“Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom…of the press…”
First Amendment, United States Constitution
“Journalism is the only profession explicitly protected by the U.S. Constitution, because journalists are supposed to be the check and balance on government. We’re supposed to be holding those in power accountable. We’re not supposed to be their megaphone. That’s what the corporate media have become.” Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!
By Harold C. Ford
America’s Fourth Estate is in trouble. Our nation’s journalistic “check and balance on government” is endangered. In particular, the existence of print journalism in our democracy is being undermined by economic forces unleashed by the proliferation of various forms of electronic media and resultant loss of revenue.
This three-part series aims to explore, analyze and lament how these forces are playing out in our own community — specifically in a close look at changes in the Flint Journal, now almost completely dwindled, with a local staff of fewer than 10 people, and subsumed by M-Live Media Group and Advance Publications, its corporate owner. We contend that as the whole of journalism struggles, its troubles triggered by the rise of the Internet, the parallel collapse of the “print” business model has hit local journalism hardest, and that could be said to have a devastating and even insidious effect on participatory democracy. This is why we think it matters.
“What we are witnessing is the unraveling of an informed democracy.” Neil deGrasse Tyson, on MSNBC, Sept. 20.
Fourth Estate Under Siege:
According to a June 2017 report by Pew Research Center, overall newspaper circulation is down to its lowest levels in more than 50 years. Total weekday circulation declined to 35 million, while Sunday circulation hit 38 million, the lowest totals since 1945. Over the past year alone, weekday print circulation decreased 10 percent while Sunday circulation decreased nine percent.
The report found that the total estimated newspaper industry advertising revenue for 2016 was $18 billion, a decrease of 10 percent from 2015.
Pew Research Center found that “According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Employment Statistics (OES), in 2015 (the last year available) 41,400 people worked as reporters or editors in the newspaper industry, down four percent from 2014 and 37 percent from 2004.”
Jonathon Taplin, author of a new book titled “Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy,” recently told National Public Radio’s Here and Now program: “They (Facebook, Google, Amazon) totally, not only dominate the tech world, they dominate politics (and are) destructive to the news business. Revenues in newspapers since Google arrived have dropped by 75 percent. There are 50 percent fewer people working in journalism today than there were ten years ago.”
The impact of modern technology is shaking journalism to its core. The shakedown is evident at all levels—local, national, and worldwide. The resultant reconfiguration of the industry is, thus far, unsatisfying to millions of customers including Jan Worth-Nelson, editor of this publication, East Village Magazine.
Worth-Nelson—a journalism major out of Kent State who had interned at the Daily Gate City newspaper in Keokuk, Iowa and worked as a newspaper reporter in Southern California for five years—lost her temper in 2015 and cancelled her 25-year subscription to the Flint Journal. She said she grew weary of the “cutbacks, compromises and consolidations.” In a November 2015 column she wrote, “I finally cancelled when the paper shrunk to four days a week, lost most of its reporters, shut down its local presses, and moved out of its venerable 150-year-old building.”
The diminishment of The Flint Journal was painfully obvious to Worth-Nelson, as reported in her 2015 column: “The reporting staff has been sliced from about 50 in the old days to a core group of about 10; of those, two are crime reporters, one is a court reporter who helps cover crime, and one is a sports reporter. The hard copy is printed in Walker (Kent County, near Grand Rapids) and Bay City.” Circulation had slipped from the “glory days” print run of about 100,000 on weekdays and 125,000 for the Sunday edition to about 50,000 for the weekday edition in 2012. [Flint Journal staff from that era note that the daily paper often had more than 70 pages and the Sunday edition came close to 100, not the including ad supplements, which in those days were plentiful. That was routinely more pages than the Detroit News or Free press, one former staffer recalled.]
“I still crave the role of the Fourth Estate,” reported Worth-Nelson, “and I worry that it’s slipping away.” She’s not alone.
Where are the journalists?
“Where are the journalists?” Jiquanda Johnson queried in a recent interview with EVM. Johnson is a Flint-area native with more than 16 years of multifaceted experience in journalism, including print, television, and digital media. Dissatisfied with its direction, she left MLive/The Flint Journal in March of this year. She is founder and publisher of Flint Beat, a local online publication.
“I felt like they were falling short with community journalism,” said Johnson, a Beecher High School graduate with deep roots in Flint. “The art of investigative journalism in general has been lost.”
The loss of investigative journalism is due, in part, to the new metrics that measure the production of a writer. Those metrics are now dominated by the electronic dog that wags the print tail.
