. Paramount CEO Bob Bakish, who announced the layoffs, takes down $32 million annually.

On Feb. 22, Vice Media Group abruptly announced it was shutting down its signature news operation and laying off hundreds of employees. Once touted, along with BuzzFeed, as the future of the news business – and valued at $5.7 billion as recently as 2017 – the swashbuckling liberal outlet was earning prestigious journalism honors until the very end. Two days earlier, Vice News correspondent Julia Steers and Vice producer Amel Guettatfi won a George Polk Award for their exposé on Russian mercenaries in Ukraine and Africa. By the time of the award ceremony in New York, Vice’s news division will be a memory.

It certainly is not the last such calamity lurking for the profession Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter described as “the means to a free society.”

“Publishers, brace yourselves, and I am very nervous for your future,” media consultant Matthew Scott Goldstein wrote even before the Vice bombshell. “… A potential extinction-level event is imminent for publishers.”

In The New Yorker, Clare Malone referenced a recent report documenting 2,681 lost news media jobs in 2023 alone. The cuts came at NBC News, The Washington Post, Vox Media, Yahoo, Vice News, Business Insider, Spotify, FiveThirtyEight, The Athletic, and Condé Nast, which publishes The New Yorker. Nor was The Messenger the only digital outlet to shutter its doors or stop covering news. Last spring, BuzzFeed closed its news division, laying off some 200 people. Gawker gave up the ghost a year ago. In response, CNN social media reporter Oliver Darcy wrote a blunt requiem: “The digital media revolution is over.”

The bogeymen, at least in the present moment, are digital behemoths Google and Facebook. In the early days of the Internet, search engines and social media sites drove traffic (and revenue) to news organizations’ websites. Now they regulate content, siphon off traffic, and bogart the advertising dollars. As dire as this has proven to be, an even newer technology – artificial intelligence – is the tidal wave on the near horizon.

Journalism has been under siege by technological innovation for a century. Until now, would-be usurpers were always neutralized somehow. For print – the only media available in the 18th and 19th centuries – the first onslaught came from radio. Then television. The digital revolution threatened print and broadcast.

Is the great technological leap of the last three decades simply too profound an invention to overcome? Perhaps. But the problem has not only been technology. There’s a human dimension to journalism’s precipitous decline as well.

‘I’m Running This Paper!’

A decade ago, during a trip to my native state of California, Brian Calle, the then-35-year-old editorial page editor of the Orange County Register, gave me a tour of the paper’s Santa Ana building. Although Brian was upbeat, before it was over I felt a foreboding about the future of our business.

Once the proud flagship of Freedom Newspapers (renamed Freedom Communications in 1993), the Orange County Register attained power and profitability during Southern California’s population boom after World War II. In its heyday, those papers were run by the inimitable Ohio-born Raymond C. Hoiles, and they remained in Hoiles’ family control from the mid-1930s until 2012.

By the time those newspapers were sold, the collapse of journalism’s traditional business model had hollowed out the Register, along with most American newspapers. The arrival of digital communications meant smaller news holes, decimated reporting staffs, and dwindling profits. But 12 years ago, two idealistic entrepreneurs purchased the Register and vowed to buck the prevailing winds and restore the paper to its former glory. It was an eerie precursor to what would befall The Messenger, but in the summer of 2013, Brian Calle had money to spend. After hiring me to write a Sunday column for the Register, Brian showed me the paper’s physical plant. It was like visiting a museum.

The last three decades of the 20th century were extremely profitable ones for America’s surviving newspapers. By the late 1960s, evening television news shows had killed off or seriously diminished most afternoon newspapers, rendering their morning competitors near-monopolies. The huge printing presses their owners operated might as well have been printing money. This was true at good newspapers as well as mediocre (or even lousy) ones. It didn’t matter if they remained under family ownership – or, as often happened over time, they were acquired by newspaper chains like Gannett and Knight Ridder.

