Innovation Ecosystem

The empire of news consolidation strikes again

Caution: You may never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy

Screen shot by Richard Asinof, courtesy of The Providence Journal website

The front page of The Providence Journal website posted on Sunday, Jan. 27.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/28/19
The alarms being sounded about the impending death of corporate journalism may be missing the real story: the ability of innovative, nimble digital platforms to provide in-depth, comprehensive news in competitive markets, in Rhode Island and elsewhere.
Why are health reporters often the first targets when jobs are slashed after corporate hedge funds buy up newspaper chains? How much of advertising on cable TV is driven by pharmaceutical industry products? In Rhode Island, how influential are health industry lobbyists in setting legislature agendas at the R.I. General Assembly? How many full-time health care reporters are left in the Rhode Island media? Is the pipeline for new biomedical innovation products threatened by the increasing financial distress of hospitals as well as the push back by consumers around sharing of personal data? How will patients begin to exert more control over their own data when it comes to health IT? Is the idea that Big Data analytics and health IT can achieve a reduction in health care costs and improve health outcomes a faulty, unproven premise?
The limits of corporate control and hegemony were on full display in recent weeks, as Pacific Gas & Electric, the biggest U.S. power utility in terms of customers, announced that it was preparing to file for bankruptcy under Chapter 11, seeking protection from potential liability from California’s wildfires in 2017 and 2018.
Closer to home, as residents on Aquidneck Island struggled with National Grid having to shut down natural gas service to thousands of customers, the reasons for the causes of the shutdown remain murky at best.
National Grid, a foreign owned utility, said it took the action of shutting off gas supplies because of low pressure in the pipeline. The story of what actually caused the low pressure to occur depends on whom you talk with: was it a frozen valve, a pipeline explosion in Ohio, or high demand during a cold snap? National Grid and the owners and operators of the natural gas pipeline disagree. Can you spell lawsuit? Beyond the promise of a rumble in the courtroom over corporate liabilities, consumers and lawmakers may develop a different model of corporate responsibility. Stay tuned.
In western Massachusetts, a number of communities are rejecting the proposal by Comcast to build out “the last mile” of connectivity for broadband service in their rural towns, instead deciding to own and manage the infrastructure themselves.
The federal government shutdown precipitated by President Donald Trump provided further insightful moments into the limits of corporate control of messaging: the idea that people who were out of work could simple apply for bank loans, or receive groceries on credit from their local shopkeepers, showcased insights into how out of touch so many serving in the Trump administration were to day-to-day economic realities.
What came to mind was the comment from “Star Wars” made by Obi-Won Kenobi, as he and Luke Skywalker were about to enter the bar in search of transport: “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

PROVIDENCE – Last week, the hills of the Twitter sphere were alive, not with the sound of joyful music but with lamentations over the continued demise of corporate journalism, in response to the latest rounds of layoffs and terminations at Gannett newspapers, one of the larger newspaper chains in the nation, which owns USA TODAY.

The slashing of jobs at Gannett followed a hostile takeover bid two weeks ago by MNG Enterprises, also known as Digital First Media, which is majority-owned by hedge fund Alden Global Capital, and owns The Denver Post and The Boston Herald.

“Terrible news for industry and for our society,” wrote Liz Szabo. “The Indianapolis Star is being cut again. Without that paper, Larry Nassar would still be molesting gymnasts.”

Szabo, senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News, had tweeted in response to the story published by Poynter, which began: “Another brutal day for journalism.”

The story continued: “Gannett began slashing jobs all across the country Wednesday in a cost-cutting move that was anticipated even before the recent news that a hedge-fund company was planning to buy the chain.”

The Poynter story named names: “The cuts were not minor. At The Indianapolis Star, three journalists were laid off, including well-known columnist Tim Swarens. At The Knoxville News Sentinel, University of Tennessee women’s basketball reporter Dan Fleser is out after more than 30 years in sports. The Tennessean cut three positions, including high school sports reporter Michael Murphy. Traci Bauer, executive editor of LoHud [New York], was let go. Six were laid off at The Record in North Jersey after nine took an early retirement buyout earlier this month.”

The new round of layoffs and terminations in the news sphere were not just limited to Gannett. As Laurie Garrett, award-winning global health reporter, tweeted, “Yesterday [Thursday, Jan. 24] dozens of great reporters from a variety of news orgs – Huffington Post and Gannett – announced they’d lost their jobs. Today [Friday Jan. 25] another deluge, led by BuzzFeed.”

What was a unifying thread in the kinds of jobs that were slashed? Health care reporters.

