The death of American journalism


So, here’s what we’ve come to: Donald Drumpf’s penis size is all over the news this morning, but Bernie Sanders, who’s talking about real issues, real problems and real solutions, can barely get the time of day.

I get it; penises sell. Everyone’s interested in the discussion about penises.

A responsible Fourth Estate, however, would walk away from the circus and talk about income inequality, systemic racism, the lack of access to health care, the ravaging of our public education system, endless wars, the rampant destruction of the natural world, climate change, poisons in our food and water, voter suppression …

You get the gist.

What we get instead is the distraction, what my late son used to call “sparkly issues.”

“Ooooh, look over here. The leading Republican candidate is talking about the size of his penis. Sparkly!”

I worked in newspapers for 30 years before I volunteered to be laid off so I could pursue a life of activism after the death of my son. I’m deeply grateful I left when I did.

I was fortunate to be a reporter at a time when news stories might shame state and local officials to do the right thing. Stories my colleagues and I wrote helped to change state policies.

But those stories took time to research and write, and they weren’t sexy. It was my job to explain complex government policies and how they affected real people. My colleagues and I were given the time it took to do the research and write the stories.

Today, my former colleagues work harder than ever, but they aren’t often given the time for investigative journalism. Corporate overlords have cut newsroom staffs to the bone and then some. Older reporters who remember what it was like to write about corruption or bad policy are overloaded with work. They can be disciplined for not having enough bylines. Story count means more than content.

Too often, today’s journalists aren’t encouraged to tackle the issues; they’re asked to contribute to the drivel that distracts people from the real issues. I have some very frustrated friends in the business, and none of this is their fault.

When I criticize the corporate media, I am in no way blaming the front-line people for what has happened.

The decisions about what will be at the top of the news don’t rest with reporters, or even most of the editors who work with them. Much of it comes from the corner offices in the form of kudos for the number of page views online and demands for more of the same.

My former company, Gannett, is in no small part responsible for this mess. Newspapers aren’t dying; they are being suffocated. Gannett demands obscene profit margins, and when the profits aren’t big enough, the company boots a few more reporters and copy editors to the curb. Employees may be loyal, but the company most certainly is not.

News became a product, not a mission, and that’s what is killing newspapers.

So, my former colleagues work in a pressure cooker, where they face increasing demands, minuscule raises that don’t keep up with inflation and the constant threat of unemployment, no matter how good they are.

Most reporters are still trying to do good work, and some have left corporate media to pursue good journalism.

Here in Asheville, we have Carolina Public Press, a nonprofit headed by a former Gannett reporter, and The Asheville Blade, a one-person operation covering local government and issues. We have some great bloggers who are as likely to break stories as the local paper or TV or radio stations.

This well may be the future of journalism, but it has a lot of noise trying to drown it out, and the rise of Donald Trump and the coverage of his penis size is sad proof that we may not return to civilized, responsible journalism any time soon.




Let’s talk about women’s health and “balanced” reporting

femcareAs a reporter, I was always careful to tell both sides of a story, unless the “other side” was a lie — i.e. tobacco is safe, the world is flat or the free market can handle health care without any regulation whatsoever.

It was particularly important when dealing with controversial issues like abortion. I bent over backwards to be fair because although I am pro-choice, I chose not to have an abortion when I was advised to have one. There might have been a circumstance under which I would have chosen to end a pregnancy, but I didn’t encounter it.

I will not, however, condemn any woman who chooses an abortion because I am not in her shoes. According to the law of the land, she has a right to make that choice, with choice being the operative word here.

This week, the only clinic in the state that was eligible to perform safe, legal abortions was shut down by the state, just after the governor signed a law that will close the other 15 clinics.

The thing is, this isn’t just about abortion. These clinics aren’t abortion factories; they provide affordable care to women who are uninsured. I know because I got my primary care at an “abortion clinic” for several years when I didn’t have insurance and I never had an abortion. I’m not the only person who realizes how important these women’s clinics are for women’s overall health.

Women’s clinics also do well-women care such as cancer screenings. Many also have obstetricians who offer affordable care through pregnancy and childbirth. When you close down women’s clinics, you close down women’s access to health care. A lot of people are aware of this, and I would expect newspaper reporters to be among them.

However, when I opened my newspaper this morning, I might have thought I was the only one who knows about the diversity of services offered at women’s clinics and the importance of having them in the community. The front-page headline stated that the “abortion clinic closure” was “praised.”