At outposts that valued great journalism – The Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, and New York Times, to name three – ownership did not short-change their readers nor shirk their civic responsibility. Tremendous profits were plowed back into the newspaper. Others did the same. In California, the Los Angeles Times staffed a vast Washington bureau and far-flung foreign correspondents. The San Diego Union-Tribune, where I started in California journalism, spent unstintingly on investigative reporting. So did the San Jose Mercury News, my next port of call. The Merc also invested in two Washington correspondents of its own (I was one of them) while also paying its share of the large Knight Ridder national staff in Washington and operating foreign bureaus in Mexico City and Tokyo.

The Orange County Register, one of the most profitable suburban dailies in the nation, spent heavily too, mostly on local reporting. At its peak, the Register’s sports department alone, which staffed everything from the Super Bowl to regional high school sports, exceeded 100 reporters and editors. The space where they worked, a separate room fittingly the size of a gymnasium, was empty by the time Brian Calle showed it to me.

In its heyday, the Register was best known for its staunchly conservative editorial pages. This, too, was reflective of local sensibilities: Orange County’s far-right politics was legendary to the point of parody.

Although R.C. Hoiles didn’t object to being called conservative, or even “right-wing” (Time magazine once called him “to the right of Herod”), the truth was more nuanced. Hoiles was fiercely anti-communist, all right, and so skeptical of big government that in his “Common Ground” column he not only disparaged the New Deal, but also questioned compulsory public education.

The most apt ideological label for Hoiles, however, was “libertarian.” And the word that best described his motivations was “principled.” After Pearl Harbor was bombed in 1941, thrusting America into a two-ocean war, Hoiles was the only major publisher in California – and one of very few nationally – to openly oppose Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order forcing 120,000 Japanese immigrants and children of immigrants into internment camps. Hoiles saw this mass incarceration of innocents for what it was: racism masquerading as national security. And he crusaded against it in his paper.

Among other arguments, Hoiles insisted that FDR’s executive order was unconstitutional. He also considered it un-American. “Convicting people of disloyalty to our country without having specific evidence against them,” he wrote, “is too foreign to our way of life and too close akin to the kind of government we are fighting.”

In Washington, D.C., where I’ve worked most of my career, a sprawling and glorious monument to Franklin Roosevelt was erected a generation ago adjacent to the National Mall. There, in bronze and stone, the Democratic Party’s most beloved president is immortalized as a friend of the working man, an ally of the disabled, a lover of the environment, and a forceful wartime president who cherished peace. No mention is made of internment camps.

Some 2,600 miles away, a simple headstone at Fairhaven Memorial Park marks the spot where R.C. Hoiles is buried. In 1966, four years before he died, the Japanese American Citizens League honored him for being “the only one with the courage of his convictions.” (I don’t know whether it’s still true, because the “Greatest Generation” has all but faded away, but for many years Japanese Americans would regularly put fresh flowers on his grave.)

Recently, I heard a story about Hoiles that is even more pertinent to today’s news business. A cub reporter at his paper was writing about local merchants who’d been quietly instigating boycotts of chain stores. The anti-chain store organizers set up a meeting with Hoiles, showed him how much money they spent on running display ads in the Register, and demanded that the paper stop covering their efforts.

“You can take your advertising out of my paper,” Hoiles responded. “That’s your business. But I’m running this paper and I’ll say what is to be printed in it as long as I’m running it, and if the stories are true, and we think that they are news, they’re going to run whether you like it or not.”

Most publishers would have said something similar. Certainly, the editors at the six news organizations I worked for in the last two decades of the 20th century backed up their reporters when challenged by outside interests. But that ethos has been undermined by economic pressures and seismic upheavals in newsroom culture.

Today, news organizations as powerful as the New York Times can be bullied into changing headlines that run afoul of Twitter mobs. Newspaper unions publicly demand the silencing of colleagues who disseminate non-progressive views. Worst of all, instead of championing the First Amendment, threats and calls for boycotts against news organizations are coming from journalists seeking to quash the speech of politicians they dislike and even rival news outlets.

