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Journalism in a capitalist society

Locations: Opinion Published

Submitted in February 2021

Bachelor of Arts History and Journalism Indiana University 1973. Many job-oriented people would say I wasted my degree because I only worked for a newspaper fulltime for a brief period in the 1990’s. I disagree.

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Our colleges and universities aren’t trade schools to prepare you for gainful employment. They’re there to educate you in scholastic endeavors that may or may not help you find a job. The information I acquired in my six years of matriculation (I enjoyed college so much I took my time graduating) is one of my most precious possessions and, with an extraordinary long-term memory, I’ve carried it with me all my life. 

In the 1978 National Lampoon film Animal House, a statue of the Faber College founder bore the inscription, “Knowledge is good.”

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Without a doubt, the most significant story I wrote in my fleeting journalistic career was the 1994 Storm King Mountain Fire for the old Glenwood Post. As I was pounding out the tragic details under deadline pressure, my editor poked his head out of his office and said, “Cut it short, Fred. We’re short of ads. It’s gonna be a light paper tomorrow.”

I looked at him incredulously. After a brief pause, the editor flashed a big grin letting me know he was kidding. This was the first time I realized the amount of news you get isn’t in relation to the quantity of information there is to report, but the volume of ads advertising can sell. 

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Sometime after that, that same editor called me into his office and said the publisher, Stauffer Communications, would like to advertise more in Rifle, Silt, and New Castle. To do that, they wanted me to cover more Western Garfield County news. I was all over those towns attending every boring-ass city and town council meeting and giving readers the details of the feud between Silt’s mayor and the town manager and police chief. 

The merchants down the Colorado River didn’t flock to our advertising department’s door. I guess they were waiting for our salesmen to come to them. Whatever, Rifle, Silt, and New Castle didn’t get more ink because their stories were newsworthy. They got it because Stauffer saw a profit in it.

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After I was fired by the Post, I ran into David Frey, a reporter I worked with at the Post, at a Storm King Mountain Fire memorial at Two Rivers Park. At that time, Stauffer had gone belly up and Swift Communications had established the Post Independent as Glenwood Springs’ newspaper.

Frey asked me what my opinion was of the PI. Without giving it much thought, I said, “I guess it’s better than the paper we put out.” “I don’t think so,” Frey replied, “I don’t think the news in the Glenwood Springs area has ever been covered more thoroughly than you and I and John Stroud (currently senior reporter and managing editor for the PI) did back then.”

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Frey was right. We hit a lick. Nobody scooped us. Not the Aspen papers. Not the Valley Journal. Not the Rifle Citizen-Telegram.

The state of today’s PI is sad. There’s very little evidence of proofreading. Identical headlines sit above unrelated articles. There’s a large blank space with a cutline below it. Obviously, there should’ve been a picture there. The Aspen papers and the Sopris Sun do stories the PI should be doing. They publish only three times per week citing a shortage of ads due to the pandemic. Glenwood Springs needs more than that.

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I’ve been accused of kicking the PI while they’re down and so short staffed because of lack of funds, but I don’t understand why they’re so poor. The PI has way more ads than the Aspen Daily News and the ADN comes out every day.

The ADN is a skeleton of its former self, sometimes running eight-page papers. Somebody needs to explain to me why the ADN can’t get the ads, particularly real estate ads, the Aspen Times does.  With the advantage of a flush advertising budget, the Aspen Times does the best job of covering local news in the valley.

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There’s been a changing of the guard at the Sopris Sun. Longtime active local Raleigh Burleigh is the editor, but that doesn’t mean he’s the honcho. Like every other nonprofit in the valley, the Sopris Sun now has an executive director. His name is Todd Chamberlin. I’m a little concerned he’s an adman, but he has extensive experience in newspapers.   

Of course, print journalism isn’t long for this world. Many readers are getting their news online. That’s dangerous. If the only information certain people get is from sources that report only a particular point of view, the truth will suffer.

I admit I’m getting much of my news online, including Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson, who sends an extremely well-researched, but decidedly left-wing, newsletter about the events of the day.

As for television news, Paddy Chayefsky hit the nail on the head in his 1976 film Network. It’s all about ratings. High ratings mean you can charge more for your commercials and high-quality reporting doesn’t necessarily result in a big audience. 

Hype like “breaking news” or “the historic congressional hearings” replaces substantive news. Those who hope Donald Trump will be deposited on the scrap heap of history will be disappointed because the audience, whether they love him or hate him, can’t get enough of him.

I’m a socialist, but not necessarily in favor of state-run media. We all know Pravda in the Soviet Union and Xinhua in China were and are nothing but propaganda organs, but the British Broadcasting Corporation is government owned and our own Public Broadcasting System is federally funded. The BBC and PBS are the best sources of unbiased reporting on the airwaves today.

It all comes down to just another case of misplaced priorities provided by capitalism. The objective isn’t to report the news fairly and accurately, but to make money.

 

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