Why Media Executives Keep Failing | Talking Points Memo

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

I forget the exact date, but sometime during my time as a student at Ohio University, I stumbled across this 2008 blog post listing gross profit margins of Gannett-owned newspapers and lost my mind.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://talkingpointsmemo.com/?p=1265499
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Newspapers have failed because who in the hell wants to make a point of stopping to buy one, or have one delivered to your home? And it’s fricking dead trees. You have to hold them, and turn the damned pages.

Most importantly it’s yesterday’s news, today.

Here, have a cheeseburger. Hot off the grill. Yesterday.

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This proposition around the trouble with journalism can just as easily (and effectively) be applied to higher education, or any knowledge industry which is being swallowed by the “free market” – where the assumption is the production of capital goods, rather than the enrichment of common human understanding and improvement.

The application of US capitalist market practice, of Friedmanism and the rise of the MBA as expert in anything (as opposed to expert in small-b “business”) creates by its very nature dysfunction in areas where the market in question does not produce ordinary goods, but instead produces basics of human well-being. Hence our troubles with education; with journalism as a tool to inform rather than advertise; with health care; and indeed with housing. To one degree or another, in each of these areas, we do what is described here as happening to the dying landscape of journalism.

I don’t have an answer to this problem (if I did or thought I did, maybe I’d be in politics). But overlooking it as a part of the larger challenges we face in these areas is something we cannot afford. Glad to see it being discussed here.

That is all. Back to my coffee.

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I lay much of the issue with any enterprise to the late 70s early 80s when boards decided they needed contract bean counters as CEO etc. Those folks then took the position that everything must have an assigned value. Corporate knowledge and the people holding that knowledge are hard to value. Thus off shore, right size the workforce. Soon real meat is cut and the firm takes a nose dive
The beam counter being on contract does not care as they get paid no matter what. They also usually negotiated a golden para when they leave.

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Yes, you put your finger on it. Newspapers especially, have learned that a model with minimum staff, news off the wire with printing contracted out makes for a profitable “product”.
Wealthy families will own several and all they care about is the sacrosanct, good old “bottom line”. I’ve seen it with a bunch of suburban papers in So Calif. They might have one reporter/photog on staff for local – and very brief – local stories. 14 years ago I made a little extra retirement income doing feature stories for a suburban newspaper group. My editor loved my work. They fired him and almost all reporters. Replaced freelancers like me with housewives who worked for a byline. “Good enough” became the standard.
That’s the world we’re in now and it ain’t going back.

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I’ve long thought it peculiar that news outlets had executives who were not journalists themselves. Journalism is a trade. When I look around at the carpenters or stone workers or lawyers I knew growing up, the tradesmen ran their own companies. They didn’t hire MBAs to come in and run their plumbing operation. I could understand how newspapers and other media had become so large it would require specially trained journalists to manage operations and finance and those sorts of things.

Journalists have a fancy name and access to the public. They also have a singular feeling of self importance. The author doesn’t cry over the loss of pressman jobs, or the loss of jobs in newspaper mail rooms, or all the linotype operators and printers who lost their jobs as technology changed.

The one group of tradesmen in any 1980s newspaper that didn’t face an existential threat to their very jobs were the pampered journalists. Their skills never went out of style. The issue was always how they were going to be funded. It took a couple of decades but the MBAs in front offices across America found ways to use journalists and keep them employed.

I don’t grieve for the dozens of journalists at every newspaper across the country who had to adjust to changing technology, I grieve for the hundreds of other skilled tradesmen at those same newspapers who lost their good union jobs. Those jobs aren’t coming back.

I also grieve for the caged birds that don’t have newsprint to poop on but have to settle for slick magazines.

The computer revolution of the last decades caused major disruptions in a lot of industries. Journalism is one of them. At least journalists have skills that aren’t being automated out of existence. The skilled tradesmen whose jobs will never return, and their families, are the people we need to worry about.

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And when management thought leaders saw good companies succeed despite (not due to) MBA executives, they drew the wrong lessons from it. Later, the hedge fund guys put slash’n’save outsiders in charge of all kinds of companies, losing a lot of their skill base for short-term profitability. In newspapers that cost has been ruinous.

And we in the USA seem to have developed our own oligarchs gathering media power for their own ends.

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“Capitalism is about returns. It’s not about making the best journalism. It’s not about making the best phone. It’s not about making the best anything. To the extent good products come from capitalism, the goodness of those products is secondary to the pursuit of profit.”

It’s the nature of the beast: accumulation of capital is the underlying dynamic and its reason for being. Capitalism in its various forms has always been that way and always will. There’s no such thing as “public good” capitalism except in the illusions and propaganda of capitalism’s ideologues, liberal and conservative, trying to hoodwink the masses. Capital itself will go where its owners think the getting is best, even national interests aside. Which is the underlying basis of “globalism” and why so many companies thumb their noses at the U.S. government, for example. And we’re well over one hundred years into the era of monopolies, where the notion of a free market is nothing but an illusion fed by the system’s ideologues. Consolidation is one of capital’s central tendencies, limited by capitalists’ own felt need to maintain their system and appease opposition.