Resistance to this fundamentally illiberal behavior is scarce. Too few R.C. Hoileses walk among us now to defend the principle of a free and unfettered press. How did any of this happen? The short answer is that a revolution in technology changed everything. The longer answer is more intricate.

Tectonic Shift

A little over 20 years ago, I was walking in my hometown with my friend and former Baltimore Sun colleague Steve Proctor, who was then managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. We were on Frederick Street near the old Kezar Stadium, when we crossed Cole Street.

“Craig Newmark lives up there,” Steve said, pointing up the hill.

“Who is Craig Newmark?” I asked.

“He’s the guy who’s taken $50 million out of my newspaper – each year – for the last five years,” Steve replied. “And [he] doesn’t even charge for it!”

Newmark, of course, is the former IBM and Charles Schwab software engineer who founded Craigslist, America’s ubiquitous online portal for buying or selling virtually anything. Operational in 570 U.S. cities and some 70 foreign countries – and the progenitor of dozens of similar sites – Craigslist and its imitators essentially replaced newspaper classified ads. Estimates of the scope of the losses to print media vary widely but it represents a stunning transfer of wealth: tens of billions of dollars each year in the 21st century.

Web 2.0 was coming, so Craigslist itself is not to blame. Moreover, Newmark is an unselfish sort. Among the recipients of his generosity is The City University of New York’s journalism school, which bears Newmark’s name and now offers a tuition-free graduate program. Clare Malone compared it wryly to “Alfred Nobel’s impulse to fund a peace prize.” But reputational rehabilitation isn’t the issue. The real problem is this: Where are those CUNY journalism grads going to find jobs?

Gardens of Eden

A generation of journalists have come of age scarcely knowing how profitable newspapers had been historically – or even why. As Brian Calle and I ended our tour of the vast Orange County Register plant, which included seeing mothballed printing presses and the abandoned sports department, we came to an attractive marble lobby with a couple dozen walk-up windows that looked like a place where money changers would sit. It was like going back in time.

“I can’t figure out what this was,” Brian told me. “Was this once a bank?”

I smiled at the thought. In that cavernous now-empty room, a cadre of (mostly female) clerks once took dictation and payment for classifieds from customers who didn’t trust the newfangled technology (i.e., the telephone) to place their ads. It was better than any bank, though: The money flowed only one way. Newspapers were more like a mint in those days.

Disappearing classified ads are not the only crisis faced by print publications in the past two decades. “Display” ads – full-page spreads from grocery chains, automakers, and department stores – had been a golden goose for a hundred years. That lucrative revenue stream also dried to a trickle by the end of the 1990s. The reasons ranged from consolidation in the retail industry to the ability of tech companies to follow Americans around in cyberspace and pitch products to them directly on their phones and laptops.

A final body blow came in the form of cratering newspaper and magazine circulations (and, in television news, decimated audience shares). Like fighter pilots caught in a death spiral, print and broadcast news executives tried every desperate maneuver they could think of trying to stabilize their companies.

Operating under old assumptions about ad revenues, most newspapers gave away their product for free on the web – only to find that less than 10 cents of every ad dollar migrated to their online editions. As they hemorrhaged money, news organizations offered round after round of buyouts to longtime reporters, editors, and producers, painful bloodlettings that were often followed by mass layoffs anyway. Typically, the most experienced journalists were targeted first. This made short-term sense for the bottom line, as these veterans were usually the highest-paid employees, but they also had the most institutional memory. The results were inexperienced and overworked staffs that produced a conspicuously inferior product in a merciless market. Hardly a way to woo customers.

In one sense, this is a timeless story: An older technology is made obsolete by a superseding innovation. Papyrus was superior to carving on stone walls. Paper was far better than papyrus. The printing press had a remarkable historical run: 550 years from when Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Bible until 2000 when the British Library’s original copy of the Gutenberg Bible was digitized online. This is a continual process, and generally a positive one. It was a 19th-century newspaperman, Horace Greeley, who said, “Our Eden is before us, not behind us.”

