It was the climax of American journalism. Two young reporters at The Washington Post followed a story about a hotel break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in 1972 and uncovered a scandal of corruption and cover-up that led all the way to the White House. Fighting through a maze of lies and deceit, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein forced President Richard Nixon to stand accountable for his crimes and resign. The media had the head of the most powerful figure in the world on a stick.
The Watergate scandal represented a golden age for journalism. CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was considered "the most trusted man in America," Seymour Hersh broke the story on the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and a generation of reporters had proved their mettle by bringing home the brutal realities of wars from around the world. By acting as the watchdogs to power, Woodward and Bernstein helped enshrine the media as an institution of integrity. It wouldn't last long. The media's success quickly made it bloated and cocky and in the 1980s it began to act less like a public trust and more like a business – selling its independence to promote the views of its advertisers. Before being fired from The Sunday Times in 1984, famed British war photographer Don McCullin lamented, "The paper has completely changed: it's not a newspaper, it's a consumer magazine, really no different from a mail-order catalog." By the time the major media powers, from Fox News to The New York Times, threw their support behind the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq, the media had become an institution of distortion.
But just as the media were reneging on their biggest responsibility, with almost biblical timing, the digital revolution attacked. Faced with a mass migration of advertisers and consumers to the internet, the old media suddenly found itself struggling for survival in the electronic age. For the past five years, newspapers and broadcast stations have announced layoffs and staff cutbacks on an almost weekly basis. Newsrooms have been gutted and the last remaining vestiges of investigative journalism are disappearing. After defining democratic debate for more than a century, the old media will be lucky to make it out of this decade.
But without any alternative ready to fill the vacuum, democratic discourse is sitting in a no-man's land. The old media is quickly withdrawing from it role as a watchdog, but the new media is far from ready to step in and replace it. If nothing materializes soon, we might have a time without the existence of an institution that keeps governments or corporations in check. The future of the media and democracy now hangs in the balance.
"The bottom is coming out of the cup," says Robert W. McChesney, a professor of communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and co-founder of Free Press, a non-partisan organization dedicated to media reform. "It's a social and political crisis. In the United States, our whole constitution is founded on the idea that there will be a viable press system so people have the necessary information to govern their lives. Without that press system, it makes a whole mockery of the constitutional system because people in power will know things that the population won't."
Most disturbingly, no one has the slightest clue what the new media model will look like. There's talk of citizen journalism, hyper-local reporting, public and private hybrids and multimedia monsters, but when the experts are pressed about the future of media, they all offer the same inexplicable answer: "I don't know." Despite all the money, talent and resources available, no one actually knows how to save the media. Although the media industry remains faithfully optimistic that some sort of solution will be come down from cyberspace and save journalism, they can't actually say how it will happen.
If the media wants to find a solution, it's going to have to start doing a better job of reporting on the problem. Pick up any newspaper or turn on any evening news and you'll rarely see the media actually address the crisis. But the evidence is apparent in the watered-down political coverage, the increase in advertorial features and the heavy reliance on wire services. The lack of real reporting is meant to compensate for the fact that major media companies have gutted their newsrooms beyond recognition and no longer have the budget for expensive investigative reporting. However, the downsizing only confirms the view that the media has lost its relevance and only causes more people to tune out. According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, the number of Americans accessing the news is down ten percent from 1994. Even more tellingly, 27 percent of people under 30 get no news at all. We're seeing the emergence of a generation that will never get its news from newspapers, television or radio again. The old media is dying.
Like a drunken surgeon, the media has responded by cutting off its most important limb: journalists. According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, 3,000 jobs were cut at daily newspapers between 2000 and 2005. Another 1,000 cuts came in 2006, and according to Media Life magazine, more than 900 newsroom jobs were lost at American newspapers between last April and August alone. Network news, radio and magazines haven't fared much better and have seen staff reductions of roughly 10 percent over the same time period. Thousands more jobs will likely disappear in the next three years. No media outlet of any size or shape is safe today: the BBC recently laid off 450 people in its news department, while the century-old Kentucky Post announced it will simply shut down on New Year's Eve.