Chris Hayes, from MSNBC’s “All In,” tweeted: “What if there is literally no profitable model for digital news? Or none that scales and endures without, say, the established readership base and brand of the NYT. This seems increasingly likely to me. It’s a crisis.”

When newspapers do not deliver
Here in Rhode Island, there was little “surprising” news to be found in the demise of reporters’ jobs as a result of engulf and devour corporate journalism, owned and mismanaged by private equity and foreign hedge funds. Many Rhode Islanders are aware that GateHouse Media, behaving much like an insatiable anaconda, swallowed The Providence Journal whole in 2014 and, after extracting its wealth, has been putting out a shrunken, desiccated news product, laying off reporters and editors.

The corporate owners of GateHouse have also feasted on buying out much of the daily print journalism in the region, including: The Cape Cod Times, The Fall River Herald News, The Enterprise in Brockton, The MetroWest Daily News in Framingham, The Taunton Daily Gazette, The Patriot Ledger in Quincy [soon to be Braintree], The Newport Daily News, and The Worcester Telegram & Gazette, among others.

In addition, GateHouse owns the Community Newspaper Company, which in turn owns more than 100 weekly newspapers in and around Boston.

Who owns GateHouse Media? Fortress Investment Group, the investment bank that owned the GateHouse chain of newspapers, was sold in 2017 to a Japanese holding company, SoftBank Group Corp., for $3.3 billion.

As if right on cue, The Providence Journal [aka Gatehouse, aka SoftBank Group Corp.], announced last week another round of buyouts, less generous than previous offers, citing “a changing business environment,” to take effect in two weeks on Feb. 8, according to a tweet by The Public Radio’s Ian Donnis on Saturday, Jan. 26. In a statement by Janet Hasson, publisher of The Providence Journal, she said: “It is no secret that the U. S. newspaper industry has significant business challenges, and The Journal is not immune to those trends.”

Regardless, Hasson continued, “We continue to publish quality local journalism and be the watchdog for Rhode Island residents.”

Ironically, some of the best qualities of what a local daily newspaper can achieve in its pursuit of journalism were displayed in the story, "Redemption: the fall and rise of Mark Gonsalves." by G. Wayne Miller, a tale of an attempted suicide that failed, published on Jan. 27. The only thing missing was the failure to provide a larger context to the story: how the deaths of despair, from suicide, alcohol and drugs, tied to economic and family disruption, are ravanging so many Rhode Islanders between the ages of 25-34, comprising roughly 60 percent of all deaths for that demographic.

Voices of doom and gloom
At the same time, Jill Lepore, staff writer at The New Yorker, wrote a nostalgic if not apocalyptic piece on the death of newspapers, asking rhetorically: “Does journalism have a future?” featuring an illustration of the grim reaper reading a newspaper, and the subhead, “In an era of social media and fake news, journalists who have survived the print plunge have new foes to face.”

Beyond the financial pirates of the debt equity raiders and the way that newspaper owners practiced “engulf and devour” in the 1980s and 1990s to increase their profit margins, Lepore also pointed to the advent of social media and the loss of classified advertising revenue. As Lepore wrote, “Facebook’s goal, Zuckerberg explained in 2014, was to ‘build the perfect personalized newspaper for every person in the world.’ ”

Lepore began her essay with as personal reminiscence of delivering the Worcester Sunday Telegram and Gazette, sitting on the back of her father’s station wagon open gate door with other her siblings. Lepore tracked the way that the decline of Worcester’s daily newspaper had mirrored what had happened across the U.S. in the last five decades.

Lepore asked some perceptive questions, such as: Where did all the money go that was earned by the newspaper industry when it had 30-40 percent profit margins during the 1980s and 1990s? How much of that was invested in talent? Very little, apparently.

What gets left out of the story
Lepore’s narrative fits well within the current geshrai about the demise of local newspapers and the threat to democracy. But there are, in my opinion, important parts of the story that get left out of her narrative: how the changing means of reproduction technology altered the dynamics of news in the 1960s.

Also missing is the hard-nosed truth that one of my first editors drilled into me in what he called the first rule of journalism: The business of newspapers is selling advertising, and news is just filler.

A third important omission, on a deeper dive, is the metaphysical relationship between publicity, advertising, glamour and news content, captured in John Berger’s pictographic essay in Ways of Seeing: “Publicity proposes to each of us that we transform ourselves, or our lives, by buying something more, [which promises to] make us in some way richer.”

Publicity persuades us, Berger continued, that such a transformation “by showing us people who have apparently been transformed and are, as a result, enviable. The state of being envied is what constitutes glamour. And publicity is the process of manufacturing glamour.”

