20 questions with the authors of Death and Life of American Journalism

In These Times has published as
with media critics Robert McChesney and John Nichols about
what must be done with journalism’s crisis.

In These Times, a politics and economic democracy newsmagazine, says:

“As many small towns adapt to life without newspapers, the chorus of concerned citizens clamoring for action is growing louder. But what, exactly, can and should be done to save and sustain real reporting? The most radical critiques of America’s media system have long been coming from the prolific pens of Robert McChesney and John Nichols, who have co-authored four books on the subject. Their latest, The Death and Life of American Journalism, offers a brisk eulogy for the corporate media system, a dismissal of the Internet’s power to revive it, and a call for what they see as a return to government-supported U.S. media. The stakes for American democracy are too high to leave to a “free market” that no longer wants to invest in journalism, McChesney and Nichols argue. If Americans really want public-interest journalism to survive in the 21st century, they must financially support it—to the tune of $35 billion annually, which they note is close to what some European nations spend on media subsidies on a per capita basis.”

The first question:

“In The Death and Life of American Journalism, you challenge the conventional wisdom of blaming the Internet for killing off newspapers and print media. How and why does the crisis predate the ascent of the Internet?

“McChesney: The layoffs of journalists, the closing of [news] bureaus, the declining quality of journalism all predate Google, even the World Wide Web. They go back to the 70s. Fundamentally, it can be attributed to increasing conglomerate corporate chain ownership and non-competitive markets, which made it very profitable to gut newsrooms and make more money by lowering your costs and gut any consequences in the marketplace.

“And this was hidden from people until very recently because the profits were booming for these companies and in America we say if someone’s making a lot of money they must know what they’re doing, they must be doing something right, when in fact they were just stripping it for parts.

“But I would add this, the important argument of our book is that the entire commercial system of journalism was an anomaly in some respects, because it was predicated on this enormous amount of advertising to subsidize it. And that era of advertising providing 60 to 100 percent of the revenues to support journalism, and make it a commercially viable area, that is in the process of declining, if not ending.

“Nichols: The rise of the Internet in combination with a serious turn in our economy has accelerated trends that a lot of the big corporations thought that they could ride out or at least ride down graciously. And they can’t. And the reality is that now they’re in crisis, and they took so much debt to buy these institutions, buy these newspapers and other outlets, that they’re in a terrible mess…

“They cannot afford to sustain their debt, they made a bad business decision, and now rather than accept that they made some bad decisions and gut it out, do what traditionally businesses might have done, they’re just saying ‘oh we know how to save some money, we’ll get rid of journalism.’ … But to blame the Internet or to even to blame the economy, would be like blaming the person who has a lot of fundamental health problems and then dies of pneumonia at the end; the fundamental health problems were there long before the ailment came.”

Read the rest of the interview.