Get Me Rewrite!

How the new market-driven journalism is turning our stories into industrial waste

| September-October 1997

By now everyone knows that a handful of giant corporations dominate the communications industry. ABC is a subsidiary of Disney, which also owns theme parks, an oil and gas company, cable channels, magazines, newspapers, record companies, an insurance company, and even a hockey team. Time Warner owns TurnerBroadcasting, parent company of CNN, as well as sports teams, cable companies, film studios, retail stores, utility companies and much more. NBC is now owned by General Electric, while CBS belongs to Westinghouse. Fox Television is part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, which also includes the SkyChannel, HarperCollins publishing, newspapers, magazines and television stations.

Many observers worry about the impact that this state of affairs will have on our democratic future. Will corporate-owned media twist the news to promote their own narrow economic interests? But an even more vexing question is what happens to the story journalists tell when, under the thumb of corporate ownership, news is reconceived and repackaged as a product instead of being allowed to remain the complex process of informing citizens.

One of the stories journalists have been most fond of telling is the one about their own role as public servants, and about the steep wall that separates the newsroom from the business offices of media corporations, which assures journalists the freedom to tell us what we need to know. Yet more and more that wall is becoming an illusion. Mark Willes, CEO of the Times-Mirror corporation, which owns the Los Angeles Times, recently said, “I have suggested strongly and repeatedly that the people in the newsroom need to know and understand the people in our advertising department. And there has been more than one person who has pointed out the wall between the newsroom and the advertising department. And every time they point it out, I get out a bazooka and tell them if they don’t take it down, I’m going to blow it up.”

The destruction—or at least the erosion—of that wall is proceeding briskly. And it has many veteran editors worried. “Five or 10 years ago, your focus could be pretty much solely on content, and the question always was, ‘Is this a good story?,’” the managing editor of a small Virginia newspaper recently told the New York Times. “Now I have to think, ‘Is this a story that will connect with my readers’ particular lifestyles?’ That’s marketing, and it’s something that I never had to think about before.”

Under these conditions the line between telling and selling, citizen and customer, vanishes. In announcing an advertising campaign designed to change the newspaper’s public image, the management of the Minneapolis Star Tribune announced that “the goal is to change Minnesotans’ perception of the Star Tribune from that of a newspaper to ‘the brand of choice for information products.’” To help consumers make the change, the memo continued, “we need to move as far away from the newspaper as the point of reference as we can and focus on a product that’s the most different from the newspaper . . . And work will be done to create a personality that is positive, contemporary, and appealing to our customers of information.”

Viewed this way, the production of news becomes nothing more than a manufacturing process. Gene Roberts, editor of the New York Times, cites the example of the Winston-Salem Journal, now owned by Media General, where consultants introduced a system for classifying stories, and the amount of work each type of story should require: “An A-1 story should be six inches or less. A reporter should use a press release and/or one or two ‘cooperative sources.’ He or she should take 0.9 hours to do each story and should be able to produce 40 of these in a week.”

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