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Environmental connections to public health >>

Another one bites the dust

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Glen Martin, one of the best environmental reporters in California, has written his last story for the San Francisco Chronicle. Glen was one of EWG's favorite journalists. He dug deep into our Farm Subsidies Database and found that billionaire stockbroker Charles Schwab received more than half a million dollars in 2000 – for a rice farm he used as a private duck-hunting club. He reported on a secret chemical industry memo we obtained that outlined a scheme to spy on California activists. He got a story on the front page about our tests that found rocket fuel in California milk. And his stories on our investigation of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal water subsidies to the Central Valley Project were just part of his authoritative coverage of the state's water wars.

Like most reporters, Glen griped about his bosses and his business, but he loved his work. He's leaving not for The New York Times or The Washington Post, but because the Chronicle is slashing its newsroom by 100 positions – a fourth of the staff. Glen took a buyout package offered by management, but if not enough staff members accept a deal, involuntary layoffs will follow.

I'm not here just to tip a hat to Glen. All over the country, newspapers (and other newsgathering organizations) are reeling from the rapid exodus of readers and advertisers from print to the Internet. The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Denver Post, The Dallas Morning News and many more big papers are cutting staff and budgets under pressure from their corporate owners to maintain the absurdly high profit margins demanded by Wall Street. But the Chronicle, the largest newspaper in the region with the most 'Net-wired audience in the country, is reportedly losing $8 million a month, as ever-growing chunks of its audience get their news online and use Craigslist for classified ads.

The Bay Area is being hit particularly hard. Not too long ago, we had a wealth of ambitious newspapers competing to cover the news, including the Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times. After several rounds of mergers and consolidation, the Examiner has been reduced to a free tabloid, and the Merc and Times have joined the roster of MediaNews, a cost-cutting chain that already owned the Oakland Tribune and other East Bay papers.

MediaNews, not known for a strong commitment to journalistic excellence, now owns every paid daily newspaper in the Bay Area except the Chronicle. Insiders paint a distressing picture of how it has cut resources to the bone, with more staff reductions to come. MediaNews is consolidating the resources and staffs of its papers in the region – a logical move from a cost perspective, but bad for competitive journalism, leaving one reporter on a story that four might previously have covered from different angles.

Since you're reading this, you're probably already inclined to get your news online, and you may look forward to the end of printing the news on dead trees. Here's why you should care: Fewer and fewer resources devoted to aggressive reporting mean less and less coverage of important news – health, the environment, politics, science, pretty much everything except Paris Hilton.

You may read the news online, but almost all of it still originates as reporting by newspaper and wire service journalists, who are trained and experienced in exposing information that government and corporations would just as soon keep quiet. Some blogs and websites are good at passing on news from other sources and providing commentary on what the news means, but none have yet made the commitment to spend the kind of money it takes to do original enterprise reporting. Even The Daily Show or The Onion need the news to go off on.

The crisis in the newspaper business – however deserved by an industry that has aided its own demise by continually dumbing-down its product – is not just bad for news consumers, but for nonprofit advocacy organizations like EWG. In our 14 years we've invested heavily in building a reputation for credibility with journalists and used news coverage to shape the debate over environment and public health. We believe that if you can define the terms, you have a shot at winning the battle.

We'll continue conducting investigations that expose corporate misconduct and government malfeasance, and with databases like Skin Deep, give you direct access to the information you need to protect your health. But without journalism as it's been practiced for the last 100 years – savvy, seasoned reporters acting as watchdogs for the publc interest – it becomes much harder to get our messages out.

There seems no easy solution to the newspaper industry's problems. I spent 13 years as a newspaper reporter, compulsively pick up newspapers wherever I see one, and now even I read most of my news online. The section of the Chronicle I spend the most time with is sports. If they've lost me as a print reader, the odds of luring subscriptions from Silicon Valley programmers with saturation coverage of the launch of the iPhone are not good.

The newspaper industry has to find a way to make money online, although that flies against the cherished notion that information on the Web should be free. Or newspaper companies and their stockholders could accept lower profit margins in return for the satisfaction of knowing they're providing people with the information they need to govern themselves – a notion that, hokey as it may sound, our country is all about.

The odds of that happening? About as good as Glen Martin getting invited to dinner at Chuck Schwab's.

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