Perhaps, but change is disruptive, almost by definition.

When traditional network broadcasters first began losing market share, it was cable television, not the Internet, that was the culprit. In 1980, when CNN was launched, the evening newscasts by CBS, ABC, and NBC attracted a market share of 75%. That is not a typo: Three-fourths of all Americans watching television in the hour leading into prime time were tuned to one of these signature news programs. By 1998, this share was below half. Today, the former Big Three average fewer than 20 million viewers each night – combined – in a vast nation of 330 million souls. That’s a big audience, but nothing like it was before.

Print journalists took note of all these trends, not realizing the bell would soon toll for them. Taking literally the mantra “the Internet wants to be free!” a generation of Americans came of age thinking that paying a monthly fee for a newspaper or magazine subscription was an oddity. The upshot was plummeting revenues from paid circulation – even as advertisers slashed the rates they were willing to pay – for the logical reason that their ads now reached fewer customers.

Historically, network news shows were not moneymakers. CBS chairman William Paley told his network’s journalists not to be concerned. “I have Jack Benny to make money,” Paley assured them.

This attitude changed abruptly when General Electric and other corporate conglomerates began acquiring the networks. It changed even more when cable television brought 500 channels into Americans’ living rooms. Along the way, CNN revealed the future: A national broadcast outlet with no more reach than a big city newspaper could turn a nice profit. At Fox News, Roger Ailes put this business model on steroids by consciously appealing to an ideological segment of the country.

But two can play that game, as MSNBC showed – or three, if you count CNN’s descent into hyper-partisanship during the Trump presidency. Meanwhile, millennial and Gen-Z “cord-cutters” put the cable industry itself in crisis, not excepting the decidedly nonpartisan C-SPAN. The collateral damage of all this economic turmoil was journalism’s traditional commitment to report the news “impartially, without fear or favor.”

Doing so requires a sustainable business model that turns a profit, a now-elusive quest. New inventions supplanting older ones is a dynamic as old as civilization, and certainly isn’t unique to journalism. No baby boomer is old enough to remember ice cutters or blacksmiths. The average millennial would be hard-pressed to tell you what typesetters and switchboard operators did, exactly.

To journalists whose lives have been turned upside down, these mass layoffs always felt like more than a blow to their family finances. It seemed like a grave civic loss as well. No matter what our critics think, the press was never just another profession. It was a uniquely American invention, nurtured by immigrants, mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, and successfully defended in court more than 50 years before the Bill of Rights was adopted. The First Amendment didn’t create the free press. A free press created the revolution that produced the First Amendment. Keeping it alive isn’t merely indulging nostalgia. It’s an essential element of self-government.

In other words, the decimation of this industry has profound costs to democracy. Most newspapers now have skeletal local reporting staffs assigned to cover local government, little presence in their own state capitals, and none in Washington. At a conference a few years ago celebrating the movie “Spotlight,” former Baltimore Sun journalist (and creator of “The Wire”) David Simon noted ruefully that this is the best time in American history to be a corrupt politician. Why? Because most officeholders in local, state, and federal government have nobody assigned to cover them. This is not an academic concern. Here’s one example:

In 2005, Marcus Stern, a reporter in the Copley Newspapers Washington bureau, noticed something sketchy in the financial reports filed by a Republican congressman from San Diego, the hometown of Copley’s flagship newspaper.

The House member’s name was Randall “Duke” Cunningham, a decorated U.S. Navy combat pilot who became an instructor at the Navy’s famed “Top Gun” school after serving in Vietnam and before going into politics. Apparently unwilling to live on a congressman’s salary, Cunningham wrangled a seat on the House Appropriations Committee, which he used to shake down defense contractors.

