June 24, 2008


What the newspaper industry's unprecedented wave of layoffs says about American journalism -- and what it means for newspaper readers and bloggers


The downsizing bloodbath in America's newspaper industry is different from earlier waves of layoffs over the years. This time top editors and reporters are being let go at the most prestigious newspapers. What does all this say about American journalism? And what will it mean for newspaper readers and bloggers?

First, consider the financially troubled New York Times. Layoffs are being threatened there -- something once unimaginable at the liberal Gray Lady. Many veteran reporters in recent months have accepted buyouts. They're people in their 50s and early 60s: well-known reporters such as John Noble Wilford, Linda Greenhouse, Jane Gross, and Lawrence K. Altman, to name a few. In professions such as medicine and law, such people would be at the top of their game.

But that's not the case in newspaper journalism, and that's ironic.

Many MSM news executives claim to want well educated and able people in the newsroom – but not, it appears, any who are too able or well-educated. That was underscored by an article in the American Journalism Review in January, 1995, “Fellowship Folly.” James V. Risser, a two-time Pulitzer winner, complained of mid-career journalists who took prestigious fellowships – only to find that their post-graduate educational experience was “too often” not appreciated -- or not even utilized. He wrote: “News executives say that they want to staff their organizations with more intelligent and sophisticated journalists, equipped to better cover a complex world. But when it comes to taking steps to help bring that about, some of them balk.”

It was an interesting comment in light of the criticism that MSM executives and journalists often level at bloggers – that they are not qualified to be reporting on and interpreting news events. Some even complain of a reckless anti-intellectualism in the blogesphere (especially among conservative bloggers). Yet it can be found as well within the nation's newsrooms, as “Fellowship Folly” pointed out. Of course, that's no surprise to bloggers who have made their reputations snorting out errors and misdeeds in the MSM.

The unprecedented buyouts at Times and Washington Post underscore the severity of the current wave of layoffs and downsizing affecting newspapers across the country. For the past 20-plus years, the newspaper industry has undergone periodic downsizing, amid declining readership and advertising revenues.

And in the past few years, newspapers have been losing readers and credibility to a new competitor – bloggers.

Many MSM executives deny that bloggers are a competitive threat. But there can be little doubt that those executives are running scared. That was underscored by the Associated Press' recent edict that bloggers would have to pay the AP to quote from its articles.

In addition, the AP recently took a petty swipe at bloggers with a story, “Journalists Teach Bloggers a Thing or Two.” It focused on bloggers who were portrayed as well-intentioned amateurs prone to run afoul of libel laws – and thus in need of a formal journalism education.

That's hardly true for the best blogs and online magazines around, however. Their writers, editors, and publishers are among the best and brightest around. And they certainly could hold their own -- and then some -- against the very best of the MSM. Two examples on the conservative front are the American Thinker and FrontPage Magazine. On the liberal side there's the Huffington Post, which recently announced that it would be expanding into local news coverage.

Fewer staffers; more freelancers

What will the MSM's newsroom shake-out mean for newspaper readers? Increasingly, they won't be reading stories written by full-time staff reporters. Freelance and “contract” reporters will write them. Over the years, major newspapers and wires services have increasingly relied on such folks – and the MSM's coverage of Iraq has offered the most visible example of that.

In Iraq, most of the news-gathering has been done by “local hires” -- hastily trained Iraqis working for major newspapers such as the Times, and for wire services such as the AP and Reuters. Some have proven courageous and able journalists and news gatherers. But the loyalties of others have frequently been called into question; it's what you'd expect in a country that has all but been in a civil war.

In Iraq and elsewhere, such freelance and “contract” labor is problematic in two ways. First, it means that inexperienced people are writing and gathering the information that gets into newspapers in America and overseas. Indeed, many if not most of them would not even be qualified for a regular newspaper or wire service job in America; would not, ironically, even get through the front door with a job application at the organizations that readily hire them overseas.

The second problem regarding freelance and contract labor is that there is less accountability in the news-gathering process. After all, when Wal-Mart uses sub-contractors, it has less control over how they operate. The news business is no exception. A staff reporter is more accountable than a temporary hire -- a person with no long-term relationship to his employer.

Less Foreign News Coverage

What type of news coverage will suffer the most as a result of the cutbacks? No doubt, it will be foreign news; traditionally, it has been the first causality of budget cutbacks. Papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal will, of course, continue to run lots of foreign news stories; but their foreign news may not have the same quality it did in the past due to budget constraints, and there may not be as much of it, either. Most Americans don't read those papers anyway. They read their hometown papers.