“In 2009, Advance Publications (owner of Booth Newspapers and MLive Media Group/The Flint Journal since 1976) launched a multi-year reorganization of its newspapers and their affiliate websites, beginning with its Michigan properties,” according to Wikipedia. “Advance in most cases created regional ‘media groups’ to oversee the websites and print publications, along with affiliate ‘central services’ companies to print and deliver the newspapers and provide support services.”
Advance—the 8th largest news organization in the nation, headquartered in Staten Island, New York City—reorganized its news companies with a “digital-first” approach to publication. The moves in the first decade of the 2000s were usually accompanied by layoffs. The Flint Journal, and its sister publications, The Saginaw News and The Bay City Times, laid off 35 percent of its staff.
Many journalists with decades of experience and deep roots in the community are now on the sidelines, retired after accepting buyouts from Advance. Some, including 25-year Journal veteran Gene Mierzejewski, are wary of the loss of experienced journalists.
“Unfortunately, you’ve got young people with very limited experience putting out the paper; you don’t get the coverage,” he told EVM. “There’s no sense of history. With the big buyout in 2007, they basically lobotomized the paper; they cut out the institutional memory which was so helpful when I started.”
Twenty-year Journal veteran Ed Bradley agreed with Mierzejewski. “I can’t say that there’s a lot else that’s better about journalism than it was twenty years ago because there’s been a lot lost in terms of institutional knowledge by media outlets,” he said.
The continuum of revenue loss—layoffs—print-to-digital is hardly unique to Advance Media, Booth Newspapers, and MLive/The Flint Journal. The impact of of the digital age upon journalism is being felt everywhere.
Kevin Elliott wrote about the demise of The Oakland Press in a November 2016 blog article titled “Rise and Fall of a Newspaper”:
“Once considered the dominant paper of Oakland County in sales, circulation and news coverage, The Oakland Press has witnessed a steady decline with daily circulation plummeting to slightly more than 23,000…The classified want ad section, which in its heyday ran 40 pages or considerably more, is now down to just several pages…Once employing more than 100 people in its newsroom, today The Oakland Press has fewer than 20 editors, reporters and multimedia journalists listed on its editorial staff. Those that remain must find ways to do more, while new hires must focus on ways to increase digital content, which includes finding and promoting news that will bring traffic to its website and mobile platforms.
New metrics for journalists:
According to Wikipedia, since the 2009 reconfiguration and employee buyouts, staff-produced content at M-Live/The Flint Journal is now published first to a website; content is then harvested from the website for publication in the printed newspapers. And days of home delivery of the print edition for Advance-owned newspapers in Michigan have been reduced to three or four.
Johnson told EVM that the worth of reporters is now measured by electronic “views.” “Views” are the number of visits to an online story; each time a visitor clicks on a reporter’s story, that reporter is credited with a “view.” “Views” include videos, multimedia slide shows, and photo galleries in addition to stories. 10 visits to 10 pictures, for example, is worth 10 “views.”
Thus, many journalists have had to become multimedia specialists in order to meet goals. They march to their assignments often armed with, not just notepads and pens, but with recorders, cameras, and gadgets of all sorts. The workday routine for many modern-day journalists now includes research, writing the story, supplementing it with photos and sometimes video. Further, they often serve as their own copy editor and are responsible for making sure their work gets online.
“It’s absurd,” Johnson said. “It’s not impactful, it’s not empowering, it’s not to educate; it’s just so we can meet our goals each month.”
Johnson recalled that her goals at MLive/The Flint Journal were two and a half stories each day, 25 comments per week, a minimum of four videos each month, and a number of photo galleries.
“I was responsible for 199,000 page views per month when I left,” she said. “That means I needed my stories (including photos and videos) viewed (nearly) 200,000 times within a month.’
“I’m a news girl; I could care less about numbers,” she opined. “I’m focused on quality.”
Johnson said she was told by management, “You’re doing this for the team. If you make these goals you get a bonus.” Rather, Johnson opted to take the “base rate” of compensation and focus on producing meaningful journalism.
More work, less pay:
The compensation for Johnson’s work was affected by the changes engineered by Advance Publications at MLive/The Flint Journal in 2009. She concluded her first stint at MLive/The Flint Journal, 2004-2009, with an annual salary exceeding $40,000. When she returned in 2014-2017 with five more years of experience as a professional journalist, she was paid $19/an hour.
“I made more money and I did less work when I was there starting in 2004,” said Johnson. “So pay decreased and (now) we’re responsible for more.”
The greater Flint area is populated with dozens of former Journal employees who accepted the company’s buyout offers in the early-2000s. The strategy was obvious: dump higher salaries in response to declining revenue. Mierzejewski represents the opinions of many ex-staffers who found the buyouts to be generous. “I’m so grateful to Advance newspapers,” he said. “They were caught in a bind like everybody else.”
