publisher's note
January 9, 2009



Resisting the rinsing
by Bruce Rodgers

I’m like a lot of journalists — at least the ones still working. I think about this profession habitually (Yes, “profession,” not craft, not trade, profession — democracy has never depended upon a craft or trade for survival.) and how basically it’s going down the tubes.

Just this morning I was told that The Kansas City Star is considering going to a four-day delivery schedule. Don’t know how true it is, but it fits the pattern, especially considering the newspaper’s most profitable advertising vehicle is Ink, the eat, drink and hook-up guide that comes out weekly.

Along with obsessive worry about journalism comes the blame. At the top of many lists is the string of leveraged buyouts that burdened media companies with tremendous debt. The McClatchy Company, which owns the Star and 29 other newspapers, is a glaring example.

In 2006, the Sacramento-based company bought Knight Ridder and it’s nearly 40 newspapers for $6.73 billion. To date, McClatchy still owes $2.1 billion on the note. Its stock price stood at $70 a share when the company went public. Investors can now pick up shares for around $2 a piece.

Talking about paying off the debt and dumping employees to nudge up the share price weren’t part of President and Publisher Mark Zieman’s front-page column a month or so back. However, it was designed to reassure readers that despite pink-slipping scores of newsroom personnel, the Star was still “A Paper for the People.” The words “debt” or “share price” weren’t part of Zieman’s apologetic rebuff to critics. The Star, Zieman righteously believes, remains a newspaper that is a still a community-committed organization despite its out-of-state ownership.

In fairness, Zieman did what he had to do. What’s objectionable is the way he tried to sugarcoat it and to claim layoffs of journalists wouldn’t hurt the newspaper’s local and regional coverage.

Capitalism isn’t totally to blame for the demise of journalism. One could toss expletives at the Internet, while wondering aloud that if the bean counters at media holding companies can figure out how to raise a stock price with layoffs, why can’t they create an Internet business model that brings in profits equal to the print product?

Journalism needs readers to do a newspaper’s essential work to help maintain democracy. And as journalism becomes impotent in doing that job, people — readers or lack of them — are to blame, too. Journalists may write to please themselves but that pleasure means much more when there’s a sense the effort reaches beyond just one set of fingers pounding on a keyboard.

Many a journalist became a journalist because he or she embraced a near archaic belief that to be a good citizen, one must be informed. But being informed in order to be a good citizen just isn’t cool anymore.

Sociologist Eugene Halton, from the University of Notre Dame, would agree. He was in KC recently, speaking at the Kansas City Central Library and promoting his book, The Great Brain Suck and Other American Epiphanies.

I haven’t read his book and was lured to his lecture by a tantalizing sentence in the press release announcing his visit. It stated: “In an information-saturated world populated by increasingly portable electronic devices, Americans seem to know less and less.”

There isn’t a journalist, working or not, who would dispute that statement. But how does that reality (Just watch Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segment on his show for proof.) relate to the demise of journalism and the end of the daily newspaper?

Halton never got around to exploring the tie-in, bogged down in some macro-systemic explanations about structural consumption in “controlling people more efficiently by pleasuring them.” That, and redundant criticism of fast food companies in their contributions to America’s obesity epidemic occupied a good part of his talk.

But like a good sociologist, Halton can turn a phrase. He says materialism or excessive consumption isn’t brainwashing. However, he does believe Americans are subjected to “electro-chemical indoctrination” through advertising featuring “melodramas of consumption.” The message is we are what we buy, or the term “brain rising” from Halton’s academic portfolio.

Before the onslaught of the recession his premise might have meant more. But consumption is way down now and identity seems to be caught up in not what he buy or own, but how much money we still have, if the job will be there next week and if the bank will take the house.

Yet, when it comes to what is now the lifeblood of the newspaper business — advertising — keeping the indoctrination going is vital. The newsroom layoffs prove that, along with the “Entertainment Tonight” reporting emphasis.

But if Americans no longer seek their identification with what they buy, will what they know be the replacement? For much of corporate journalism — and even at many alternative weeklies, including The Pitch — pursuing that question seems woefully irrelevant.

Bruce Rodgers can be contacted at


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