Convention time just ended for journalists, and they are on edge about the future. Not the political conventions – the annual Society of Professional Journalists event. With ad dollars shrinking and job losses mounting, the future they are most concerned with is their own. Media outlets are changing to survive, and those changes could move journalism even further to the left.
It’s an issue that should concern everyone who relies on news and information. Since 2000, journalism has lost at least 4,000 fewer jobs for reporters and editors, and those numbers are climbing rapidly. Journalists are looking to corporate owners to stem the tide of job losses or pursuing new, nonprofit ventures that insulate them from competition.
E.W. Scripps Co. CEO Richard Boehne told attendees the hard facts of life during one session. “If you look at the newspaper industry today, it’s a business that’s half as profitable as it was at its peak and I don’t believe it’s going to recover from there.” That’s a dramatic shift for an industry where newspaper publishers were used to 20-plus-percent returns.
Boehne cited the end of the “classified monopoly” as one major reason. There are many more. Blogs, Web sites, YouTube, global media outlets and more are competing for eyes, ears and earnings.
The news media don’t have a solution, but they are scrambling to find one. Media outlets are downsizing at an incredible rate. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was host paper for the event held in its city. AJC Managing Editor Julia Wallace told of the newspaper’s reorganization that resulted in layoffs and buybacks that dropped the newsroom staff from 500 to 320 – a 36 percent cut.
One entire session was devoted to outlets trying nonprofit status – a new buzz word in media circles – and other seminars discussed it as well. ProPublica  Managing Editor Steve Engelberg explained how his investigative reporting start-up was launched with a gift of $10 million a year for three years from the Sandler Foundation.
The operation’s goal is “investigative journalism in the public interest” with an emphasis on “stories with ‘moral force.’” So far, those stories seem to include several attacking new GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin including “Palin’s Pork History” and “This Week In Scandals.” Other articles attack business – even Democratic VP nominee Joe Biden’s business ties. The result leaves the site with an obvious left-wing tilt.
Maybe that has something to do with its funding. According to the March 9, 2008, New York Times, “since the late 1980s, the Sandlers used their wealth to finance a variety of nonprofit organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union and Acorn, the grass-roots organizers.”
Another operation that has received Sandler support, according to the Times, is the left-wing think tank the Center for American Progress.
Former Wall Street Journal Editor Paul Steiger now runs ProPublica, and he told the Times, the Sandlers were “civic-minded people who were kind of partial to lefty or progressive causes.” The site is staffed up with activist journalists from some of the best-known outlets in the country.
This may well be the future of journalism. This election has shown an overwhelming tide of support among mainstream outlets for Sen. Barack Obama. A recent Media Research Center study showed “the three broadcast networks treated Obama to nearly seven times more good press than bad.” Imagine how far the media might go without free-market constraints.
There are many more problems with media coverage than just the Obama coverage. The AJC’s Wallace told fellow journalists that news coverage of the John Edwards affair “reinforced that stereotype” that the media are biased. “I think the mainstream media did not look great in that because I think it looked like we were covering it up, we were slow, we were unresponsive,” she added.
Other sessions told of the failings of the national news covering the controversial “Jena 6” case or how journalists treated Olympic bombing hero Richard Jewell as a villain.
Reporters and editors are usually willing to admit they make mistakes, and the conference highlighted that strength, but few are willing to admit there are systemic problems that tilt journalism far out of the mainstream.
If they go the nonprofit route, they might never have to admit it. The feeding frenzy around Palin shows how bad the media are now. And that happens with journalists concerned about balance, maintaining ratings and keeping advertisers happy. Already conservative nonprofits, bloggers and talk radio battle daily to check liberal media bias.
Now envision a world where left-wing donors like the Sandlers or George Soros underwrite whole media outlets staffed with journalists out to “make a difference.” Journalism is often called a first draft of history. That strategy would give them the chance to make history – their way.