While any downsizing hurts journalism, it's the slash-and-burn at newspapers that's causing the most alarm. Although television and radio have a much broader reach, print journalists still do the bulk of the newsgathering. Dean Baquet, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times who was fired for refusing to make drastic job cuts, told PBS's Frontline, "If we [newspapers] disappeared tomorrow, most of the people who call us dinosaurs would disappear, too. All the bloggers who exist to comment on us, the Googles and Yahoo!s . . . who rely on what we write about in California and the nation and Washington, they wouldn't exist if we didn't exist." Any hope the media has in the future will depend on newspapers finding a formula to make journalism affordable.
"Newspapers are crossing a dark valley in hopes that there's another mountain on the other side," says Mike Hoyt, executive editor of the Columbia Journalism Review. "In the late ''80s and early '90s, newspapers made good profits and big chains saw them as a good investment. Now there's competition everywhere you look and the web has sucked up much of the classified advertising. It's created a rough period and everyone's looking hard for the economic model that will sustain the kind of journalism the world needs. Democracy requires quality journalism. Necessity is the mother of invention, and journalists are creative people. So I think we'll find a way."
But newspapers have been scrambling to find this Holy Grail for the past decade with little success. Owned by public corporations that sit on the stock market, they have seen their value fall more than 30 percent over the past two years alone. Technology has allowed for a dramatic increase in competition that has fractured the public's news-gathering habits and kept any media from having the kind of dominance that newspapers once enjoyed. According to the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of Americans read a newspaper on an average day in 1965. Today, it's just 40 percent.
Print media is not alone on this sinking ship. All other forms of the media have also seen their viewers and readers flee over the past decade. Ten years ago, 60 percent of Americans watched the CBS, NBC or ABC evening news. Today it's just 28 percent. Since 1998, the number of radio listeners has dropped from 49 percent to 36 percent. Meanwhile, almost a third of Americans now get at least some of their news from the internet. For the first time, the old media cannot control the flow of information. Even the major media players can see the writing on the wall.
"I really don't know whether we'll be printing The [New York] Times in five years," Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the paper's publisher told Israel's Haaretz in early 2007. "And you know what? I don't care."
While the internet is widely seen as the source of problems for the of newspapers and news broadcasts, much of the media's undoing is its own fault. Although it's been slow to adapt to the digital age – mainly because it couldn't find a way to make a profit from the new technologies – the current crisis is more about the media losing touch with its values.
A week after Time Inc. cut 650 jobs from Time magazine in 2006, it managed to scrounge up $4 million for exclusive photos of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitts' newborn child. Journalists such as The New York Times' Jayson Blair and The New Republic's Stephen Glass infamously fabricated dozens of articles for their publications and helped destroy the legacy Woodward and Bernstein cemented three decades ago. But perhaps the worst betrayal was when commentators Armstrong Williams and Maggie Gallagher were caught accepting thousands of dollars to promote the Bush administration's policies. The media has been transformed from a check on power to a power that needs to be checked.
In its annual report on American journalism, The State of the News Media 2007, the Project for Excellence in Journalism states the public perception of journalists has been on a steadily decline since the 1980s. "Journalists see themselves, as Humphrey Bogart put it in the movie Deadline USA, as performing 'a service for public good,'" the report states. "The public doubts that romantic self-image and thinks journalists are either deluding themselves or lying." This media crisis has not been caused so much by a technological changes, but by a moral breakdown.
"The gatekeepers have let the barbarians inside," says Neil Henry, a former Washington Post correspondent and professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. "When you allow so many instances of failure, whether it's cases of fabrication like Jayson Blair, or the failure of reporting in the lead up to the Iraq War – where so many journalists were too close to power to ask the tough questions – or whether it's selling the naming rights to television stations and allowing advertisers to control news content, these incursions have been growing."
This deterioration of the Fourth Estate has created a void, one which the new media has been all too willing to try to fill. While the corporate media falls by the wayside, a wave of bloggers and citizen journalists has emerged over the last ten years to pick up the slack. In the past three years, bloggers have exposed a member of the White House press corps as a male prostitute and Republican party plant, found that local governments in Colorado deliberately created traffic to push drivers onto toll roads and, most famously, discovered that the documents used in a CBS 60 Minutes segment to show how President Bush got special treatment in the Texas Air National Guard were forgeries.