If you don’t like the way capitalism works, in the news business or anywhere else, then the inly choice is to overthrow it. There’s plenty of literature and experience, good and not so good, about that. The irony of executive publisher Ragazzo’s commentary is that TPM was founded and is run by a staunch defender of American capitalist-imperialism, one who as I recall identifies historically with the U.S. government’s post-WWII efforts to defeat the spread of socialism and undermine the strength of a militant labor movement internationally by coopting and bribing its leaders, and witch-hunting and worse those that wouldn’t go along. The Civil Rights/Black Power and Anti-Vietnam War movements notwithstanding, seventy years in we still live with the results of that effort.

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I don’t know, couldn’t it be reined in a bit by mandating that profit taking be directly related to workers’ pay (or some other index—I’m not an economist)?

Such laws could be designed to sunset every ten years and reassessed (to measure economic impact on the industry and on the employees.)

The US has been very short-sighted about this, almost lazy about it, in fact.

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There was also widespread shuttering of radio news operations.

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My local paper got to the point that its articles were all news releases published verbatim. If you wanted something in the paper you had to write your own piece. It ended up that it would only take me 3-5 minutes to “read” the paper. We cancelled when our subscription ended.

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I generally agree with Ragazzo, to the extent that I already had opinions on the topics he touches. The rest of what he says also makes sense.

It seems to me that this is a critical challenge:

Ordinarily, an industry that was critical to the public but was not economically sustainable would be the province of state intervention, like a utility. But of course, the very nature of journalism — which is often adversarial to any institution with power — makes basing the entire infrastructure on government support impractical.

I think we’re overlooking the possibility that there are ways for government to fund vital activities while also ensuring independence, e.g.: the Fed, Planned Parenthood, CPB / PBS. Which is not to suggest any of those is perfect (I’m sure there are more, better examples), but I think it’s hasty to assume that there can never be an adequate arrangement.

If nothing else, a massive, independently administered grant program could do a lot. This isn’t a hard problem, intrinsically. But, like all problems great and small, it is near-impossible to deal with under the twin burdens of a thoroughly corrupted political party (the GOP) and right-wing disinformation. And the existence of BS factories like Fox gives the industry a bad name. (I can’t believe people take those jobs.)

ETA: pieces like this make me consider upping my subscription. I see TPM as a kind of National Review for the modern left, and these Café pieces fit with that nicely. More, please.

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The capitalism thing is not new; my Mom was an English major and worked in publishing, but in the 70s she took a journalism course and on the 1st day the 1st socratic question was ‘what is the purpose of newspapers/journalism’ and eventually the professor’s answer was ‘to make money’.

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Karl Marx, a journalist, described capital’s alienation from product and firm compared to proprietorship (after Smith’s discussion of rents) over 150 years ago. Previous to, and unlike purported economist Friedman, he did not view pursuit of profit and earnings on shares as an efficiency or strength, but rather as its seeds for universal destruction of businesses, families, societies, governments, and the economic practice itself. But thanks to “economists” like Friedman, and malefactors such as Lewis Powell and Ronald Reagan, any curb on the capitalist autophagy is viewed as an impediment to industrial efficiency. Friedman, Hayek, Laffer and the other academic charlatans need to be exposed and castigated as amoral parasites.

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Your local paper is the model for these suburban dailies all over the country. Ours is bleeding circulation.

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“…academic charlatans need to be exposed and castigated as amoral parasites…”

Check out “Shock Doctrine” by Naomi Wolf.

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Naomi Klein? I like them both. I’ll check it out, thanks.

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I tried to stick with it but the paper had been rendered useless. There was literally no point in continuing.

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I believe that you are missing a big part of the problem here.

While there is no doubt that finance types do a horrible job of running businesses, witness Bill Agee and Bendix and Morrison Knudson, this is only a part of the problem.

The other problem is that THEY DO NOT BELIEVE IN JOURNALISM AS A BUSINESS, and so see the future as being extracting all possible remaining value.

If you do not believe that journalism can generate sustainable profits, the only alternative is to suck the marrow out of the enterprise for a quick buck.

I worked at a locomotive manufacturer in the early to mid 1990s, and the railroad industry was just recovering from this mindset, and so was recapitalizing.

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Journalism is much more than the author believes. It involves a lot of people who didn’t go to journalism school. My father, who was an officer at a major daily newspaper, used to say that reporters don’t have a clue how much goes on behind the scenes to make sure they are paid.

Technology has changed. Journalism hasn’t. A lot of the “little” people lost their jobs with the changing technology. The members of the media herd are still chasing each other from story to story and feeling self important and abused, from coffee shop meeting to coffee shop meeting.