Today’s biggest story: Somebody won the Powerball jackpot!

January 26, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

Because I’ve taken the time to read my local newspaper today, I am well-informed.  I now know that everybody at the South St. Louis County Dierberg’s grocery store is excited that the winning Powerball ticket was sold right there.

But that’s not all.

Under “Top News,” I can read that the St. Louis Cardinals probably will not be signing a pitcher who was with them last year.

But there’s more: From a local trial, we now know how a St. Louis area man allegedly broke his girlfriend’s neck.  And there’s even more news: The colorful banner at the top of the front page reminds me to get ready for this week’s Auto Show at the downtown convention center.  Don’t forget the teaser at the bottom right: Buy Sunday’s paper and you can read an article about beer and the Bible. 

All of this important information on a single front page!  Can you believe that they make their reporters spend years at journalism schools in order to write things like this? 

Copy of Post-Dispatch 1-26-07.JPG

If I were a journalist who worked for this newspaper, this front page would embarrass me.   I would keep it a secret that I worked for this paper.

The St. Louis Post Dispatch is not a locally-owned newspaper. It is owned by Lee Enterprises.  If you visit the website homepage of Lee Enterprises, you will see lots of web headlines about growing the revenue, increasing the circulation and controlling the costs.  You will not see the word “journalism.”  You will not see anything about the need to hire the best reporters available. Nor, at the Lee site, will you see anything about the need for investigative reporting. 

There isn’t any serious investigate reporting anymore. Not at most newspapers. Cutting investigative journalism saves papers lots of money and spares some of the paper’s advertisers considerable embarrassment.  It’s a win-win for the paper’s owners and advertisers.  The readers?  The community? If they don’t like it, let them go start their own newspapers, right?  That a newspaper contains no investigative journalism, though, makes it appear that there is nothing important going on in the community, even though, in truth, local newspapers no longer try to cover political and corporate malfeasance or misfeasance.  “Nothing to worry about in this city . . . Now just run along and buy something you see in one of our fancy ads.”

Most newspapers are not locally owned, not even the big newspapers in most big cities.  In Fighting for Air (2007), Eric Klinenberg writes that the lack of locally-owned papers and the increase in newspaper market share owned by a small number of large corporations correlates with the decay in quality journalism.  From 1990 to 2003, newspaper employment has dropped from 455,000 to 381,000.  “By 2000 only about 2% of cities had more than one paper and roughly 80% of all dailies were owned by chains.”  There are fewer stories, fewer local stories, fewer reporters, less access to local sources for local news… you end up with front-page stories that somebody (hang on to your horses!) won the Powerball drawing.   It is also important to note that fewer and fewer of the stories in the Post-Dispatch are actually written by local reporters-and absurdly large number of articles are now purchased from non–local news services.

When big chains take over a locally owned newspaper, they replace “quality local newspapers with cookie-cutter dailies.”  Here’s how Klinenberg describes the process with regard to newspaper chain Gannett:

Gannett’s business practices are infamous in the newspaper industry, but the chain’s public reputation comes from its a generic formula for mass-producing “reader-friendly” local papers: pair down new space on the page (the news hole) and cram with ads; replace hard news with wire copy and superficial local reports, how-to stories, quality of life and entertainment features, question-and-answer columns, and lots of “happy news.”

According to Geneva Overholser, columnist and former editor of the Des Moines Register, “the results are brittle and lifeless . . . Our newspapers do not read as if they are written and edited by people who feel the city’s pulse, who’ve long walked its streets, who love its quirks, know its history, and care deeply about its future–because, by and large, they are not.” 

But this decay in quality reporting was not caused because newspapers can’t afford to hire journalists who truly connect with the city.  Klinenberg once again provides the critical evidence: “Daily newspapers routinely generate profit levels that dwarf those of other businesses, including Fortune 500 companies…  According to Project for Excellence in Journalism, in the first six months of 2003 the top 13 publicly traded newspaper companies had average profit margins of 19%.”

Most people sincerely want to be well-informed and they try to be well-informed.  What’s scary, though, is that most people rely upon local media to be well-informed.  This is an old habit started (for many people) when newspapers tried harder to report news.  According to Klinenberg, “80% of consumers say their major source is local broadcast networks and their newspaper.” That is the likely strategy used by the 276,588 people who read the daily Post-Dispatch–people are trusting the PD to keep them well-informed.  “Of course I’m well informed.  I read today’s paper.  I know exactly where that lottery ticket was sold!”

