In today's NY Times, there is an insightful article, How Did Newspapers Land in This Mess?, by Richardf Siklos about the current challenges of newspapers owned by what he terms the "public market," or affectionately known as Wall Street, in aligning their shareholder's needs with that of the public good. At the heart of the article is an analysis of the three different ownership structures in current newspaper media: public market, private, and private equity.
His argument is that privately owned companies-- "Cox Communications (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution) to Mortimer B. Zuckerman (The Daily News in New York). A nonprofit group owns The St. Petersburg Times in Florida"-- experience less conflict with serving the public good. And publically-owned newspapers companies like the Tribune (Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times), Gannet (USA Today, New York Times, Washington Post ), McClatchy Corporation (Sacramento Bee) are currently mired in conflicts between their shareholders and the public good, represented through their editorial boards. At the center of this conflict is the Tribune management and the editorial board of the Los Angeles Times. Journalism.org has a fascinating analysis of the conflict, which at its heart is about how do public institutions like the newspaper both remain financially sustainable and maintain their mission to keep the public informed about events and the meaning of events that affect their lives.
The story ends where it began with a quote by Scott Flanders, CEO of Freedom Communications which owns the Orange County Register in California:
MR. FLANDERS was, not surprisingly, quite buoyant about private
ownership. He noted, for example, that with business flat at The Orange
County Register, his company opted not to revamp it but to start a
breezy new tabloid called O.C. Report aimed at people who say they are
too busy to read The Register. And he has some time to make it work.
“We’re going to be $20 million in the hole before we’re even close to
breaking even,” he said. (Note: I wonder if that strategy was the source of the Chicago Sun Times's Red Streak paper.)
More than just about the consolidation of media under corporate owners, this ties to my previous post about the reliance of corporations to serve the public good, but the answers are much more confusing. Ideally, public ownership should be the most democractic structure in journalism (i.e. the people vote with their readership, which effects circulation and advertising, which effects ROI for shareholders, who respond by making decisions that meet the public's demand). So the story goes. By extention, private ownership should lead to tyranny, as in the case of Hearst papers from the 1880s to the 1930s, but it also allows the paper to run unprofitably. Hearst supported the paper with his other wealth from mining, etc. But it does not seem to work that way.
Is it because the people who want to own newspapers are more benevolent? Is it because the corporation as controlled by market forces and the whims of shareholders, whose primary motive is the profit motive, is truely a sociopath, as laid out in the film the Corporation?
Simplistically, it seems that for democracy to function in an advanced capitalist country like the US, ordinary people need to be able to (1) vote for corporate board members and for corporate decisions at the level and depth of accountability that we do for our congressperson, or (2) return to our sense of government acting on the basis of the public good and be willing to fund through taxes and vote more directly on budget allocations, perhaps like we do for our 401K. Are these the steps towards ensuring democracy? If I knew the answers, I'd run for President, but then again as in the immortal words of Wyclef Jean:
If I was President
I'd get elected on Friday
Assasinated on Saturday
Buried on Sunday
They'd go back to work on Monday
If I was President (if I was President)
If I was President (if I was President)
It does make me want to investigate more of how people are trying to solve these problems throughout the world. One of the most humbling experiences of the GMF is realizing the extent to which Europe has solved some problems that the US has not resolved and vice versa. It was even interesting to see Ranjan's presentation about the Indian voting machine and his joke about helping the US, because the humor is in the fact that India could actually help the US in this area rather than vice versa.
Sometimes I feel that the advantage of being an African American in discussions about American Democracy is that we don't believe the hype although we live for the hope.
I have been reading more closely Robin Einhorn's American Taxation, American Slavery. What I am finding interesting in her analysis is that more progressive American democracies thrived in contexts, like Massachussets, where there was a certain amount of intrusion by the local government in people's lives (like being able to go into people's homes to take accounts of property) but there were frequent and highly participatory structures of accountability (local elections were held annually). Did you know that Massachusset's ended slavery in that state when an African slave, Quork Walker, successfully sued that slavery was in violation of the State's Constitution's statement that all men are "born free and equal"? Source: Wikipedia.org.