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09.19.07

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The Byrne Report

Fish Wrap

By Peter Byrne


Fish Wrap

On June 26, 2007, Bruce Kyse, who publishes the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and is a board member of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce, printed a "Note to Readers" announcing that he is selling advertising on the once-sacrosanct front page because of "competition" from the Internet. "This change is one of the ways we are responding to meet advertiser needs while also sustaining our news gathering operation," Kyse wrote.

Such a statement naturally leads a reasonable person to wonder: What news gathering operation? Out of 33 stories published in the front-page section of the Sept. 9, 2007, Press Democrat, exactly one story was written by a PD reporter--and it was a vastly hyped promo for a local business park. The rest of the section was filled with stories grabbed, essentially, off the Internet. Three were picked up from the PD's corporate parent, the New York Times Co.; two from the Los Angeles Times; one from the Seattle Times; and 27 large and small tales were generated by the Associated Press and other wire services.

Almost 50 percent of the front section was colorful, eye-catching advertising; the rest of the paper was about 85 percent advertising and duplicitously formatted mind-benders called "advertorials." That people will pay real money to read advertising and Chamber of Commerce press releases disguised as local feature stories gives me gas.

Despite Kyse's fiscal lament, the fact is that most newspapers generate operating profits of 10 to 25 percent. Securities and Exchange Commission filings show that, despite falling circulation, the New York Times Co. booked an increase in earnings per share this year of 57 percent on total revenue of more than $1.5 billion. And one of the most lucrative growth sectors for the Times and its 14 regional newspapers, including the profit-exporting PD, is online advertising.

The late columnist Molly Ivins remarked earlier this year, "What really pisses me off is [when] newspaper owners look at one another and say, 'Our rate of return is slipping a bit; let's solve that problem by making our product smaller and less interesting.'" Why have 34,000 reporters, many of them investigative, been laid off nationally in the past five years? So that shareholder profits can rise.

Kyse is being disingenuous when he blames the Internet for his ever-shrinking news hole. Kyse buys syndicated stories so that he does not have to hire reporters and editors. And the industry-wide 10 percent decline in classified print advertising is being compensated for by burgeoning online advertising revenues.

Furthermore, a recent University of Missouri-Columbia study examined a decade's worth of daily newspaper financial data and concluded that "If you lower the amount of money spent in the newsroom, then, pretty soon, the news product becomes so bad that you begin to lose money." Bad newspapers like the PD offset declines in circulation revenue by flooding mailboxes with unwanted advertisements and cutting back the news operation. Apparently, it has not occurred to the local daily that subscribers might be attracted to quality reporting.

What PD readers need to understand is that the pro-business publisher and the editors who obey him are not interested in ferreting out "news" when they can buy online government and corporate propaganda for a warble. And as for real investigative reporting--which barely now exists at the PD--why bother to potentially embarrass Kyse's colleagues at the Chamber, such as Iraq war contractor Agilent Technologies or Medtronic, against whom the United States Attorney began proceedings in 2005 for violating anti-kickback statutes.

Is love of Agilent why Kyse and his editorial staff continue to run pro–Iraq War people profiles so pasted together with jingoist treacle that they stick to your eyeballs? Here is a revealing line from an anti–free speech editorial (May 16) slamming peaceful antiwar protesters: "When people line up to watch a community parade, they aren't there to hear political rants. As a rule, aggressive politicking doesn't belong here." Naturally, that lofty admonition does not apply to the printing rants by such regular featured columnists as the politically deranged Charles Krauthammer.

The Bruce Kyses of American publishing are working hard to blur the line between news and advertising. Here are two examples: On Sept. 6, Kyse ran a full-page advertorial paid for by Toyota "celebrating" the "community" consciousness of 13 Chamber firms who are "partners" of the PD. What kind of "partners"? Domestic partners?

The most duplicitous advertorial ever ran on May 15, 2007. The faux headline was "Credit Card Debt?" The faux bylined "news" story was about CreditGuard, a "nonprofit" credit-counseling company that supposedly helps stressed-out consumers reduce debt. I tracked the company online and quickly discovered that CreditGuard functions as a debt collector for the credit-card industry. There is a real story there, but you won't see it in the PD.

The Byrne Report welcomes feedback. _Write pbyrne@sonic.net.


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