And in hometown papers across America, the foreign news that gets into the paper will be provided as always by two left-leaning wire services, the Associated Press and Reuters. Their coverage of the war in Iraq and Israeli's incursion into Lebanon took lots of hits in the blogesphere for its lack of impartiality; it's a problem sometimes traced to “local hires” who deliberately distort the news -- either for ideological reasons or to make a fast buck.

For Americans working abroad as freelancers, you'd think the downsizing trend would mean more work for them. Just the opposite is true. Because of declining advertising revenues, there is a smaller “news hole” for foreign news in America's newspapers.

Accordingly, the foreign news that gets published in most newspapers – those most Americans read -- will usually revolve around breaking news written mainly by the wire services, usually the AP and to a lesser extent Reuters. Of course, freelancers, contract reporters, and news assistants or "fixers" in places like Iran – those working for a variety of MSM outlets -- will have more work than they can handle if a war erupts there. Until then, many will be starving because there's less room for foreign news due to a loss of advertising space. Some will be tempted to cut corners to make ends meet. (More on that later.)

In respect to foreign news, the first type of news that will disappear from most newspapers will be trend stories -- the kinds of pieces that can suggest which way the wind will blow. Wire services tend not to do these pieces; it's not what they're good at. Usually, it's talented freelancers and full-time newspaper staffers (the handful still working as foreign correspondents) who do them. Over the years, news chains and big metro papers have drastically reduced the number of foreign bureaus they operate.

Good for bloggers?

How might the economic turmoil in the mainstream media affect the blogesphere? It may give it a boost.

In the past, news executives in the mainstream media have often criticized bloggers for failing to undertake on-the-spot reporting; all their work, many contend, is derivative from reports in the mainstream media.

Just the opposite is true.

Many able bloggers are undertaking on-the-spot reporting. They include Richard Landes, a history professor at Boston University. At his blog Augean Stables, he has been at the forefront of exposing how staged television footage taken in the Middle East – depicting alleged Israel-on-Palestinian violence – has easily found its way into the mainstream media. (See letters section for comment from Prof. Richard Landes.)

And in Iraq, former Army special forces soldier Michael Yon has written extensively about the war, providing a counterweight to the mainstream media's approach. The AP, from which most Americans get their news, usually defines news by a simple formula: “If it bleeds, it leads.” And if a scandal involving Americans troops can be uncovered, so much the better.

Early in the Iraq war, Steven Vincent – journalist, author, and blogger – brought a level of intelligence and moral clarity to his reporting that was seldom found in the mainstream media. He was murdered on August 2, 2005, in Basra, Iraq.

Elsewhere in the world, Michael J. Tottena has reported regularly from the Middle East and Eastern Europe in his blog, Middle East Journal. He has provided a perspective that the wire services do not provide.

Above all, the smartest bloggers will continue to distinguish themselves when critiquing and analyzing stories from the MSM – looking for the headline behind the headline, undoing the ideological spin that animates a story, whether from the AP, New York Times, or other news organization.

Given the trends taking place in the newspaper industry, expect more muddle than ever in respect to the news that makes it into America's newspapers. Bloggers will be busier than ever.

You also can expect more embarrassing incidents for the mainstream media -- such as one involving Cox News Service in late 2005. I wrote a piece about that incident for Editor & Publisher's online edition that ran on December 3, 2005. Republished below, it gives a blow-by-blow of how screwed up things can get when news organizations depend on some “local hires” to gather the news.

Cox's Tale of 'Fixer' Misconduct Abroad Has Familiar Ring
The news service may be shocked, shocked to learn that a local 'fixer' in the Middle East would fabricate and plagiarize quotes. But anybody who knows how foreign reporting has worked in recent years, amid an era of cost cutting and increasing reliance on freelancers, won't be surprised. Former foreign correspondent David Paulin offers suggestions on how the system can be made more honest.

By David Paulin

Cox News Service has joined the list of news outfits owning up to unethical reporting. None of Cox's employees, to be sure, were involved. Here, the protagonists were a "contract" foreign correspondent and his freelance Syrian news assistant, or "fixer," as such folks are known in the trade.

Does the term "freelance" ring any alarm bells here? It should.

For readers who missed Cox's correction or E&P's post-mortem, here's a recap: On Nov. 20, Cox moved a story on the New York Times News Service about an Arab version of the venerable Barbie doll. The only problem, according to Cox, is that the story contained fabricated quotes and plagiarized material from the St. Petersburg Times -- all supplied to Cox's unwitting contract freelancer, Craig Nelson, by well-known fixer George Baghdadi, who also has worked for Time magazine and USA Today, among other news outlets.

Cox placed the blame squarely on Baghdadi, but Baghdadi pointed the finger at his news assistant, Hussein Ali, whom he claimed had supplied the offending material. Baghdadi declined to make Ali available for questioning, although he said he had fired Ali, which was the same treatment Cox gave Baghdadi.

