The Media Ash Heap

Effective yesterday, City News Service of Chicago is no more–after 124 years. It was announced a month ago, but I didn’t see it until today. I came across the news in Editor & Publisher, the trade paper for the print news business.

I had planned to make insolent comments about Editor & Publisher’s Top Ten Newspaper Industry Stories of 2005.  The E&P list averts its eyes from the pancaking circulation figures so many major urban dailies reported in 2005–such as the 16.4 percent drop experienced by the San Francisco Chronicle in the six months ending in September. I wondered why E&P would go to such lengths to describe the elephant’s footprints (“job losses,” “cutbacks” resulting from the sale of Pulitzer Inc., Knight-Ridder for sale), without saying anything about the elephant itself. It’s not like newspapers aren’t covering this story:

But there’s no denying a sense of looming crisis as subscription numbers at individual newspapers drop – 2 percent here, 5 percent there – each year. Even the industry’s traditionally healthy profit margins won’t survive if advertisers balk at paying top dollar to reach elderly diehards – senior citizens still love papers – or no one at all.

Among some bloggers, the death of the “legacy” news business is greeted triumphally.  And I get it.  The mainstream media is capable of incredible arrogance.  Many want to see them punished for it.

But the sadness of traditional journalism’s implosion began to sink in when I saw the headline about City News.  What’s happening in Chicago makes it personal.  I worked for a couple of years at City News Service of Los Angeles, which was modeled on Chicago’s.  In Los Angeles, CNS is how TV and radio stations find out what and where where the news is; and it’s the uncredited source of much of their copy.  The novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who worked at CNS Chicago, described what we did pretty succinctly:

“Well, the Chicago City News Bureau was a tripwire for all the newspapers in town when I was there, and there were five papers, I think. We were out all the time around the clock and every time we came across a really juicy murder or scandal or whatever, they’d send the big time reporters and photographers, otherwise they’d run our stories.”

CNS-Chicago’s closure was probably foreordained when the Sun-Times pulled out of a collective management agreement, leaving the Tribune Co. as its only owner.  In a copy-and-paste world, it made no sense for the Tribune to run a wire service to feed its competitors. CNS-LA runs on client fees and seems more secure. If anything, as newsrooms cut back staff, they need City News Service more than ever. Why send a salaried reporter to cover a fire or a trial when CNS will pay an entry-level reporter entry-level wages to do the same thing?reporters.jpg

Still, it’s sad. The obits for CNS-Chicago all made reference to the famed journalists who got their start there, and the movies their exploits inspired, like “The Front Page,” “His Girl Friday” (the “Front Page” with one character’s gender changed to allow a romance) and “Call Northside 777.” It’s from films like these that we get archetypal images of reporters as cynical eccentrics, hard-drinking, fast-talking, fast-typing and nobody’s fools. You don’t see reporters portrayed that way much anymore. Today’s press is hard to romanticize. They’re either biased elitists, or amoral paparazzi, as far as most of the public is concerned.

reporters2.jpgCNS-Chicago’s demise is an ominous way to begin 2006.  And I have a strong feeling the ash heap of journalism history is going to get a few more shovelfuls of debris this year.

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