Yes, Lepore’s essay is powerful and compelling prose; she begins by painting herself as a participant, delivering Sunday newspapers and having to knock on doors to collect on what was owed, but Lepore is an academic and an observer. Writing essays for The New Yorker about the demise of journalism is still a privileged perch above the fray.

Consider this a response to Lepore – and to Hayes, Szabo and Garrett as well as to Gannett, GateHouse and Digital First – about how journalists can survive and thrive [perhaps that may be too optimistic a word choice] by creating a digital news platform based upon convergence, creating value in accurate, in-depth reporting that is not driven by click-bait journalism that promotes mayhem, murder and anxiety.

Still, something survives
My first encounter with the enterprise of newspapers, like Lepore’s, began with a newspaper route, in a small town in Western Massachusetts, in the fall of 1961, when I was nine years old, delivering the Sunday New York Times in my neighborhood, through rain, snow and sleet, pulling the 25 or so newspapers around in a red wagon, earning a meager five cents on every paper delivered, which in those days cost 35 cents.

In December of 1962, The New York Times went on strike – as did all the daily newspapers in New York City – reducing my weekly income from the newspaper route to five cents a week for four long months, from delivering a single Boston Herald Traveler to one customer.

The strike was the result of a labor dispute by unions contesting the change in the means of production around the printing of newspapers – automation in linotype machines that reduced the need for workers.

[It may seem hard to believe, but I was twice bitten by a strike by The New York Times, this second time in August of 1978, when a story I had written in 1977 for The New York Times Magazine and scheduled to be published in the summer of 1978 was held in abeyance as a result of the strike – and finally published in October of 1979, two years after it was first written and accepted.]

The 1962 strike, which was not mentioned by Lepore in her essay, presaged the revolutionary change in the means of production, as the newspaper industry moved from linotype to computer photo offset technology. This precipitated the capability of youthful entrepreneurs to develop start-up weekly newspapers targeting the Baby Boom generation, which quickly moved from underground to alternative to corporate mainstream in the span of some 25 years. Translated, selling sex – and drugs and rock and roll – were very profitable indeed.

Today, most of those “alternative” newspapers are gone into archive heaven, having succumbed to a declining advertising and readership base as content moved to an online digital format. Also, many of the innovations of the new age of weekly alternative newspapers were quickly adopted by mainstream dailies – from focused content sections to narrative writing styles to inventive cross-platform advertising. [The rapid growth of weekly business journals, for instance, owe a big debt the pioneers of weekly alternative journalism.]

Many of the alternative journalists, much like the top stars in “Negro Leagues” when Major League Baseball broke the “color barrier” in 1948, were “acquired” by mainstream newspapers and magazines, exploited to the fullest extent of their talent.

Competing narratives
Also missing from Lepore’s essay, surprisingly, was any mention of Ben Bagdikian, who wrote The Media Monopoly in 1983. Bagdikian’s take on corporate journalism and media consolidation may not have fit well into Lepore’s thesis.

As ConvergenceRI wrote in January of 2018, in a review of the movie, “The Post”: “Journalists, when they look into the mirror, tend to see themselves and their colleagues as heroic and courageous – and sometimes they are. But, much as fish, they do not see the water they swim in, nor cover the competing narrative of stories that do not fit into their own self-image [or selfie].

All too often, journalists are willing accomplices, mouthpieces for the corporate powers that be and the dark shadows they cast. As Ben Bagdikian [Bob Odenkirk in “The Post”], assistant managing editor in 1971 at The Washington Post, who had retrieved 40,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers from Ellsberg, reportedly told his journalism students at the University of California Berkeley: “Never forget that your obligation is to the people. It is not, at heart, to those who pay you, or to your editor, or to your sources, or to your friends, or to the advancement of your career. It is to the public.”

Bagdikian, a survivor of the Armenian genocide at the hands of the Turks, wrote The Media Monopoly in 1983, in which he presciently argued that the increasing concentration of the media in the U.S. in the hands of corporate owners threatened freedom of expression and independent journalism, warning that “media power is political power.”

If [Katharine] Graham [owner of The Washington Post] was the patrician, Bagdikian was the striver. Imagine if the narrative of “The Post” had been written instead around Bagdikian, not Graham. It would have been a far different movie altogether, a dramatic, action-packed film that “The Post” could never be.

Bagdikian’s parents, fleeing Turkish forces, thinking their infant son dead, dropped him in the snow in the mountains, only to pick him back up when he began to cry. Bagdekian won a Pulitzer in 1953 with The Providence Journal for his coverage of a bank robbery in East Providence; as a foreign correspondent, he covered the Suez War in 1956, riding in an Israeli tank; in 1957, he covered the civil rights crisis in Little Rock, Ark., and in 1972, he went undercover at a Pennsylvania state prison, pretending to be a murderer, to write an exposé on deplorable prison conditions. Bagdikian also served as The Washington Post’s first ombudsman, only to be fired by [Ben] Bradlee. [In 2016, he was inducted into the Rhode Island Hall of Fame.]

