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Think Again: Bad News About the News

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Covering the media is one of the more depressing jobs in journalism but also one of the easiest. Every morning you can wake up to about a dozen websites where the stories of the previous day have already been aggregated for you, often with snappy comments and suggestions of where the story is likely to lead the following day.

Being an old school type, my favorite of these news collectors remains Jim Romenesko, who began the practice longer ago than I can remember. He was supported for a long time by the Poynter Institute, but after splitting with them, he launched JimRomenesko.com, where he does pretty much what he has done from the beginning.

Thing is, the news keeps getting worse and worse. On Tuesday morning I woke up to the following headlines on his site:

  • "Boston Globe offers buyouts to 20 newsroom employees." (The Boston Globe)
  • "Detroit journalists get early retirement offers." (Crain's)
  • Newsweek Daily Beast loses support of Harman family. (New York Times)
  • "Newsday fires longtime reporter James Bernstein." (Long Island Business News)
  • "Financial Times covers HSBC scandal while its CEO sits on the bank's board." (CJR)
  • "Could Kickstarter be used to crowdfund journalism?" (GigaOM.com)

Each of these stories bespeaks bad news for the future of not only journalists and journalism, but also of democracy. Let's take them one at a time.

The stories

"Boston Globe offers buyouts to 20 newsroom employees."

The Boston Globe, owned by The New York Times Company, is today worth but a fraction of the $1.1 billion the Times shelled out for it nine years ago and the Times has given up trying to sell it. And while it continues to put out important stories regarding New England and has recently been leading the pack with its investigations of Bain Capital, it is, following endless rounds of buyouts and layoffs, a shadow of its former self.

But the bad news here is that it has not hit bottom yet and, to be honest, nobody knows where the bottom might be--or even if there is one beyond bankruptcy. The news release doesn't say how many newsroom employees remain at the Globe and one might say the release wishes to confuse the issue by quoting a figure of "1,881 employees," neglecting to mention that the vast majority of these never see the inside of the newsroom and have little or nothing to do with the reporting of news.

"Detroit journalists get early retirement offers."

Ditto, only doubly so, to the 155 employees pink-slipped by The Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, and the partnership that handles their joint business operations. This is on top of roughly 400 job eliminations according to their own count since 2007, and constitutes a bit more than 10 percent of what remains. According to the Crain's article, Gannett Company Inc., which owns the Detroit Free Press and 95 percent of the partnership--MediaNews Inc. owns The Detroit News and the other 5 percent of the partnership--"has eliminated more than 20,000 jobs across the company since peak employment of 52,600 in 2005, based on its regulatory filings, with the majority of those layoffs coming from the newspaper unit."

"Newsweek Daily Beast loses support of Harman family"

This story is self-explanatory from its headline. Its larger implication, however, is that the private millionaire/billionaire who is willing to sustain multimillion dollar losses to support traditional journalism is not a business model that is likely to work. When 92-year old Sidney Harman, whose assumption of Newsweek's debt from The Washington Post saved it from extinction, died in April of last year, his family pledged to continue the commitment he had made to funding Newsweek.

A year later, not so much. Now Harman's partner in the enterprise, media tycoon Barry Diller, is talking about ending the print magazine entirely. And with it, almost certainly, will go most of the in-depth reporting and investigation that a print publication requires to sustain.

"Newsday fires longtime reporter James Bernstein."

In this story Jim Bernstein, a veteran Newsday reporter whose work has been a mainstay of the publication's business section for decades, has been let go after 40 years at the newspaper. Of course it's impossible to know the truth of the accusations made against Bernstein--he was fired for allegedly touching another (male) employee improperly two years earlier, but he denied it and his lawyer said Newsday found no evidence of wrongdoing by Bernstein:

They brought in a third-party investigator who spoke to everybody in the newsroom," said James Vagnini, an attorney at Valli Kane & Vagnini in Garden City. "It cost Jim a lot of money to get a lawyer for what he knew was frivolous. The investigator found no substantiation of this employee's complaint."

After seeing the employee who accused him, Bernstein later told another employee he was upset with the accuser, who was still employed at the publication. Bernstein was suspended last Tuesday afternoon and formally let go via a telephone call.

"In this situation, which led to Jim's termination, it's our position they conducted no investigation whatsoever. Mr. Bernstein denies any wrongdoing," Vagnini said. "He rolled his eyes and made a comment to another employee that this person cost him all this money to defend something which was frivolous. Then Newsday fires him. I don't know their grounds for termination for a 40-year employee.

(A Newsday spokesperson said that the company did not comment on personnel matters.) ...

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