The Price Of Journalism

My wife and I recently saw the political thriller "State of Play," which stars Russell Crowe as a grizzled reporter for the Washington Globe, a fictional newspaper that is an obvious stand-in for the Washington Post. It is a pretty good film: The twisting plot holds together through to the somewhat surprising climax and there's genuine tension throughout. The movie revolves around a congressional investigation into outsourcing international and homeland security to private contractors. The plot, however, is to some extent secondary; the movie is at its heart a paean to old-fashioned journalism. Crowe's character, Cal McAffrey, is portrayed as a throwback, a reporter who takes the time to get a story right no matter what the consequences. He's devoted to the print version of his newspaper, and he has little use for blogs and bloggers. In "State of Play," that kind of dogged journalism is under siege from owners who want a better return on their investment. Throughout the movie, there are references to the pressures the Globe is under to boost readership and financial returns. Whether one buys into the plotline of "State of Play," that much about the movie rings true. Old-fashioned journalism is under siege in the U.S. Detroit no longer has a daily newspaper. One of Seattle's dailies has closed. The San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Inquirer are under threat of closing. The New York Times lost $74 million in the first quarter of 2009. And it's not just newspapers. U.S. News & World Report is no longer a weekly print publication. Newsweek has announced plans to completely redirect its efforts away from breaking news coverage toward analysis and features. National Public Radio has laid off more than 75 people since December, close to 10% of its staff. I bring all of this up because of the news story in Monday's issue of Chemical & Engineering News on a significant workforce action at the American Chemical Society. As News Editor Bill Schulz points out, ACS has responded to the severe recession through numerous cost-cutting measures, including, now, a workforce action that reduces the total ACS staff by about 3%. The impact of these decisions on C&EN is significant. Nine members of C&EN's 57-member staff had their positions eliminated, including four reporters, one production editor, one designer, two members of the C&EN Online staff, and one support staff. In addition, the Journal News & Community Department, which generated news for a number of ACS journals, has effectively been eliminated, with 10 of 13 staff members laid off and one reassigned. That unit will adopt a different, ideally more cost-effective approach to generating news for the electronic editions of ACS journals. As I am quoted in Schulz's story, the staff reductions were painful but necessary. Advertising revenues are off sharply from C&EN's 2009 budget, and there is no indication that they will recover anytime soon. The allocation from member dues covers only paper, printing, and distribution of the editorial portion of C&EN. In whatever medium, journalism in the U.S. has for decades relied on advertising revenues. The advent of the Internet and generally free distribution of news content over it began to threaten that business model several years ago. The current recession has further eroded advertising revenues, leading to the problems now being faced by most newspapers and magazines. High-quality journalism isn't cheap. It requires dedicated reporters and editors to produce timely, accurate, and balanced stories on complex subjects such as the many facets of the chemistry enterprise. At C&EN, we remain committed to providing our readers with the same high-quality journalism you have come to expect of us. There may come a time when our reliance on advertising revenues to pay for that journalism is no longer a viable business model. If and when that time arrives, ACS members will have to decide what value they place on the journalistic product C&EN delivers each week. Thanks for reading.

Author: Rudy Baum

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5 Comments

  1. Yes, newspapers are dying. But much of that is due to their own intransigence. Daily newspapers in the US have been publishing left-leaning copy for decades and it’s finally caught up to them. We’ve come to expect this on the editorial pages, but news coverage, what you call “high quality journalism” is so slanted that it becomes distorted. It may be timely, but often it’s half-accurate, and not balanced in the least. Want to sell papers? Print news that your customers would like to read, instead of what you think we should read.

    Sadly, C&EN is not immune to this trend. After reading Rudy Baum’s unequivocal declaration of fealty to the dogma of global warming, I’ve become completely skeptical about the coverage in C&EN. Why read it, when I can predict what will be said?

  2. If being left leaning or right leaning were what determined profitability, all papers would have become right wing long ago.
    And while it is true that many news gathering services are having a hard time staying afloat, I think it is noteworthy that the aggregaters of news, such as Yahoo, are making money. Lesson of the story…aggregate news better. Online CandEN is as big as it wants to be and is no longer limited by the 2 dimensional reality of print journalism. You can have streaming video of any source of news relevant to the chemistry community and advertiser links directly focusing on that. Print journalism is on its way out but that does not mean that good journalism has to be, movies aside.

  3. If the US media was really left leanign they might have bothered raising the issue of Bush’s lies that led to the war in Iraq.
    For example, they might have contradicted Bush’s “fact” that 9-11 was planned in Iraq, but they didn’t, or they might have questioned the Bush admin claims of weapons of mass destruction, which have still not been discovered, but they didn’t. Or many other’s.

    the press in the US is far from left wing. It is centre-right in the main part – and that includes C&EN.

  4. Part of the problem is that people (myself included) are used to getting news content online for free. Even with advertising, print newspapers have to charge a subscription fee because, while advertising covers a lot of costs, it doesn’t cover all of them. Advertising fees can’t go up past the point where advertisers stop paying — but that means that free news sources online don’t have as much money available; hence the staff cuts.

    Some national newspapers (notably the Christian Science Monitor) have made the transition to online-only. It remains to be seen how well this will work for them, as they are still providing the content free.

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