Stern learned that one such contractor had bought Cunningham’s house for $900,000 more than it was worth. The reporting he did along with San Diego-based reporter Jerry Kammer earned Copley News Service a Pulitzer Prize, one it shared with the Union-Tribune. They also collaborated on a book about the case, “The Wrong Stuff,” written primarily by George E. Condon Jr., Stern’s editor and bureau chief.

The federal investigation prompted by their reporting found that Cunningham bought a luxury boat (the “Duke-Stir”), a yacht club membership, a Rolls-Royce, and a house full of luxury items. Federal agents found his “bribe menu” complete with pricing that listed the cost to deliver a federal contract or congressional earmark. Convicted of accepting an estimated $2.4 million in his schemes, Cunningham was sentenced to eight years in federal prison.

But here’s the rub. Copley closed its Washington bureau after the 2008 presidential election. The newspaper chain was subsequently dismantled and sold. The cities it served have no reporters in Washington. Nor do the hollowed-out versions of those papers now under the control of a notorious absentee owner – a hedge fund – that is currently bleeding the newspaper dry.

What this means is that if Duke Cunningham, whom Donald Trump pardoned hours before leaving the White House, had escaped detection by Marc Stern for another couple of years, he would most likely still be in Congress, still taking bribes, still besmirching the United States government.

A more contemporary example – the 2022 campaign for an open seat in New York’s 3rd Congressional District – revealed that not all of the media’s deficiencies stem from an eroding business model. The journalism model is flawed, too. That election was won by now-infamous George Santos, who was expelled from Congress 11 months after being sworn in and who may also be headed to prison. But the local Long Island newspaper recognized him as a fake and a fabulist before the election – and wrote about it. Not just about the obvious lies in his biography, but also the financial chicanery that landed Santos in legal trouble.

The staff of the North Shore Leader, a respected weekly led by editor Grant Lally, published Santos exposés before Election Day and shopped those stories to larger New York media outlets. Inexplicably, none of them were interested. Why? The answer can be gleaned from their coverage. All the New York papers, along with NBC, ignored the ethics angle because they fell for a different storyline: Santos and Robert Zimmerman, his Democratic opponent, were both openly gay – apparently a “first” in congressional elections.

“Local journalists were paying attention,” Lally wrote later, “when the national media was focused on a narrative.”

Pick Your Poison

Some media observers question whether such local journalism will even survive. The North Shore Leader is published on Long Island’s wealthy “Gold Coast,” so it may flourish. Other papers, and communities, are not so fortunate. Forty years ago, when I began covering politics, newspaper circulation in this country was 63.3 million. It’s about 20 million today – in a nation with 100 million more people.

As recently as 2004, newspaper stocks “were still the darling of Wall Street investors, trading at a premium and delivering consistently above-average returns to shareholders,” in the words of Penelope Muse Abernathy, author of an acclaimed book on “news deserts” – cities and towns with “ghost newspapers” (or none at all). In those ensuing 20 years, however, nearly one-third of all newspapers in the country ceased publication. Most of those 2,900 papers were, as Abernathy notes, “often the sole source of reliable local news in many small and mid-sized communities.”

The once-thriving papers I worked for in my newspaper days have been gutted. The San Diego Union-Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, the Baltimore Sun previously had large news holes and huge staffs with foreign correspondents, substantial bureaus in Washington and their state capitals. Several major American cities, including New Orleans, Salt Lake City, and Pittsburgh, no longer have a daily print newspaper at all. Trying to survive as online publications puts them at the mercy of Google and Facebook, companies known for both ideological conformity and a cutthroat approach to business. The list of online outlets that soared, peaked, and crashed back to Earth keeps growing.

Is there a journalistic model that works – one that succeeds financially and still fulfills the historic and necessary function of the press? The answer depends in large part on one’s politics. In the 20th century, large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans had faith in the media. (In the early 1970s, during Richard Nixon’s first term, three-fourths of Democrats trusted the press, compared to about two-thirds of Republicans.) In the ensuing decades, Democrats have stayed about the same, but today only 14% of Republicans still trust the news.