The “bind” was a precipitous decline in ad revenue and concomitant loss of readership. “Back in the day newspapers were such a cash cow,” Mierzejewski said. “They made unbelievable profits. If a newspaper didn’t have a 20 percent profit margin for the year, the management was in trouble,” he said. “There were cases of publishers getting fired because they were only making 15 percent profit a year.”
“Ads were created and produced in-house by the newspaper,” said Ron Krueger, a 35-year employee at the Journal, now retired. “That’s profitable.”
“It was just pure gold,” Mierzejewski added. But then the Internet arrived.
Business model is broken:
According to Bradley, “The traditional business model for journalism in this country is broken and newspapers have not been able to come up with an alternative…”
“Gathering news costs money, not just in the salaries of the people who are gathering it, but in terms of research, and travel to sites, and whatnot,” he said. “And when the newspapers don’t have the revenue to cover the costs, then the product inevitably suffers.”
“The bleeding started with Craigslist (online advertising),” according to Mierzejewski. “Once Craigslist got off the ground in the late-1990s, that really took a bite out of things.”
Kevin Elliot saw the same thing happening in Oakland County. “As websites like Craigslist started taking classified advertisers from traditional newspapers, the Oakland Press and others entering the digital fray began giving away online content for free.”
“A lot of newspaper revenue in the print era was derived from classified ads,” confirmed Bradley. “Those have gravitated to other sources.”
Other forces affecting journalism
Newspapers seemingly survived an earlier electronic revolution—the advent of television in the mid-1900s—largely intact. “They (newspapers) had an audience, they had a product, and they were able to make a great deal of money from it despite the (arrival) of television,” recalled Mierzejewski. “They weren’t really hurt by it because it was a different product from what television provided,” he said. “Television gave you the headlines; if you really wanted the news you had to read the newspaper.”
Nonetheless, television may have helped create generations of nonreaders and screen-gazers according to Mierzejewski. “Reading was deemphasized across the culture,” he said. “Fewer books were being sold. Readership started declining probably before the 90s. Maybe having a TV in the living room or the family room from birth affected that.”
“The internet is something that killed off the newspapers but they were in trouble before that,” recollected Mierzejewski. “Any demographic survey began to show that by the early 90s, young people were not reading the newspaper,” he said. “They didn’t have the internet but they just plain did not pick up a paper. I saw that in my own household. My children didn’t read the paper; it just didn’t interest them.”
“Management all over the country was concerned over that,” Mierzejewski remembered. “We went through several stages where the emphasis was, ‘These stories are too long; people don’t have the time to read these stories, so we’ve got to have no stories over twenty (column) inches and preferably ten inches.’”
“They (management) made a great deal about ‘story count’ which was how many stories appeared on a page,” Mierzejewski recalled. “They wanted to get as many stories as possible, nice and short on a page; and so that was all geared to people with not enough time or attention span.” All of this should sound very familiar to a younger journalist like Jiquanda Johnson.
“The economy was suffering,” Krueger said. “General Motors started to cut the labor force here in the late-70s and 80s. It doesn’t seem like that really hurt us until the 90s.”
According to Krueger, Flint Journal employees were not so concerned at the time. “You can’t see into the future; you don’t know how far de-industrialization is going to go,” he recalled. “It just continued. I really think it wasn’t until the housing bubble that we started to see our ‘news hole’ shrink. (‘News hole’ is the space left for stories once the ads are in.) The advertising started to shrink. Circulation was shrinking the whole time.”
Ed Bradley agreed. “The recession and the national economy in general had a very negative effect on the journalism industry as a whole.”
Mierzejewski said, “We used to joke in the newsroom that every time the paper told readers about changes to improve news coverage, it meant the news hole was going to get smaller again.”
“The business model is broken,’ Bradley bluntly stated. “That’s one of the inherent problems newspapers have…American journalism is still trying to solve that, trying to find the magic formula. It’s very difficult.”
PART TWO is coming Nov. 1. The November and December installments of this three-part series will focus on the quality of journalism, a look and the history and corporate structure of Advance Publications MLive/The Flint Journal, and speculation about the future of journalism.
EVM staff writer Harold Ford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Multiple overtures were made by EVM to solicit the views of current staff and management at MLive/The Flint Journal. Gary Ridley, “news leader” (apparently what might have once have been called editor) of MLive/The Flint Journal at the Flint office, forwarded our requests to Clark Hughes, interim regional manager of the Flint Journal, Saginaw News and the Bay City Times; he forwarded our requests to John Hiner, MLive vice president of content. On Sept. 26, we received this response from Hiner: “Thanks for your interest in the changes at The Flint Journal over the years. After reviewing the questions, I think it’s best to let our journalism speak for itself.”