Dan Rather on the Free Press Our Nation Needs!

Dear Commons Community,

Dan Rather, former CBS news anchorman, has an op-ed in the New York Daily News, commenting on the state of the press.   He starts on the premise that the news business is currently in a crisis mainly because with so much online content available on the Internet, traditional news companies have not figured out how to utilize the new technology in a way that is financially feasible.  In simpler terms, people are not buying newspapers or watching the network news as much as they used to and instead log on to the Huffington Post and other freely available news outlets.  Specifically Rather comments:

Now all that information (and so much more) is available instantaneously online. In many ways, that’s a good thing, but newspaper subscribers (and the advertisers who wanted to reach them) underwrote investigative reports, foreign bureaus and a host of other journalistic ventures that, in the new media landscape, do not get anywhere near the attention they deserve.

And when government functions as mundane as school board meetings or zoning board hearings take place without the press watching, it is a certain recipe for ineffectualness and even corruption. Regardless of your political beliefs, this is something we should worry about.

Similar trends are at work in radio and television. For the first 20 to 25 years I spent at CBS News (from 1962 to the mid-1980s), the network prided itself on at least occasionally airing serious documentaries in prime time. This was done as a public service with no expectation of high ratings.

Yet once founder William S. Paley began to fade from control and the network was sold and resold several times in the name of consolidation, the practice of making room for documentaries in the tradition of Edward R. Murrow ceased.

The reasoning most often went as follows: “We’ll get killed in the ratings and demographics; it will too seriously dent our profits.” Any suggestions that we should continue doing them in the public — not the corporate — interest were dismissed.

These days, media outlets like the one that employed me have gone through decades of mergers and acquisitions, so that only a few corporate behemoths are now in charge of a frighteningly high percentage of what was once a dynamic marketplace.

By my estimate, and that of some others who have analyzed the situation, no more than six conglomerates now control more than 80% of the true national distribution of news in America. And for many if not all of these media companies, news is only one (usually small) parcel of their business.”

Rather’s optimistic conclusion:

“I believe that today’s media reality provides opportunities for new avenues of reporting. Journalists are no longer restricted to minutes on a broadcast or words on a page. The Internet allows for real breadth.

In addition, citizen journalism can be an effective new tool for the digitally minded news outlet. Working on a new investigation? Have an update on a previous one? Put it out there on Facebook, Twitter or a news website. With the added value of instant feedback and potential tips from the public, investigations can go in directions that before would either be impossible or take much more legwork.

However media companies adapt to evolutions in technology, quality journalism will always start with a publisher or ownership with guts. People at the top must believe that news is a public service and does not exist solely to gain ratings or go viral. News value must always supersede all else.

Models may emerge in the future based on non-profits, wealthy benefactors and, hopefully, some means to monetize online content.

In the meantime, members of the public must become active citizens and voice their opinions about what they see, read or hear on the news. Subscribe to news outlets practicing serious journalism, visit their websites and write letters to corporate leadership recognizing the type of reporting you want to see more of. The health of our democracy requires it.”

Good advice!





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