With major media institutions cutting back on reporters around the world, citizen journalist sites like NowPublic.org are often the only source the public has to find out what's happening on the ground. Citizen journalists have been able to give vivid first-hand accounts of life in Iraq, the battle to stay alive in New Orleans and government suppression of protests in Burma. Armed with the power to make their own media, citizen journalists have shifted the balance of power and allowed the public to control the flow of information for the first time.
"Citizen media is leading to lots of changes in media of all kinds," says Dan Gillmor, founder of the Center for Citizen Media and co-author of We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People for the People. "The audience just doesn't have to consume, but is part of the conversation and it's had enormous effects already in this whole shift. But while there's been a lot of stuff happening, it's still not clear where we're going to end up."
Gillmor has been one of the leading proponents of citizen journalism, but his expression of caution is notable. Citizen journalism received a great deal of hype as the new challenger to the corporate press, but has suffered some early defeats. Gillmor's Bayosphere, a citizen media site "of, by and for the Bay Area," shut down within a year – he sold the site to Backfence.com, which also folded. Other citizen journalism sites have suffered from a lack of organization, interest, professionalism and, most of all, a lack of finances.
Even the most ardent proponents of citizen journalism admit it's not supposed to replace the old media, merely supplement it. While the digital revolution may have leveled the playing field, regular citizens still lack the resources and skills to spend months doing hard research, interviews, fact checking, and navigate through the halls of power. If the new media is struggling online, how much hope is there for the old media?
Perhaps the only certainty in this new age is that the old model is dead. What might be the most depressing fact of the current crisis is that newspapers are continuing to make incredible profits. According to the International Newspaper Financial Executives, the average major newspaper makes a 15.6 percent pre-tax profit. The Tribune Company, which own the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, has a 21.4 percent pre-tax profit margin. In contrast, Wal-Mart, the world's largest corporation, operates at a 5.4 percent profit margin. Although the media is suffering from major revenue loses, the gutting of the public watchdog is happening because media corporations are insisting on maintaining the same extreme margins.
With Wall Street obviously unable to uphold its responsibilities of a public trust as important as the media, the idea of non-profit organizations acting as the new media stewards is increasingly gaining steam. Mother Jones, Harper's and National Public Radio are all non-profits and produce some of the best journalism in the world, partly because a social agenda is built into organization's mandate. Even newspapers have begun to adopt the model with success, such as Florida's St. Petersburg Times. While they're still confronted with the same problem of attracting an audience in the digital age, because non-profits funnel revenue back into their projects, they offer the media at least one formula for stability.
"The media can be done as a non-profit and it's something that makes me salivate when I think about it," says Charles Lewis, a former producer of 60 Minutes and president of the non-profit Fund for Independence in Journalism. "The concept is simple. There are a lot of immensely talented individuals who have nowhere to ply their wares journalistically and you have an educated and informed public in the US, Canada and around the world that want good journalism. What's required is marrying those two up. It's not rocket science, it's simply a matter of cash and sustainability."
Decades before Woodward and Bernstein, the media's sustainability came from placating the power brokers. In Upton Sinclair's 1919 classic muckraking exposé of the media, Brass Check (a reference to how prostitutes were paid at the time), the journalist condemns the American media for turning the profession into a cheap, bawdy trash. Almost a century later, the media has begun to backtrack to its most shameful past. However, the difference today is that the public is no longer forced to consume the corporate media if it wants news and can look for new souces of information online.
Death-calls for the media are not new and were just as widespread during the advent of television news in the 1960s. But the competition between broadcast and print ended up helping journalism mature and produced one of the greatest eras in its history. While there are still more questions than answers about surviving online, the digital revolution certainly has the potential to do the same and could give journalism more power than anything Woodward or Bernstein could have ever imagined.
As McChesney points out in his recent book, Communication Revolution, we've reached a "critical juncture" and the media could go in many different possible directions. The new era could give the major corporations that already have a firm stranglehold over the media even more power, or journalism could dissipate altogether and lose all relevance to our lives. Either scenario would silence democratic discourse.
In order to avoid the worst-case scenario and take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it's important that the future of the media be placed in the proper hands. If it's distributed equally amongst corporations, non-profits, journalists and the public, then a true balance of power can be achieved and the media can return to once again being an institution of integrity and a watchdog to power.