If business success is the main consideration, the answer is equally contingent. Several approaches, many of them overlapping, are underway. They include the following:

• Using a nonprofit structure dependent on wealthy benefactors, corporate sponsors, and consumer donations.

• Finding a wealthy oligarch to buy the outlet or invest in it.

• Adopting a purely paid subscription model.

• Posting endless amounts of inexpensive “click-bait” stories or memes that drive up Internet traffic.

• Producing a blatantly partisan product.

• Trying to do it the old-fashioned way, but better.

Although there are notable exceptions, including The Wall Street Journal, the last approach isn’t usually enough. It’s what Eric Spitz and Aaron Kushner attempted unsuccessfully in Orange County and what James Finkelstein tried with The Messenger. The other approaches all have some appeal, but also serious pitfalls. As for the click-bait gambit, it might work for cat videos and celebrity gossip, but it hasn’t been a recipe for a successful news site.

The nonprofit route is enticing, but journalists have learned that donors willing to underwrite journalistic enterprises usually have political agendas – whether those benefactors are liberal or conservative.

Oligarchs who buy a property outright aren’t easy to manage, either, as the employees of the Los Angeles Times have learned. Its owner, medical industry tycoon Patrick Soon-Shiong, bought the newspaper in 2018 and vowed to keep it strong and independent for another century. Six years later, it is neither. Having failed to achieve its goals of attracting digital subscribers, the L.A. Times is hemorrhaging money. Moreover, both the publisher and his 30-year-old daughter have interfered ham-handedly in the paper’s news coverage. His daughter, who also has no journalistic experience, has second-guessed everything from local stories about criminal justice to the coverage of the war raging in the Middle East – and pressured reporters publicly. (She’s virulently anti-Israel.)

Even the subscription model, which would appear to be the most egalitarian, has proven itself susceptible to outside pressure. A stark example came Aug. 5, 2019, after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, by a white gunman who targeted Hispanics. President Trump responded to the horror with an address denouncing “racist hate.” Speaking from the White House, Trump added, “In one voice, our nation must condemn racism, bigotry, and white supremacy. These sinister ideologies must be defeated. Hate has no place in America. Hatred warps the mind, ravages the heart, and devours the soul.”

The New York Times covered the speech with a straightforward headline, “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.” This was accurate, but maddening to many Times readers who despise Trump. Among their number was a spate of Democrats seeking the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. After a mini-rebellion broke out on Twitter, the Times changed its headline to “Assailing Hate But Not Guns.”

The revised headline was also accurate, albeit with an edge. It was language that traditionally would have been atop an editorial taking Trump to task for his gun control policies – or his previous intemperate rhetoric about Latinos. That was the idea behind the Times’ capitulation. The original headline “did not contextualize Mr. Trump’s message,” the paper’s editors explained in a note to readers. This echoed the language on Twitter, including one tweet cited by the Times itself. It came from Jerry Lanson, a retired college professor.

“Headlines like this ignore the context of #Trump’s actions and past remarks, make him suddenly look presidential,” Lanson tweeted. “The Times should know better.”

Lanson is not just some random, self-appointed media critic. He’s a well-regarded former journalism professor at Emerson College and Syracuse University, where he imparted his concepts of the media’s role to future generations of reporters and editors. He and I were colleagues at the San Jose Mercury News in the late 1980s. I was in Washington by then, but we worked together in the San Jose newsroom in the aftermath of the Loma Prieta Earthquake. The staff’s coverage earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize. I remember Jerry as a conscientious editor who nurtured the careers of young journalists – one of the good guys.

He is hardly alone in believing that Donald Trump represents a threat so unique that the normal rules of journalistic engagement do not apply. But my view, the more traditional view, is that partisanship – and not any individual politician, even a demagogue – is the nemesis of honest journalism.

That’s because the slippery slope here is that once news organizations declare their allegiance (or enmity) to a political faction, where does it end? In the past eight years, we’ve learned the answer, especially at the New York Times. Partisanship inside a newsroom inevitably morphs into a reluctance to entertain countervailing ideas, an unwillingness to present counterbalancing facts or arguments, and ultimately a refusal to even grant those you disagree with a platform to air their side of the story.

