The Herald’s new owner on the newspaper business.
Thursday, May 4, 2006
A BBC/Reuters poll released Tuesday shows that most Americans have a deep distrust of the news media. I am aware that this information will not be received as a shock by most readers. But the sentiments uncovered by this poll’s findings are disturbing.
The polling company GlobeScan questioned people in 10 countries—the US, England, Brazil, Egypt, Germany, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Russia and South Korea. Americans were found to be far more distrustful of the media than the residents of any other nation. A whopping 69 percent of the Americans polled said they did not believe the media reports the news in a balanced manner.
I was stunned to learn that Russians, Indonesians and Egyptians trust their news sources more than Americans do. Doug Miller, president of the polling group, was also surprised. According to a Reuters story Tuesday, Miller said he believed that “the low levels of trust may be related to perceptions in the US that the media is too close to the government on issues relating to the Iraq war.”
Maybe so. But then, why did the same poll showed that most Americans trust the government more than they trust the media?
Dean Singleton, whose company MediaNews bought the Herald last week, presents an example of the kind of thinking that leads Americans to be cynical.
A New York Times story detailed the complicated deal, in which MediaNews, with the help of Hearst, bought 33 newspapers from the McClatchy Company, which had only recently purchased them from Knight Ridder. Singleton explained how he intended to fix the newspapers. According to the Times:
“On Tuesday, Mr. Singleton told editors at the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors that newspapers are boring readers because editors and reporters write for one another, not the public.
“‘We’ve got to make them much more compelling than they are today,’ he said. ‘As an industry, for the last 30 years, we’ve edited newspapers for each other and to win awards so we could pat each other on the back.’
“He said it was time to start giving consumers what they want, which was more entertainment news and ‘less long series that we love to do but our readers hate to read.’”
Now, I am with Singleton when it comes to making newspapers more compelling, and I believe he makes a good point about journalists writing to win awards. But the solution he recommends is troubling, and the choice of words is telling.
To Singleton, readers are “consumers.” This is a businessman’s word, not a journalist’s. To him, the people who buy his newspapers are primarily engaged in a business transaction. And it’s the job of the newspaper to give them “what they want.”
Singleton gives us a glimpse here of how big media operators view their mission. They exist to earn dollars, not trust. Readers sense that they are dealing with salesmen, and respond with cynicism.
In media circles, Singleton is known as “lean Dean” for his penchant for slashing budgets. From the same Times article: “Mr. Singleton has cut a wide swath through the newspaper industry, becoming known more for his managerial zeal in cutting costs than his promotion of journalism.”
This strategy has worked well for Singleton. If this sale is approved, he will become the owner of the fourth-largest newspaper empire in the nation. In addition to the Herald, he will own a vast majority of the newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area—he already owns the Oakland Tribune, and this deal gives him the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times, along with 31 small dailies and weeklies.
In an annual report filed with the Securities and Exchange
Commission, NewsMedia explained what it intends to do with
these acquisitions: “We seek to increase operating cash flows
at acquired newspapers by reducing labor costs.”
• • •
Carolina Garcia, the Herald’s executive editor, tells me that she is optimistic that her newspaper will be spared. In a visit last week, Singleton said he has no intention of slashing staff at the Herald.
“He said that he wants us to continue doing what we are doing,” Garcia said, “watchdog journalism; local journalism. I don’t know what to expect, but I’m hoping for the very best.”
GlobeScan’s Doug Miller says the recent poll contains one important lesson, which could lead even business-minded newspapermen like Singleton to embrace quality journalism. He points to the fact that consumers of news are fleeing to the Internet because they feel it is a more reliable source of information. “I think what we can conclude from that is that trust is a key competitive advantage in the market,” he said.