Red ink has consquences: Ongoing woes of the news biz inevitably undercut religion beat

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Nostalgia for a journalistic golden age has gushed forth from an HBO documentary about New York City tabloid columnists Pete Hamill and the late Jimmy Breslin, combined with simultaneous obituaries about the era’s wry counterpart at The New York Times, Russell Baker.

It’s a pleasant distraction from current realities.

Pew Research data documents the “hollowing out” of the nation’s newsrooms, as lamented in the Memo last Nov. 15. Further developments require The Religion Guy to revisit the struggles in the news business.

Why? Let me state this sad reality once again: When times are tough, specialized beats like religion get hit first, and worst.

In just the past two weeks, a couple thousand media workers lost their jobs. The ubiquitous Gannett, known for eyeing the bottom line, enacted its latest round of layoffs even while facing a takeover threat from a colder-eyed print piranha. Particularly unnerving are the drawdowns at BuzzFeed, HuffPost, Vice and Yahoo, because online operations were supposed to make enough money to offset jobs lost at declining “dead tree” newspapers and magazines.

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As Farhad Manjoo commented in a New York Times column (“Why the Latest Layoffs Are Devastating to Democracy”), there’s a “market pathology” at work. Digital advertising is simply unable to fund hardly anything except “monopolistic tech giants.” And those big players are “dumping the news” in favor of easier ways to make money. Results: “slow-motion doom” and “a democratic emergency in the making, with no end in sight.”

All this occurs as a U.S. President emits unprecedented public hate toward reporters, with Main Stream Media outlets then taking the bait to become ever more hostile and partisan, thus sullying their stature.

On the MSM facts front, don’t miss Glenn Greenwald’s list of the “10 Worst, Most Embarrassing” blunders regarding Donald Trump and Russia. And my goodness did you see those lapses about First Lady Melania in the respected London Telegraph?!

Now along come two important insider accounts of what’s been going on across the industry: “Breaking News: The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now” (Farrar, Straus) by Alan Rusbridger, former editor of Britain’s The Guardian, and the suddenly controversial “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts” (Simon & Schuster) by Jill Abramson, former Washington bureau chief and executive editor of the Times. Note that both of their dailies have fared relatively well in online competition.

Sunday’s Times Book Review had significant items on both titles that are behind a pay wall (which aids Times survival). Rusbridger was assessed by Ann Marie Lipinski, director of Harvard’s Nieman program and former editor of The Chicago Tribune. Abramson’s book was reviewed by Nicholas Thompson, the editor in chief of Wired magazine, that cyber-bible.

The two books were the takeoff point for a lengthy state-of-the-union address on the industry’s evolving structure and business model in the Jan. 28 New Yorker, written by Harvard University historian Jill Lepore.

The familiar narrative: Newspapers died, or cut coverage, or trimmed size, or went online-only, or did all that and more “and it still wasn’t enough.” Conglomeration ended local competition. Craigslist gutted classified ad income. Online aggregators swallowed audiences with free copy. The bleeding has continued. From January 2017 through April 2018, one-third of the nation’s largest newspapers experienced layoffs.

Among trends Lepore explores:

— The lurch from “descriptive” toward “interpretative” journalism.

— Breaching of the too-permeable wall between editorial staffs and the business side.

— Related “native advertising” made to look like independent news articles.

— Competitive social media pressure that forces reporters to post uncorroborated claims.

— “Banditry” means expensive journalistic projects enjoy two minutes of exclusivity before competitors’ rewrites turn up on the Web.

— Successful media offer what people want, not what they should see.

— Finally, there’s this: “Good reporting is expensive, but readers don’t want to pay for it.”

Footnote: In that same New Yorker issue, onetime newsman and historian Robert A. Caro takes time off from toil on his multi-volume biography of President Lyndon B. Johnson for some delightful reminiscences and advice about our shared task of digging up information. He will tell the tale at book length in “Working” (Knopf), which fellow scribes will be snapping up upon its April 9 release.

A Caro tip on getting reluctant sources to open up when off deadline: “In interviews, silence is the weapon, silence and people’s need to fill it.” Force yourself to stop “gabbing away.” Wait patiently and “let silence do its work.”

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