This has resulted in the most discordant features of modern political discourse: journalists pushing to restrict the free press. The motivations of would-be censors range from authentic concerns about misinformation to petty jealousy and financial incentives to undercut business competitors. Whatever the rationale, agitating to demonetize rival news outlets has only one real goal: stifling diversity of expression and turning the “marketplace of ideas” into a monopoly.

I became sensitized to this dynamic because of a random hit piece the New York Times did on RealClearPolitics, which I will explore in this series’ next essay.

Vulture Capitalists

Ideologues rarely produce quality or constructive journalism – it’s not really their aim – although it can be rewarding financially. But there is one model, one company, where quality journalism is irrelevant. Making money seems to be the only goal. This model belongs in its own category, and it’s being implanted with ruthless efficiency across the country. Its formal name is MediaNews Group.

A wholly-owned subsidiary of a New York-based hedge fund named Alden Global Capital, it is the poster boy of “vulture capitalism.” It is controlled by founder Randall D. Smith and his much younger protégé, Heath Freeman, two Wall Street operators who do not give interviews (think about that for a moment) and who have exacerbated the ominous trend in which millions of Americans are left without reliable local or state news reporting.

There is some evidence they dislike being portrayed as cartoonish Hollywood villains. In their sparse public comments, they say that their austere methods are better than the alternative, which is these papers going out of business altogether. Yet the facts are that when Alden Global Capital takes over a media company – and it now controls some 200 U.S. newspapers – here’s what happens: Most of the reporters, editors, and photographers are fired or offered buyouts; the newspaper’s building and other real estate holdings are sold; the size of the paper is reduced; the price of the paper is raised; local news coverage is slashed. As it strangles the product, Alden reaps huge profits.

Patrick Soon-Shiong’s 2018 entry into the Southern California media market forestalled such a fate for the Los Angeles Times, but not for the San Diego Union-Tribune, which went to Alden in the same sale. The exact word used in an L.A. Times news story was that he “rescued” the paper from Alden’s clutches. In newsrooms across the country, Alden Global Capital is compared to the “death star” in George Lucas’ original “Star Wars” movie – a weapon capable of destroying an entire planet.

This is why some Baltimore Sun employees were initially, if nervously, hopeful when David Smith bought the paper from Alden, even though they knew that Smith was not only a conservative activist, but a TV executive whose stations are known for their “If it bleeds, it leads” sensibilities.

To use another movie reference, it may be “strictly business” for Randall Smith and Heath Freeman, but it’s exceedingly personal for the employees of the newspapers they decimate.

In the 1990s, when I covered the White House for the Sun, we had a dozen people in the Washington bureau, along with six foreign bureaus and an editorial staff in the home office of nearly 400 employees. Today, the paper has no foreign bureaus, a single Washington correspondent who works remotely or from the Capitol Hill press gallery, and a total editorial staff in Baltimore of around 100 people.

The fate of my former West Coast papers is much starker. Alden owns some 30 California newspapers, although they aren’t distinctive anymore – or even distinct, as they share editors, editorial writers, reporters, and tech support. They all look the same. The journalists who have gutted it out at these papers are heroes. But they are few in number. The Mercury News has been merged with the East Bay Times, which itself is the shrunken version of the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune. Together they have fewer than 100 editorial employees – down from 700 two decades earlier.

Just thinking about the old newsrooms is depressing. The buildings have been sold or razed. I could no longer take that tour with Brian Calle at the Orange County Register. The storied Freedom Newspapers headquarters in Santa Ana where R.C. Hoiles railed against Franklin Roosevelt’s hypocrisy in the 1940s and the editorial page defended gay marriage in 2008 was sold to Amazon. The Register rents a couple of floors in a nondescript office building in Anaheim – although most people work from home.

