Many observers are sounding an alarm about the cost to our society of the diminishing number of diverse voices and declining quality of journalism. Some are offering radically different visions for the future of journalism:
* Professor John McManus of San Jose State University believes newspapers are the "nervous system of democracy," and that the decline of newspapers and news coverage is a civic version of the debilitating disease ALS, leading to a paralyzed democracy.
* Sonoma State's Peter Phillips argues that "media consolidation is creating a new form of censorship in the United States and undermining democracy in the process."
* Stanford professor Ted Glasser says it's time to consider entirely new models; we should stop saying we have to accept the realities of the marketplace. He says we need to ask a different question: What kind of journalism do we need and what kind of conditions do we need to sustain it?
Rupert Murdoch's purchase of the Wall Street Journal garnered much national attention recently, but we in the Bay Area are truly at ground zero for the developments that have prompted fears about newspaper consolidation.
The Bay Area media landscape has changed fundamentally in just the last couple of years, and the dominant player on the scene is Dean Singleton's MediaNews. Only two years ago the major daily papers in the Bay Area were the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times (the Chron being owned by the Hearst Corporation, the latter two owned by Knight Ridder). Meanwhile, Denver-based MediaNews owned most of the smaller dailies in the Bay Area: The Oakland Tribune, Tri-Valley Herald, San Mateo County Times, Fremont Argus and others.
In this climate, Bay Area newspapers actually competed with each other for news coverage and advertising. There weren't as many independent voices as, say, 20 or 30 years ago, but there was still vigorous competition.
Then in 2006, Knight Ridder, under pressure from stockholders, sold its Bay Area properties. The deal resulted in almost every daily newspaper in the Bay Area -- including the Mercury News and the Palo Alto Daily News chain -- being owned by MediaNews.
Today there are 31 MediaNews daily newspapers in Northern California alone, and that doesn't include the weeklies it owns in the same area.
Its holdings in Southern California are also extensive. In total, the company owns 57 daily newspapers and some 120 non-daily publications in 13 states. It is the fourth-largest newspaper company in the country.
John Bowman, former executive editor of the San Mateo County Times, has this to say about MediaNews's entry into the Bay Area: "They're way past the point of diminishing returns, of penny-wise and pound-foolish. ... Thin staffs provide less volume of news, less investigative and less enterprise stories. ... Copy desks are so thinly staffed that they are making an incredible number of errors. These errors are in the headlines and [photo captions so they are glaring. They are the kind of errors that destroy our credibility."
Faced with the prospect of deteriorating news quality, Bowman submitted his resignation after a 31-year career in the news business.
The one remaining major Bay Area paper not a part of MediaNews is the Chronicle. However, the Hearst Corporation contributed $300 million to help finance the Knight Ridder/MediaNews deal (via middleman McClatchy Publishing Company) and in return received a 30 percent interest in non-Bay Area holdings of MediaNews. Hearst and MediaNews have been discussing consolidating and cooperating in various operations, but were put on hold pending an antitrust lawsuit filed by former San Francisco political consultant Clint Reilly. The suit, which challenged the unprecedented consolidation, was settled shortly before trial last spring.
Dan Fost, who spent nearly a decade as a Chronicle media columnist, decided to leave the paper in August to become a freelance journalist. He says the Chronicle staff never could figure out why Hearst would subsidize Singleton's purchase of the Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, and wonders whether the Reilly lawsuit prevented a consolidation of the Chronicle into the same media empire.
Fost believes there is still a lot of talent at the Chronicle, which has been directed by editor Phil Bronstein to focus more on journalistic crusades to solve civic ills and on "master narratives," such as "Green Living," that cut across the Bay Area and to which almost any story can be tied. Fost observes that Singleton is clearly excited by the prospect of being able to sell the whole Bay Area in one ad buy, but laments that "newsrooms always get the worst of the deal." What makes him the saddest is that, on the whole, there are fewer people in journalism holding fewer people accountable -- which can't be healthy for our society and our democracy.
UC Berkeley law professor Stephen Barnett says it's "shameful that the U.S. Justice Department has walked away" from applying antitrust laws to the Bay Area consolidation. He says there are many other cities with examples of newspaper consolidation, but he can't think of any other area of similar size where the consolidation extends so far beyond the central city through the suburbs. He notes that "enforcement of antitrust laws is generally weak, and it has been super weak for newspapers because of their political clout."
And then there was one
Neil Henry, a journalism professor at UC Berkeley and author of "American Carnival: Journalism under Siege in an Age of New Media," says the Bay Area has suffered more than most areas, and that when fewer and fewer organizations own and deliver the news, it can't help but be harmful for democracy.
What we need is a variety of sources, he says, pointing out that when the region had a dozen independently owned papers covering a major story, there might be a dozen perspectives. Now, with MediaNews, they only need one reporter covering the story.
Henry covered Africa for the Washington Post between 1989 and 1993 using telexes and a 15mm camera. In those days all major television networks had bureaus in Africa, as did major newspapers and news services. Today there is no American television or cable network based on the continent, he says. Coverage is limited to the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and some news services that can be counted on one hand.
Henry says society is experiencing a paradox: wonderful new tools and a dazzling array of information available on the Internet, but those who contribute the substance -- journalists -- are dwindling and endangered.
Award-winning media critic Ted Glasser says the Bay Area's media consolidation is emblematic of a larger problem and leads to three things: fewer journalists, homogenization of coverage (with the same story appearing in multiple newspapers), and poor media coverage of journalism itself.
Glasser says the picture is not improving and the farther we head down this path the more the story needs to be covered -- and the less it is. That's the paradox.
Don't expect Bay Area daily newspapers, virtually all of which are a part of the deal, to make much of an effort to cover it -- which is exactly the nature of the problem it raises.