Backgrounder: First Amendment Fantasies

May 3, 2017

“We are not fake news. We are not failing news organizations. And we are not the enemy of the American people.” — Jeff Mason, president of the White House Correspondents’ Association

by Craig Ladwig

It is a question that has dogged some of us for years: If it is a good thing to break up Wall Street banks, regional hospitals, monopolies and such, why are we supposed to think it is a bad thing to break up the newspaper chains?

Journalists of a certain age know that the decline of our profession and industry had nothing to do with either the Internet or imagined presidential dissing of the First Amendment. It had to do with an ownership model, the widely held corporation, meant for the steel industry and others with extraordinary capital needs. Its misapplication to newspapers has been the near ruin of community journalism and its role as a constitutionally protected watchdog.

The single-proprietor newspaper began disappearing in the mid 1970s as inheritance taxes and small-business regulations made it difficult to pass the property on to an heir. Corporations stepped in, attracted to the inflation-proof reputation of classified advertising.

The corporate owners brought in expensive computer typesetting equipment. It wasn’t all that expensive, actually, because it was used to break the typesetting unions and affect savings in labor costs. Typesetting was moved into the non-union newsrooms where slots once held by experienced editors were filled by clerical journalists, typesetters in effect with a bit of proofreading thrown in.

For contrast, Gay Talese’s description of the now defunct New York Times “bull pen” is an illustration of the old model, the adult supervision that held reckless reporters and news editors to task. It is a model sorely missed by readers who prefer their news accurate, objective and therefore prescient.

Senior editorships once held by journalists who had spent a lifetime covering and supervising hometown beats were filled by assignees from headquarters, men and women whose talent was cost-managing news, not gathering it — fake newsmen, if you will.

The resultant environment fostered an anything-goes mentality allowing content inappropriate for home delivery to the target audiences of local advertisers. Editorial-page boundaries widened accordingly with similar disregard, even disdain, for community sentiment.

Profits, though, doubled as coverage and distribution contracted. A family such as the Pulliams of the old Indianapolis Star, once a statewide paper, may have been satisfied with a return of 10 percent or less, paying themselves in part with pride in guiding their community. Gannett strives for 20 percent, and public policy be damned.

Newsrooms are unrecognizable today. The staffs are impossibly small. The few at the desks have no time to gather news, only to administer it. Fewer still dare go near that cliff where news becomes conflict, being unsure whether superiors will back them up should the truth offend the powerful and official.

Given all of this, the particular delivery system, be it paperboy, Internet or telepathy, is irrelevant. Again, ownership model and organizational structure are sufficient explanation for the decline of big-time journalism. Indeed, small outstate community papers are doing well by comparison.

And the First Amendment? It is guaranteed for all of us as individuals, not just to those who find themselves in command of large media organizations hiding behind high-minded principles at gala self-congratulatory dinners. We would be better informed without them.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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