It is true that metro/daily newspapers across the nation are hemorrhaging money and posting record loses. USA Today eliminated 20 positions in December. The Los Angeles Times announced Jan. 30 it is set to cut another 70 newsroom positions, 11 percent of its editorial staff. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported its revenue has decreased 40 percent since 2006. The Sacramento Bee announced more "bloodletting" with a "serious wave of layoffs in early March."
Even in our own backyard, MediaNews' Bay Area News Group, which owns the The Valley Times, The Tri-Valley Herald and the Oakland Tribune, has mandated that all non-union employees at its California newspapers take a week of unpaid leave. These furloughs will affect roughly 3,300 employees throughout the 50 daily and weekly newspapers in the state.
Schwarzenegger is correct that the loss of journalists is detrimental to our state and the democratic society as a whole. The original purpose of the press was to not only keep citizens informed about actions of the government but to be watchdogs and keep the folks who run the government on the up and up. Back in the good old days, journalists would have time and the desire to thumb through reports, make calls to check on statements, or run with a tip that would send him or her on a mission to ferret out possible corruption. When there aren't enough journalists to cover even the basics (city council and school board meetings, for example), who's watching the store?
Smaller, weekly community newspapers such as the Pleasanton Weekly are faring much better than our metro/daily counterparts. A recent survey by the National Newspaper Association found that 86 percent of people 18 years old and older read a community newspaper every week and that newspaper websites attracted 68.3 million unique visitors in only the third quarter of 2008. The reason is simple: community media groups deliver information that regional and national media groups don't.
My concern isn't with the business aspect of the industry as much as the implications this holds for society and democracy. The further decrease in number of qualified journalists is leading us down a destructive path that lead to politicians getting away with too much for too long without being called on the carpet. Can you say Rod Blagojevich? (OK, maybe not.) The Chicago Tribune was instrumental in the corruption of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich coming to light. The Tribune's journalists had been keeping tabs on Blagojevich to the extent that, according to federal authorities, Blagojevich was pressuring Tribune owner Sam Zell to fire writers who had been critical of Blagojevich.
This week, my former alma mater The Chicago Sun-Times broke a story about U.S. Sen. Roland Burris changing the statement he gave in the Blagojevich impeachment trial that he had never talked about money changing hands with anyone in the Blagojevich regime. Apparently when federal agents started asking Burris questions, his story changed.
In the Tuesday, Feb. 17, Sun-Times editorial, under the headline, "Burris scoops show how much newspapers matter," the editorial board said, "... two old-fashioned newspaper scoops serve as a reminder of what Chicago gains daily from being a hotly competitive, for-profit, two-newspaper town, in print and online. No army of bloggers, no TV or radio station, no nonprofit journalism collective, no foundation-supported task force of political and government reporters will ever do the job so well.
"What matters most to the people of Chicago is that professional reporters are finding out stuff people ought to know. It matters that Burris, a U.S. senator, was less than honest when questioned under oath. And that kind of stuff --unearthed by skilled reporters working beats day in and day out--will never be dug up by bloggers in pajamas."
Also earlier this week 12 more journalists were laid off at the Chicago Trib. And I for one can attest to how the Sun-Times' newsroom has been impacted by economic hardship. We used to call death by a thousand cuts.
It is expensive to pay qualified journalists and I am in no way, shape or form advocating nonprofit journalism or "endowed" newspapers who owe their souls to corporations or governments. However, with fewer qualified journalists on the street, citizens need to be more vigilant in attending public meeting, being informed on the issues and questioning their elected officials.