The San Jose Mercury News, the paper that sent me to Washington, once occupied a 312,000-square-foot plant framed by an ornate lawn on the edge of a busy freeway (better to get those delivery trucks out on the road). That campus, 750 Ridder Park Drive, housed printing presses, two newsrooms, warrens of advertising and editorial offices, a company cafeteria, and an in-house library universally known in the newspaper business as “the morgue.” A fleet of company cars was in the back, beside a wooded jogging track. The whole campus was sold and then torn down – even its address was changed – and the decimated staff moved to the 11th floor of an unnamed office building downtown.

In its place arose the gleaming modern headquarters of Supermicro Computer Inc., a global technology firm started by an entrepreneurial Taiwanese electrical engineer named Charles Liang. It builds computer servers and data storage systems, with accompanying software and tech support services.

A couple of years ago, The Washington Post reported that Supermicro had sold 30 servers to Russia, which were then used by the Kremlin to restrict Russians’ Internet access. Nobody accused Supermicro of violating any laws, but I couldn’t help but think that in the same location where the Mercury News won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing despotic corruption in the Philippines, stories which led to a peaceful revolution in that country, is now a place where machines are built that the Kremlin uses to restrict free speech.

A couple of years earlier, I went to another place I had worked as a young reporter, 350 Camino de la Reina, San Diego, the old address of the San Diego Union-Tribune. The building, which had been sold along with the newspaper, was being retrofitted. Slipping through a gap in the fence and wandering through the construction site, I felt like a disoriented time traveler caught in a dystopian alternative future. I didn’t know the half of it.

The building now houses a firm called Midland Credit Management, which is a debt-buying company. I’d never heard of it until John Oliver did a devastating takedown of the whole industry. Oliver is a comedian, as well as a social commentator. His 20-minute segment combined those two forms, along with a rather spectacular stunt (spoiler alert: he bought $15 million of debt by paying pennies on the dollar himself) and some old-fashioned investigative reporting done at the debt buyers association’s annual gathering. The portrait was so unflattering that the industry association changed its very name.

It was great television, but was it journalism? Yes, Oliver opened the curtain on an industry that obviously needs more sunlight. But he made little effort to present both sides of the story. This value is still important, maybe more now than ever.

John Oliver first came to the attention of American audiences on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart.” After a hiatus of nearly nine years, Jon Stewart is back in his old chair, if only on Monday nights. His first episode showed that Stewart’s smart, fact-based satire is both entertaining and educational. Notably, he was willing, as other liberals have not been, to raise the issue of President Biden’s age (as well as Donald Trump’s and his own).

Although various Democrats and Trump-haters whined at the Biden barbs, the show drew big ratings and strong reviews. Yet Stewart seems to know what he’s up against. The political environment is more toxic than when he took his long walkabout, the economics of both print and broadcast media more tenuous. “Welcome to ‘The Daily Show,’” he said on his second Monday night. “I’m your host, Jon Stewart, captain of this dying medium.”

Referencing the blowback he received for the first show, Stewart wryly tweaked the Washington Post’s Trump-era slogan: “I guess, as the famous saying goes, ‘Democracy Dies in Discussion.’”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics and executive editor of RealClearMedia Group. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

* * *

••• Publisher's note: A free press is critical to having well-informed voters and citizens. While some news organizations opt for paid websites or costly paywalls, The Highland County Press has maintained a free newspaper and website for the last 25 years for our community. If you would like to contribute to this service, it would be greatly appreciated. Donations may be made to: The Highland County Press, P.O. Box 849, Hillsboro, Ohio 45133. Please include "for website" on the memo line.

Add new comment

This is not for publication.
This is not for publication.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
Article comments are not posted immediately to the Web site. Each submission must be approved by the Web site editor, who may edit content for appropriateness. There may be a delay of 24-48 hours for any submission while the web site editor reviews and approves it. Note: All information on this form is required. Your telephone number and email address is for our use only, and will not be attached to your comment.