Perhaps the closure was praised by people who oppose abortion under any circumstance, but the issue here is also access to affordable care, cancer screenings, contraception and other medications.

The problem here is that there is precious little help for women now. A woman of childbearing age (which I no longer am) has a right to decide when and if she will have a child. That’s pretty simple if she has effective contraception, but now that Femcare is closed, that makes affordable contraception more difficult to get. And the very people who deny women access to abortion also want to deny them access to contraception. Then, when the inevitable happens and a baby is born, these same people complain that poor women keep “pumping out” babies.

No matter what, they want to lay the blame on women — not on the men who impregnate them, not on a society that punishes people for being poor, but on women, often because we’re seen as sinful. Eve committed the first sin, after all. That’s what I was taught growing up.

So now, a group of old white men in Raleigh has decided that women can’t have access to abortion and the newspaper reporter can’t find a single person to say it’s not a good thing? No one is available to say women need the services this clinic provided?

I find that hard to believe.


He really said it

From Scrutiny Hooligans

Note: I deleted a paragraph in this post because it was based on a private conversation Moffitt and I had some time ago. He asked that I remove it, and since it was based on a private conversation, I did so.

In a meeting this morning, I got a chance to read yet another lengthy newspaper profile on Rep. Tim Moffitt, my representative in Raleigh.

This one, in the Biltmore Beacon, was a little less flattering than the one that ran in the daily paper here 10 days ago, and I believe it’s more of a true portrait of this arrogant, petulant man.

First off, he tells a gathering of supporters, “… The newspaper is good to spread out for a low-country boil, but that’s about it.”

Really, Tim? The daily newspaper gave you a pretty glowing two-and-a-half -page profile. It hardly challenged anything you said, and when it did, it was buried close to the end of the story.

In talking about trying to get speed bumps installed on a road in the subdivision where he lives, Moffitt said he called the NC Department of Transportation, which was insisting on rumble sticks to slow traffic.

“The problem on that road is speeding,” Moffitt told the gathering. “I said, ‘Don’t you know who I am? I want speed bumps!’ They told me they knew who I was but they didn’t want speed bumps.”

The rumble sticks were installed.

Moffitt claimed the state budget “was widely praised by educators,” but I have my doubts about that since it has resulted in the layoffs of thousands of teachers and teacher assistants in the state. I’d like to talk to the educators who are happy with the budget; I suspect they’re with for-profit charter schools.

“We have funded education appropriately,” Moffitt said. “I feel good about that.”

In response to a question about drug testing people who need government assistance, Moffitt replied, “We’ve created a segment of society who are far too dependent on government.”

So the wealthy, who are getting wealthier, don’t want to help the people whose jobs have been shipped overseas, or those who are devastated by the housing bubble burst, or people who can’t get health care, or those who are homeless because they can’t get treatment for mental illnesses.

The vast majority of people who need help from the government would rather be able to earn it at a decent-paying job, and most of them don’t use drugs (as the results in Florida are showing).

When I told him about the death of my son because he couldn’t get care, Moffitt told me he has a chronic condition, and he was able to get medical tests without health insurance. He just paid for the procedure in installments.

I told him that my son was denied that. He was told he had to produce cash up front or go without. Moffitt didn’t believe it.

“I could get care,” he said.

But Moffitt was a businessman with a decent income; my son was a student who worked waiting tables to put himself through college. Moffitt, however, had trouble accepting the fact that he was treated because he had money and my son was denied because he didn’t.

Moffitt’s so-called successes have taken control of Asheville’s airport away from the city and threatened to take the city’s water system away, too. He has spoken about creating a public-private partnership for the system, which would in effect privatize the system by giving control of the water to a private entity.

The man has lied about his opponent, Jane Whilden, and about her votes on the issues. But here’s the truth: If we had re-elected Jane, the state wouldn’t have fracking, Asheville would not have lost control of its airport and would not be in danger of losing control of its water system. Buncombe County would still have a five-member, at-large county commission instead of a seven-member commission elected by districts.

Even looking at the more flattering newspaper profile, it’s obvious that what happens to him shapes his opinions and his crusades. It’s all about him, just like a petulant child.

700 more newspaper jobs cut

Just in case you’re wondering why newspapers are looking so bad, it’s because of greed.

Newspapers insist on a bottom line that’s above almost any other industry, and when it falls below about 30 percent, they make cuts. Big cuts.

