Newspaper and TV budget cuts hurt own communities

  • Geneva Overholser / Washington Post columnist
  • Sunday, December 10, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Cost-cutting by America’s media companies is harming you and harming the country.

Remember all the confusion on election night as the networks made — and withdrew — their predictions? You can thank television executives’ penny-pinching.

It used to be that each network did its own exit-polling and predicting. Then, in the 1980s, as competition to make the first call grew fierce, polling operations expanded and became more expensive. So, in 1990, the networks jointly created the Voter News Service — the monopoly outfit to which we owe our great national confusion.

"We’re now seeing what happens when you bow to budget-cutting pressures and end up with a single source that leaves you with no way to compare and contrast different assessments," says Tom Wolzien, former executive producer of NBC’s "Nightly News."

As Wolzien told The New York Times, had the networks each done their own calculations, one might well have declared Gore the winner; another, Bush; and another, too close to call. By joining forces — and throwing us all into a tizzy — each network saved $5 million to $10 million this year.

Throughout media operations in America — except where rare owners place journalistic excellence on a par with profits — relentless (or binge) cost-cutting has become the norm in recent years. And it’s not because the companies are failing. Most have higher profit levels than the majority of American businesses. It’s to maintain or increase those profits that costs are cut.

What’s the impact on you? Veteran TV producer Av Westin told a group of journalism academics in Phoenix in August that, with "TV news having become a business," the bottom line is everything: "It’s not fairness, accuracy and balance. It’s, ‘What’s the rating?’ and ‘Can we do it for less?’ "

The results show in what you see — canned video "infotainment" and "news you can use." And what you don’t see — enterprising reporting, investigative work and comprehensive beat coverage in your community.

It’s not just TV. As Westin spoke in Phoenix, the state’s largest newspaper had just been sold. The local alternative weekly predicted things at The Arizona Republic might remain much the same under the new owner, Gannett, because:

"Since 1989, when its parent company went public, the Republic has emulated Gannett’s moneymaking, reader-friendly style. Under the tutelage of former Gannett groupie Chip Weil, the Republic increased profits, decreased staff … surveyed readers and redesigned the paper until, when it changed hands last week, it read an awful lot like a Gannett paper already. With a healthy 32 percent profit margin, its books looked like those of a Gannett paper, too."

But by November, with newsprint prices rising, the new Republic publisher had news: She was going to "restructure" the workforce and cut 60 positions. "This sense of belt-tightening is occurring across the country," she said. And then, the inevitable add-on: "The reorganization will not reduce our commitment to readers, customers or the community."

But changes such as the Republic is experiencing do reduce commitments. To take one quantifiable impact of the sale — again quoting the Phoenix New Times — "Last year, the Republic donated $9 million to charity; Gannett spent $8.3 million, spread among its vast holdings."

Depending on the paper and the circumstances, "belt-tightening" means readers no longer have a local television writer or a local movie critic. Education or city hall coverage is reduced. Or, harried copy editors rely more on electronic spell-checking, and errors multiply.

New CEOs, whether with changed ownership or not — and media ownership changes come fast and thick these days — often arrive wreathed in praise for the "efficiencies" they’ve wrought elsewhere. Take Steven J. Heyer, who has assumed responsibility for CNN’s budget as part of the agreement Time Warner made to merge with America Online. "Mr. Heyer is sometimes … described as a tank, not because of his build but because of how swiftly he can roll through a major corporation and raze what he considers waste and inefficient management," said one profile of him.

With statements like that so common, you’d think America’s newsrooms wallow in more waste and inefficiency than you can shake a chrome-plated toilet seat at. But, in reality, most newsrooms have been put through diet after diet till they’re understaffed, undertrained and underpaid. A U.S. News &amp World Report survey examined starting salaries among 1997 college graduates in 30 fields. Journalists came in dead last.

If things are this bad, why haven’t you heard about it?

Who’s going to tell you? The heralds, remember, work for these efficiency czars. "Who’s watching the watchdogs?" is a familiar question, and a good one. But this one’s better: "Who’s watching the watchdogs’ owners?"

Nobody.

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