The newspaper business has changed radically in recent decades. Most newspapers are now owned by a handful of large corporations, even by "holding companies", with parallel interests in cement, telecom, real estate, etc. While profit was once a motive for running a newspaper, it has become the sole motive today. In this Darwinian jungle, allegiance to the reader has been replaced by allegiance to the shareholder. Socially engaged and public service journalism, to the extent it existed, is increasingly rare -- its practitioners have become dinosaurs, unfit for the new age.
Many, including Chomsky, have reminded us for decades that corporate media, as profit-driven institutions, tend to serve the agendas and interests of dominant, elite groups in society. The "integration of the media into the market system has been accelerated by the loosening of rules limiting media concentration, cross-ownership, and control by non-media companies." And this trend has no national borders. The Times of India now sells editorial space, with not even the decency of adding a footnote to identify a commissioned write-up. A floundering old politician or a Bollywood starlet? An industrialist with a labor unrest problem? No worries. Just pay the Times for a series of flattering pieces on your wonderful human qualities. Want fries with that? Let the Times roll it out to its numerous other media "properties".
"Free market news" is in practically an oxymoron. Unlike in most professions, free market economics has been disastrous for journalism. Loyalty to shareholders only incidentally coincides with loyalty to readers. What we inevitably end up with is news that sells like any consumable, made palatable, which builds and affirms the myths of national greatness and benevolence. When aspirations devolve down to ratings and "eyeballs", news makers cater to the lowest common denominator. Dissent and disturbing stories tend not to be rewarded, sensational exposés and feel-good stories do. Soon, this spirals into frivolity or conformism, the latter best evidenced in the US right before the Iraq war.
To make matters worse, the juggernaut of the Internet has not been kind to newspapers. Circulation is down and so is print advertising. Too many newspapers are in the red. Alternate business models -- such as online versions with online ads -- have failed to stop the bleeding. The web has too much competition for advertising dollars, which simply follow the "eyeballs". Newspapers are therefore being sold off or shut down, concentrating corporate ownership even further. What will become of journalism? Should we worry about this?
In April 2006, John S Carroll, an eminent journalist and news editor, delivered an incisive and impassioned speech on the state of journalism at the annual meeting of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE):
A generation ago, we at the ASNE convention might have encountered such formidable editors as Gene Roberts, Ben Bradlee, Abe Rosenthal and Gene Patterson. With all due respect, there is no such pride of lions roaming among us today. This is not entirely our fault. Our jobs are harder than theirs. Our papers are shrinking, and so is our confidence.
How long has it been since an editor was so rash as to cite public service in justifying a budget? You might as well ask to be branded with a scarlet N, for naive. Our corporate superiors regard our beliefs as quaint, wasteful and increasingly tiresome. Even outside the corporation we have lost stature. We might see ourselves as public servants, but does the public see us that way?