The news service may be shocked, shocked to learn of such chicanery in its midst. But anybody who knows how foreign reporting has worked in recent years, amid an era of cost-cutting and increasing reliance on freelancers, won't be surprised.

Consider how the process of foreign news gathering works these days -- a process I learned about firsthand while working as freelance foreign correspondent and, on rare occasions, a fixer in Venezuela in the 1990s.

First, fixers are the weakest chain in the news gathering process. Generally, they're local hires who get their jobs through an informal word-of-mouth process -- not through the organized vetting process news organization use to hire editorial staff. Indeed, it appears this was how Baghdadi got his job with Cox, or, as Cox's Washington bureau chief, Andy Alexander, told E&P: "Because of the reputation of George Baghdadi and the fact that he was used by many Western news organizations for years and years, we felt we were dealing with someone who was trustworthy."

Baghdadi was probably like fixers I have known in another respect. He apparently played a major role in shaping stories, doing just about everything in the news gathering process except for writing the finished piece. Indeed, fixers may decide who to interview, set appointments, lead visiting reporters around by the hand, and provide translation services -- all things Baghdadi apparently did for Nelson, Cox's contract reporter. Fixers also may provide quotes and local color to staff foreign correspondents holed up elsewhere, perhaps across town in hotel rooms or in offices in another country -- also something Baghdadi did for Nelson, although in this case it was fabricated or plagiarized quotes.

Fixers may be local residents or expatriates, and their journalism experience may be extremely limited. Those who are proven journalists and do terrific work are in demand, although proven and busy freelance journalists, to be sure, are often reluctant to work as fixers.

One day in Caracas, I got a phone call out of the blue from a staff reporter from the Washington Post. He'd just gotten into town and was in a panic to find somebody to go to Congress there, cover the proceedings, and send quotes back to him at his hotel room. He had gotten my name through the grapevine. Sight unseen, he seemed ready for me to go to work for him.

I was intrigued. But I rejected the offer: I was busy and, most importantly, I regarded myself as an able reporter, not a fixer who did gopher work for other reporters. I also reacted skeptically to his claim that doing fixing work for the Washington Post could "lead to something" at the paper. It's a line other expatriates in Caracas had heard from staff writers from big-time papers. None of the experienced journalists bought it, knowing as we did something about the hiring preferences of papers like the Washington Post.

Presumably, the Post guy got somebody more gullible or at least eager to please: somebody who needed the work and who, most importantly, could provide translation services.

This little anecdote is fairly typical. Caracas, during my seven years there until 2000, was at the time full of aspiring journalists eager to give their careers a quick start: American and British expatriates along with a few English-speaking Venezuelans. Most were recent college grads with limited journalistic experience. Most badly needed an extra paycheck to supplement whatever work they scrounged up: teaching English, working at the local English-language newspaper, or writing for a few English-language business magazines. Most were eager to work for a big-time foreign correspondent.

However, one can imagine the potential for abuse among freelances living from paycheck to paycheck.

Once in Caracas, my checking account was nearly empty. Yet up at the Dallas Morning News, a business editor was sitting on a story that was supposed to pay my rent. To give the story additional balance, she explained, I needed to provide extra quotes from a new source -- one that I could not immediately locate.

Relating my frustration to a Venezuelan journalist, he responded with wide-eyed surprise: "Why don't you just make up the quotes?"

Concocting quotes was not my style. But no doubt about it: I could have gotten away with it. Nobody would have phoned the paper to complain. My editor, as it turned out, tweaked the story to eliminate the need for additional reporting. I paid my rent.

How many fixers in Iraq and elsewhere, struggling to support families amid chaotic conditions, would be tempted to cut corners to ensure that a check arrives on time?

In an age of layoffs and declining profits, freelance "contract" reporters such as Nelson and freelance fixers such as Baghdadi are here to stay. How can the system be made more honest?

One would be to require that fixers be trained journalists. Besides working as fixers, they should write for the papers which contract them. Editors should vet them as carefully as they do perspective staff reporters, and they should meet the same professional requirements as new staff members. A base salary would deter the temptation to cut corners, such as fabricating quotes, to help maintain a cash flow.

Finally, fixers who provide quotes should be credited in stories as having done so; it's something some papers don't do. In the case of Cox's Barbie doll story, for example, Nelson failed to credit Baghdadi with having provided quotes, which was described as contrary to Cox's sourcing policy.

This reflects a problem inherent in foreign reporting as practiced today. Media giants such as the New York Times and Hearst regularly publish articles by freelancers -- yet fail to note those reporters are in fact freelancers and not on staff. In the case of one Hearst paper for which I have written, I was amused to see under my byline that I was part of the paper's "foreign service."