Yesterday, Gannett Corp. laid off another 700 people across the company’s newspapers.

When I joined Gannett, at the Journal News in Rockland County, NY, in 1986, it was considered one of the top family-friendly companies to work for. Health benefits were excellent and time off was better than at most other newspaper companies. If you worked hard, you got ahead; there were incentives; there were rewards for people who did good work.

It was an ugly scene at newspapers across the company as people who had been loyal employees for decades were cut loose.

So, why are newspapers losing so much revenue and readership?

The company line is that newspapers are a dying industry because people get their news online.

But Gannett is cutting its online staff too. Here in Asheville there was a separate department dedicated to Web content. That got cut in the last round. The company spent millions on top-of-the-line video equipment and software and training four years ago, and then pretty much abandoned it.

As newsrooms get smaller, the people who are left have fewer and fewer opportunities for any investigative reporting. More time is spent processing press releases and covering events to fill what little space is left.

It used to be that ads filled in the spaces around editorial content; now editorial content is the filler for the spaces around the ads. The ever-shrinking news hole leaves less and less space for real news.

That means government and big business have no one watching what they’re up to. It makes it that much easier for Fox Noise to spread its lies about government takeovers and death panels and how we “need” to gut Social Secutity and Medicaid. They spread the fallacy of us being broke and no one is here to explain that we’re not.

Add that to the consistent de-funding of education over the last 30 years and you have the Koch Brothers’ dream scenario.

Newspapers don’t have to die; they need to become nonprofits. Then Craig Dubow, the CEO of Gannett will have to live on less than $10 million a year and people who cost the company $40,000 can have their jobs back and we can save our Democracy.


Social justice isn’t news anymore

During most of my nearly three decades as a newspaper reporter, I covered social justice issues, religion and nonprofits.

I wrote stories about domestic violence, living wage campaigns, poverty issues, disabilities, and state and federal programs that weren’t doing their jobs.

That social issues/nonprofits beat is going away at the Asheville Citizen-Times as of this week, when one-third of what’s left of the newsroom staff gets the ax.

No one knows how the 30-plus remaining people will put out a newspaper every day. Functions that once required 15 people are pared down to three people now.

It isn’t the fault of anyone locally — Gannett, which owns what’s left of the paper, has made cut after cut after cut. In the last five years, half the newsroom staff has been laid off as some functions have been relegated to a central hub. The page design you see was done in Louisville, Ky., or Greenville, SC. The printing is done in Greenville. Ad design is done elsewhere; in all about one-third of the staff that was here 10 years ago remains to put out an ever-shrinking, ever more crappy excuse for a newspaper.

Craig Dubow, Gannett’s CEO makes more than $9 million in annual compensation; the corporation now is laying off fathers and mothers making under $50,000. A few months ago, they decided to lay off a non-citizen who is here legally, but who has two small children, a wife who can’t work because of visa restrictions and who was not eligible for unemployment compensation, even though he paid the same taxes as everyone else in the newsroom.

What happens now is that news just won’t get covered. What we used to call enterprise reporting — including investigative journalism — just won’t get done anymore. When Republicans in the state legislature cut $60 million from the state mental health system, which is already so bad the federal Department of Justice is investigating it, no one will know how harmful that will be to the population here in Western North Carolina because no one will be watching.

That was the function of newspapers when I got into the business: government watchdog.

But over the years, newspapers have been bought by a few huge — and conservative — coroprations. Staffs have been cut and news has become nothing more than the filler that goes between the ads. They’re not looking for an investigative piece about how the state is not caring for children with disabilities, or how people are dying because state psychiatric hospitals are releasing patients with no discharge plan. Readers won’t know if the state wants to close the places where people with disabilities work under close supervision, leaving both the people with disabilities and their caregivers in the lurch.

Newspapers don’t shame government anymore because they don’t cover government. Instead of the watchdogs of power, newspapers have become lapdogs.

Less than five years ago, I had an editor tell me public policy made his eyes glaze over. This was someone who supposedly was making editorial and coverage decisions.

This layoff is just another nail in the coffin of what used to be a good newspaper. There’s little reason to buy it anymore, yet the executives at Gannett corporate wonder why circulation keeps going down and fewer people want to buy ads. I can’t believe they’re really too stupid to figure it out; I believe it’s because they just don’t care about the people who work for them or the people who buy their papers.

A dozen capable news people will be out of work before the end of this week, and there’s no reason for it other than corporate greed.

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