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Effects of cost-cutting are felt in Reuters flap

BEFORE the American news media’s collective shrug consigns the Reuters photo scandal to the nether world of shabby journalistic footnotes, one of this affair’s wider implications is worth a moment’s exploration.

The incident began when Los Angeles-based blogger Charles Johnson and one of his readers detected a freelance photographer for the Reuters news agency manipulating pictures of the fighting in Lebanon. They, along with other online press monitors, soon turned up not only doctored images, but also numerous staged and falsely captioned pictures by various photographers -- all designed to incite outrage against Israel. Reuters fired Adnan Hajj, the photojournalist involved, and purged its digital archives of more than 400 images he had sold them. The agency also said that, in the future, a more senior editor would review photos from Lebanon before they are transmitted to Reuters’ clients.

That’s all well and good, but the lingering question is how these patently phony pictures were distributed in the first place and why they weren’t detected by the news organizations that received them? (It’s certainly possible that some photo editors spotted them, raised their eyebrows in suspicion, tossed the images away and moved on without saying anything. That’s another issue and outside the scope of this discussion.)

To consider one of the most troubling of the Reuters debacle’s possible causes -- the way cost-cutting opened the way to manipulation, whatever its motive -- it’s helpful to take a long step back and to note a couple of quotes from a story that appeared in the New York Times’ business section early this week.

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The article was a profile of the E.W. Scripps media company, currently something of a darling among investors. Along with profitably frothy cable television franchises -- such as HGTV and the Food Network -- the company still owns 21 U.S. newspapers. As the paper reported, “John Morton, a veteran newspaper analyst, says that Scripps Newspapers, the company’s newspaper unit, ‘does not get high marks for its journalism.’ He added, however, that its cash-flow margins -- 28.9% in the second quarter -- were among the highest in the industry.”

For that reason, Morton’s analysis of the Scripps papers’ quality didn’t faze Thomas A. Russo, a partner in an investment firm whose clients hold E.W. Scripps stock. “In order to make money in newspapers,” he told the Times, “you want to cover promos, potlucks and police blotters. The last thing you want to hear about is Pulitzers. And Scripps has done a great job.”

It’s fashionable these days to talk about the problems corporate ownership poses for American journalism, but the fact is that whoever putatively owns them, most news organizations are not really run by their corporate officers. They’re actually run by fund managers and investors, like Russo. It’s their job to have a spreadsheet for a brain and a calculator for a soul. It’s what their clients demand. They, in turn, require that the people running the news media act as agents of their avarice -- or their company’s stock price heads deeply and rapidly south.

Call it the era of post-corporate news media management, and its singular characteristic is one round of cuts after another in the interests of keeping profit margins at unsustainable levels. Readers and viewers lose, of course, but the fund managers and their clients win and the corporate officers get to survive another quarter.

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COVERAGE of foreign news, always an expensive proposition, has suffered worse than almost any other category of coverage. Recently, for example, the Baltimore Sun -- which like The Times is owned by the Tribune Co. -- was forced to close the last of the foreign bureaus it had maintained since 1887. Baltimore readers still will get coverage provided by this paper and the Chicago Tribune, but with each such reduction American journalism loses more of the redundancy that helps keep it honest and the multiplicity of perspectives that helps keep it fair. Worse, all this occurs at a historical moment in which responsible citizenship requires a wider and more sophisticated grasp of foreign news than ever before.

And, as less and less money is spent on original foreign reporting and photojournalism from abroad, the reliance on international news agencies for both words and images becomes greater and greater.

That brings us back to Reuters and to the role its own financial cutbacks may have played in the Lebanon scandal. The agency used to maintain three photo desks staffed with veteran editors in Washington, London and Hong Kong. A year ago, it decided to save money by consolidating all three operations into one global pictures desk located in Singapore. Many of Reuters’ most experienced hands declined to relocate to the Southeast Asian city. Moreover, according to figures made available by the Newspaper Guild, salaries paid to picture desk employees hired in Singapore range from $18,200 to $24,000 and they receive no overtime. That compares to the $57,000 to $85,000 Reuters was paying in the now disbanded Washington operation.

The photographs Hajj falsified were among a batch of 43 that went directly from his laptop in Lebanon to Reuters’ global photo desk in Singapore where they were reviewed and captioned before they went streaming out to newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets around the world without so much as a whisper of caution or whimper of dissent from anybody involved.

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Whatever its architects’ financial goals, the Reuters picture desk was a journalistic accident waiting to happen -- and it did. The truth is that “consolidation” and cutbacks are creating similar hazards throughout the English-speaking world’s journalistic network.

In a recent article in Britain’s Financial Times, Los Angeles Times Managing Editor Leo Wolinsky said, “There is only a relative handful of papers that still have big ambitions for themselves.”

The Financial Times article noted that “despite the widespread perception of a financial crisis, profitability in the industry is close to its all-time high. Last year, overall operating profit margins climbed above 20%, their best performance since the mid-1980s, says Morton, [the] independent industry analyst. Yet while profits remain solid, it has taken cost-cutting to achieve them.... This has raised alarms in the newsrooms of papers that believe they still hold a unique place in fulfilling a public responsibility.”

Despite the scarcity of ambitions Wolinsky noted -- as well as the resources required to realize them -- may mean for the democracies whose lifeblood is free and accurate information is of little concern to fund managers. They calculate returns not consequences.

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It doesn’t overstate things by much, however, to declare that if their backroom influence over the news media isn’t checked, the result will be a sort of slow-motion catastrophe in which we simply await that last apocalyptic thud to announce our arrival at the bottom of the abyss.


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