The Undercurrent: Media and the money motive

Kathryn Jones

Kathryn Jones

Over the holidays I heard from some friends who also work in journalism. We ended up sharing “horror stories” about trying to do good work in an age of intense financial pressure, corporate ownership and a push to “dumb down” news to make it more palatable – and profitable.

The bean counters who run many news corporations these days don’t see it that way, of course. They view it as simply giving people what they want. So the focus is on sports, pictures of kids, entertainment and commentary that reinforces what the powers-that-be think their readers already believe.

The goal, I was told by a former boss, was to get as many faces as possible in the paper or on the website. Why? Because that’s what sells papers, extra copies, subscriptions, ads, photo reprints and so forth.

What they don’t want to do is challenge readers too much intellectually or, heaven forbid, make them mad. Then readers might de-friend you on Facebook, cancel their subscription and even an ad and perhaps post a nasty comment on a website.  That doesn’t sell.

I have experienced this quandary firsthand in several past jobs. There were times I had to hold my nose and go along with corporate marketing ploys to make more and more money and keep feeding the corporate cow. But it was never enough.

Now I’m the web master of the Glen Rose Current, which is not driven by making money and not beholden to any advertiser or sponsor. My husband, Dan, and I produce the website as a public service.  Obviously, we cannot cover everything and don’t try to. Rather, we try to give readers something different. (In a small market, there’s some overlap, of course.)

After a year as the Current‘s editorI can say we’ve done some good work – an investigative piece about the political and financial conflicts of interests that helped derail a bill to extend the John Graves Scenic Riverway comes to mind. Unfortunately, Graves passed away last year and never got to see his beloved Brazos River given the same protections in his home county, Somervell, as it was upstream.

I plan to follow up on that story and others because although we’ve done some good work, much more needs to be done. I also have a paying job teaching journalism at Tarleton State University, so that means I develop content for the Current in my spare time. It’s the proverbial double-edged sword, trying to do journalism for free as a public service and make a living too. Sometimes I haven’t been able to update the site as much as I’d like. Other times, such as now during the break between semesters, I throw myself back into it.

Some folks ask why I do it at all. I certainly don’t have to. But I care about this area where I live and I want to help make it better.

I also still believe in journalism. I’m not ready to throw in the towel just because the money motive often trumps the ideals that led me and other post-Watergate journalism students into the news business. Certainly, the world of journalism has changed since I was a cub reporter with just a notepad and a pen. Now I have to be a writer, editor, photographer, videographer (still working on that), web master and social media maven. And I like it. This is an exciting time to be in journalism, watching a revolution in technology and an evolution in how readers interact with news sources.

I have come to the conclusion, though, that corporate interests are ruining good journalism. I see so many of my talented friends from the late, great Dallas Times Herald where I once worked, the Dallas Morning News, my next employer, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram leaving – or getting laid off – and taking jobs that pay very little or for which they are way overqualified.

There’s been a mass exit, a brain drain in journalism and a slaughter of something that cannot be replaced. A generation of experience and knowledge of our public institutions has been lost.

Some news organizations now seem to be intent on saving the patient by cutting out its heart and chopping off its legs.

When I went back to my hometown, Corpus Christi, to visit my parents over the holidays, I picked up the first newspaper where I worked, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. It was so narrow that it was hard to hold – broadsheet pages were designed to be as wide as the length of a reader’s arm so it would be easy to open and close a paper. Now that human engineering is gone. You had to hunch and scrunch to read it. The news was thin, too. Even the front page was crammed with ads. The paper was basically a wrapper for advertising.

Not surprisingly, the Caller-Times, once owned by the Harte-Hanks chain headed by the idealistic Ed Harte, is now part of the E.W. Scripps Co. Not to pick on that particular paper or company — it’s the same story pretty much across the board. Even small-town papers are owned by corporations that in turn are owned by the likes of hedge funds. And we know their methods all too well — restructure, cut costs, sell the “property” and pocket the proceeds.

I’ve come to believe that the best model for journalism is not the traditional one driven by ad-related profits. I’m a big admirer of the nonprofit Texas Tribune digital site edited by the person who brought me into Texas Monthly as a writer-at-large – TM’s former editor Evan Smith.

Fortunately, an Austin venture capitalist with deep pockets, John Thornton, didn’t lost his ideals along the way of making a lot of money. When the news organizations in Texas that used to have well-staffed Austin bureaus began closing or downsizing them, the Texas Tribune stepped in to fill the void. At the time, I couldn’t believe Evan was jumping from the helm of Texas Monthly to an unknown website. But now I think it was a brilliant move – especially for readers.

The Tribune is now the “go to” site for news about state politics and government. It provides the public record that keeps state government accountable and transparent – and it’s not afraid to tackle important, complex subjects.

Luckily, the Tribune likes to give away its content and we like to take it and run stories of local interest on the Current. So you regularly will see articles from the Tribune run on this site. The Tribune’s wire service also picked up my John Graves Riverway investigative piece, so I got to give back a bit as well.

Other public service journalism organizations with all-digital platforms are popping up, too. I’m glad to see them because they produce the kind of  journalism I used to take for granted. Entrepreneurial journalism grants and institutes are beginning to provide more funds and support as well.

This year the Current will strive to bring readers more investigative reporting, intellectually stimulating commentary and quality news and features. We also will continue to publish the work of young journalists we are helping to train for the future.

Ideals certainly don’t pay the bills. But they sure do bring in a lot of other rewards that are, as one adman once wrote, “priceless.”

Kathryn Jones is editor of the Glen Rose Current. She can be reached at 254-974-0326 or kathrynjones1956@gmail.com. 

3 Responses to The Undercurrent: Media and the money motive

  1. Rev. John Kent Berry Reply

    January 10, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    Kathryn,
    Good words on the general state of on our news papers. It seems that if journalism is held captive to only the commercial and marketing aspects… it loses the essential quality and integrity of truthful story telling.

    Much like the “American Way of Death” found in funeral homes across our country, we find that they are owned by franchised corporate structures. so, the mom and pop family funeral home is a vanishing breed.

    So much for the bean counters of our present social order… I am glad that the web site in Glen Rose is free to publish opinions and news that remains free of upper management control.

    Pro Deo Et Patria ( For God and Country )

    Rev. Kent Berry

  2. Lesia Whipps Reply

    January 7, 2014 at 8:26 am

    Love this! I can not wait to see what 2014 holds for us all! I Love the Current and appreciate all you efforts! Thanks Kathryn!

    • Kathryn Reply

      January 7, 2014 at 9:53 am

      Thanks so much, Lesia! We will strive to serve our readers in 2014 as best we can. We appreciate your support more than words can convey!

      All the best to you in the new year, Kathryn

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