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It’s the Economy, uh, Professor


Across the Bay – the San Francisco Bay – economist and Tom Kalil cousin Brad DeLong sits down and tries to answer his oft-repeated lament: “Why, oh why, can’t we have a better press corps?”
Delong spits out a few snarky examples on his specialty – economics – to talk about the inadequacies of various and sundry Big Media Big Foots he’s encountered. He comes up with some interesting insights that, if you care about political and economic coverage (or have ever been on the receiving end of a Big Foot reporting stampede) are worth thinking about. But, oddly for an economics professor, DeLong misses the real problem with U.S. newspapers. They’ve stopped hiring smart, as they say in Silicon Valley, and have settled for hiring people who will put up with their lousy pay scales, their difficult management and their collapsing infrastructure.

Newspapers and, now, local TV stations – who have been in the information business for generations – refuse to grasp what software companies, law firms, and investment banks have always known: your most important asset gets in the elevator every evening and goes home. To do well — because their skills are as portable as they are — you should treat them well. At law firms and banks this means long hours for big money but plenty of perks like car service home and ski retreats. At software companies, it means options, free soda, and all the services of a chef who once worked for the Grateful Dead.
But not if you’re working at a newspaper (unless its The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, or even, barely, the LATimes) you’re used to wages freezes and long hours for “comp time” that often never comes because if you’re good at your job your editor calls you at home to come in and work when something “happens” and something happens every day. You’re supervised by editors who believe that you are easily replaced, regardless of your experience, and who don’t mind reminding you when you ask for a raise. Constant cost pressure mean that it’s not necessary to treat anyone fairly – in pay or other matters – because, ultimately, keeping experienced reporters off the payroll and on to their next job is in the manager’s best interest because it keeps the papers largest cost — labor — down. Experience isn’t important since in most cities there’s no competitor. These are the habits — and the fears — most daily journalist learn and learn well as the move up the foodchain from local to regional to national reporting. They are, for the most part, the habits — and the fears — that stay with them.
This is why we have a stupid press corps: economics. And it’s a situation that’s unlikely to change. Newspaper readership is falling, ad rates are following suit. Wages for reporters – never high – are holding steady at the larger regional papers but barely. They become accustomed, early on in their careers to waiting for people in official positions of power and authority to tell them what to do, what’s happened, what’s changed, what’s staying the same. When they get to the big papers, these habits are engrained and reinforced by the Big Media Bubble: the press at the national level is spoon feed (this is really DeLong’s complaint) and they’re used to thinking of that situation as normal, acceptable even.
Follow the money, Brad, follow the green. Years of neglecting infrastructure – paying management and marketing consultants, not reporters, setting limits on how people conduct their personal lives, demanding a level of public service to private enterprise that not even public servants are asked to give, relying on focus groups instead of news judgment and good old fashioned common sense – have made most American newspapers what they are today: Unpopular, derided as much for their stupidity as their bias. As a stand-alone journalist, I couldn’t be happier.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 1:57 PM | Permalink

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