The Post Dispatch, once a proud and trustworth paper, has been on a long slow slide for decades.  The deterioration of the Post-Dispatch has been noticed by every sober St. Louis resident with whom I’ve spoken over the past decade. What amazes me most is the constant flow of low-level, simplistic, pandering, inane, unimportant drivel that passes for news day after day.  Again, St. Louis is not a Gannett town; further, Lee Enterprises has only been running the show since 2005.  Nonetheless, Lee has enthusiastically picked up where right were the previous owner left off, the result being a smooth slide to the bottom.  The same way it is happening in most cities.

Many of the readers of the PD stay loyal because there is no alternative.  What else are you going to read, they might ask?  Would you rather read a newspaper containing the simplistic sorts of stories that could have been written by high schoolers, or would you rather not read a paper at all? 

As Eric Klinenberg writes, “It’s the journalism, not the newsprint, that makes newspapers necessary for self-governance.”  Reading a newspaper in the morning is part of a morning ritual for many people.  They do like reading newspapers, and the Post Dispatch is a “newspaper.”  After all, it says “newspaper” right on the front.  

Newspapers are mostly mental pacifiers now.  They keep us busy with all of the comics, sports, puzzles, recipes and non-stories.  They interrupt this suckling process only to feed us attempts to get us to buy things we don’t need. In short, with regard to their local newspapers, the residents of St. Louis (and most other cities) are victims of sophisticated bait and switch. They tell us that they are giving us the “news” we want, but they’re actually busy selling us things we don’t want.

Someone at the Post-Dispatch ought to look into this scam, but don’t hold your breath.

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Category: Communication, Consumerism, Current Events, Media

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. E Pluribus Unum says:

    Man! You are so intelligent!

    Why don't you start your own newspaper? Should be a piece of cake for a guy like you.

  2. Withheld says:

    I'm a new addition to the newspaper industry (less than 2 years), and I was sorely tempted to dance in the halls singing Amen by the end of this article. Newspapers are so TERRIFIED of offending one of their precious advertisers that they don't report on ANYTHING anymore.

    We recently had a local restaurant receive an 82 health score. The newspaper wouldn't report it.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    E Pluribs Unum: Let's see . . . I assume you are saying that you are not qualified to criticize any profession unless you yourself practice that profession?  You seem to be saying that one can't criticize hospitals, politicians, restaurants, lawyers or newspapers unless one works in those industries? I disagree.  Most of us carry around enough general knowledge and common sense to recognize major problems in a wide variety of situations.  What I have tried to describe is a "newspaper" that fails to deliver meaningful news.  Pretty obvious stuff, regardless of one's formal training and experience.

    I do want to clarify one point. I don't blame the reporters. I know quite a few reporters. As a group, they are intelligent and resourceful. They are not the problem. Nor, for the most part, are their editors. The problem, as clearly indicated in Eric Klinenberg's terrific book, is the ownership. They are muzzling those who are trying to report the news for fear of offending advertisers and public figures.

    I'll tell you what. I've never gone to journalism school, but I know that I can do a hell of a lot better running a newspaper than reporting on the lottery pre-results. I'd bet you could too.

  4. grumpypilgrim says:

    I wonder what college journalism grads think after they've spent four years studying their craft and then get launched into the Real World…only to discover that their college newspaper contained more real journalism than does the commercial newspaper which pays them to be "journalists." Local televised "news" is even worse: most TV "journalists" merely regurgitate stories they find in the local newspapers — the investigative equivalent of an 8th-grade book report. Even PBS (America's public broadcasting system) has been subjected to political manipulation, in particular by the Bush Administration, so even its days of quality journalism might be numbered. The Internet seems to be the only place to find "real" journalism, and much of that is of dubious integrity.

    Two sources I've found to be relatively free of such nonsense are the BBC and the London Financial Times, even though they are, unfortunately, harder for most Americans to access. The upside is that they provide a much less pro-American spin than do most U.S.-based publications — a benefit in itself.

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