In 1996, Bagdikian described the treatment of news about tobacco and related health issues as “one of the original sins of the media,” because there had been for decades suppression of medical evidence.

In “The Post,” however, Bagdikian was often portrayed as a kind of bumbler, spilling his coins when trying to use a pay phone to call Ellsberg, or having to arrange to carry the 40,000 pages of the Pentagon Papers by buying an extra seat on the plane, or arriving by taxi at the patrician Georgetown home of the Bradlees to deliver the massive bundles of copied pages.

“The Post” may not win an Oscar this year [in 2018]; it is highly unlikely that the current President will ever screen a showing of the film at the White House. But it is worthy of becoming part of our [ongoing] conversation, not just for what it portrays, from the privileged, patrician point of view, but for what gets left out of the narrative. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “The strivers vs. the patricians.”]

The digital platform
As most ConvergenceRI readers know, I launched the digital weekly newsletter in September of 2013, focused on reporting about the convergence of “health, science, innovation, technology, research and community” in the Rhode Island innovation ecosystem.

Six years later, ConvergenceRI is still being published every Monday morning, 48 times a year, continuing to gain greater traction in the marketplace, following a disruptive business model that is based on subscriptions, encouraging subscribers to share the newsletter across their networks, the way that information flows best in the digital world we live in.

A readers’ survey conducted in 2018 reinforced the value found in ConvergenceRI: more than 90 percent of readers responding said what they liked most about ConvergenceRI was the fact that it contained news and information that was not to be found anywhere else in the Rhode Island marketplace.

Two key analytics that support that sense of “value”: the retention rate among subscribers remains high, with a combined attrition rate of less than 7 percent over six years; and the average time spent reading feature stories in ConvergenceRI in 2018 was more than five minutes, according to Google Analytics.

Both are phenomenal numbers. And, both numbers speak to the fact that readers are hungry for content and in-depth reporting in an engulf-and-devour corporate world of controlled news content delivered in 500 words or less.

In a corporate world where advertising placement decisions are based upon the number of clicks, in is hard to change the dynamic, however wrong-headed, that the true value in the product is not by measuring the quantity of the number of clicks, but by who is clicking [and reading] the publication: the ability to influence decision makers, corporate and philanthropic leaders, legal and financial CEOs, innovation and health practitioners, as well as policy makers and agenda shapers.

One more observation: There appears to be an apparent connection between hedge fund control of newspapers and news media and the lack of accurate health care reporting that does not serve as a mouthpiece for corporate views.

Translated, the more consolidated the health care industry, health insurance industry and pharmaceutical industry become, in parallel with the consolidation of the news industry, the less investment is made in health care reporting. Why is that?

The question that needs to be asked is: why is the hegemony of corporate messaging threatened by health care reporting?

One potential answer is to look at the investigative work by reporter Julie Rovner at Kaiser Health News, in her year-long efforts to try and decipher emergency room bills for patients, including the patient who, after a bicycle crash, was seen at the ER at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, named after the founder of Facebook, and was then charged $20,000 for an X-ray and medication, apparently because the hospital refused to accept any private health plans.

The good news: after the story was published, the bill was reduced to $200. The bad news: Rovner said she has been overwhelmed with the response from thousands of patients as well as her own difficulty in deciphering incomprehensible bills. She recently offered to share the abundance of patients’ bills with other reporters.

In the Rhode Island market, there is a dearth – a scarcity – of health care reporters, despite the fact that the health care industry is the state’s largest private employer and that one-third of the state’s proposed $10 billion budget for FY 2020 is for Medicaid medical expenses. Most reporters, and for that matter, elected officials, would be hard pressed to define what an accountable entity is, what a health equity zone is, or what a neighborhood health station is. Why is that?

Numerous times during the past two weeks, I have conducted in-person, face-to-face meetings, interviews and conversations at Olga’s Cup + Saucer, the veritable hub of collision and innovation in the former Jewelry District. Each time was a learning experience, a sharing of stories, of information – sometimes embargoed, sometimes off-the-record, sometimes discussing potential story assignments, sometimes exploring new potential ventures.

Some had sought ConvergenceRI out; others I had sought out – call it living/learning continuum. A sense of optimism permeated all the discussions. So did a quality of serendipity – the willingness to put oneself in situations where good things could happen, particularly if you are willing to listen. Call it convergence that recognizes the value of sharing.

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