Former News Editor Mike Himowitz Spoke on Threats to our Free Press at the LBKDC March 12 Luncheon
Board Member Lucie Lapovsky introduced Mike Himowitz, who spent 34 years at the Baltimore Sun papers as state news editor, Washington correspondent, Baltimore County Bureau Chief,
Science, Medical and Technology editor and other positions.
Mike spoke to us on the topic of Roosevelt, Trump, Craigslist and the Media in Peril. “How do I dare mention Donald Trump and FDR in the same breath?” he asked. Both understood the importance of new technology. Roosevelt’s fireside chats were used to promote a radical agenda, The New Deal. He spoke directly to the American people using radio. Trump bypasses the traditional media and speaks directly to the American people by using Twitter. Trump’s Twitter account has, according to CNN over 50 million followers. Sadly, the traditional media feels obliged to repeat Trump’s Twitter rants regardless of how trivial some of them may be. As the press criticizes Trump, it feeds on his paranoia.
“My sole credential is that I lived through the drastic changes that have transformed the media over the past few decades. There have been many sad trends in news reporting. The market penetration of print media is much lower today than it was years ago. “This has not been a good decade for reporters,” he told us. There have been huge layoffs of reporters, and today’s reporters cannot get rich on a median salary that, as of 2017, is lower than school teachers who are underpaid. When I began, the newspaper industry's profit margin was 40%, today it is 10%. Market penetration of the print media has dropped drastically. Large numbers of newspaper reporters have been laid off since 2007. These sorry trends have occurred across our country. From my own standpoint, he said, despite all of these stressors, I loved journalism because I got paid to satisfy my curiosity.
The Sun, like many other papers, was clueless with regards to the Internet. The internet, which has nurtured propaganda vehicles, has in many ways replaced the traditional news media. We can now pick our news sources in the Cloud to support our biases. Internet news has become an echo chamber host for propaganda machines, Fox News for Republicans and MSNBC for Democrats. Millennials get much of their news from Facebook where there are no checks on accuracy. Cable caused young people to begin to abandon print media in the 1980s. Many print media sources have closed since the beginning of 2000. The New York Daily News has laid off over half of its staff. Companies that own both internet news sources and print news have sold off their print news.
In the old model, stories were written by experienced reporters and checked for accuracy by editors. News reporting was separated from opinion columns. This separation has increasingly been blurred and all but disappeared on the internet. There is no way to totally eliminate bias from news reporting, but editors did their best to separate fact from opinion. The free access to large volumes of shared information on the internet has nurtured malicious actors and fake news sites. Today, anyone with a web address can become a publisher. All of this has coarsened the quality of discussion and led to greatly heightened polarity in our political environment. And, it is easier for foreign countries to interfere in our politics.
Internet advertising services such as Craigslist, founded in 1996 by Craig Newmark, and eBay have also had a major negative impact on print media by replacing a primary source of revenue: classified ads. Craiglist has 68 million users in the U.S. Craigslist is free to most users.
So, what’s left? The largest print media newspapers are the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and New York Times. Even these traditional news sources have cut their staffs and their profit margins are suffering.
All this has made it more difficult for citizens to understand the reality of current politics and to evaluate the real performance of those that are elected to office. The most disheartening aspect of all of this, Himowitz told us, is the dissolution of the boundary between news and opinion. Even traditional newspapers, such as the Washington Post, have blurred the line between the two. Although the traditional print media has faced its challenges for many decades, nothing compares with the drastic changes that have occurred over the past few decades, and especially the last decade.