Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Press Corpse

I don't find it particularly funny that I already heard this phrase once today. In reference to a different time but a similar situation, someone once said, "Would the last business out of Wisconsin please hit the lights?"

Today, it's starting to feel like "Would the last member of the media out of Wisconsin please hit the lights?" would be more appropriate.

My dislike of Clearchannel is well-documented, but until today, it wasn't personal. It may have been moral, political and professional, but they had never before done something directly to me or a friend of mine. Of course, in the current news climate, I guess it was only a matter of time.

Jason Fischer is a younger guy like me, and worked for the company for several years, first at their Milwaukee affiliate and then here in Madison at WIBA. He primarily covered their nightsides, meaning we saw each other at a lot of city council meetings, county functions, school board hee-haws and the other miscellaneous news nuggets that happen in the hours after normal people get to have their dinner and call it a day.

As the reporter for WIBA, Jason was my primary competition, but that didn't stop us from hitting it off right away. Perhaps it's a self-defense mechanism in a hostile environment, but cracking wise becomes a way of life in the back row during five-hour city council meetings, and Jason I have been jokingly reprimanded by the Mayor himself for "appearing to have way too much fun" during serious budget sessions.

He's sharp, brutally competent, positive in a pinch, well-read and now... unemployed, thanks to the Clearchannel corporate masters in San Antonio.

He's not the only one. As I understand it, Clearchannel gutted the WIBA news room this morning, leaving only a couple members of the morning team. I don't know who all went, but there were a lot of veterans in that news room. You don't need a lot of veterans, though, when your plan is to have Madison act as a "spoke" for a larger regional "news hub" that pipes the news of the day out to cities hundreds of miles away.

Call me naive, but I can't to this day believe that Clearchannel's business model is still legal.

So to take a quick tally, this reduces the City Hall Press Corps to two and a half people, tops. Kristin Czubkowski from the Capital Times can be found reliably in the back row at all hours of a city council meeting and at most important committee meetings as well. I seldom miss a city council meeting, save when I have to fill in on the early morning shift (the one that starts at three AM).

And of course, there's Nick Heynen, the nightside reporter from the State Journal, who shows up at meetings when there's not something else more pressing happening on the scanner. Somewhere out there, Dean Mosiman is floating in the aether gathering his information in mystical ways only a city hall vet can, but we don't see him at council meetings.

If there's blood, guts or tears, the TV stations might stop out, and they will now outnumber the regulars. If there's a campus-related issue, the student papers will send a reporter and a shooter each, and THEY will now outnumber the regulars.

I texted Kristin about Jason being let go, and she echoed my own sentiments: "Clearchannel has no idea what it's given up. Idiots."

And she was more right than she knew, because to the people thousands of miles away who made the decision to let Jason and his co-workers go, the newsies they fired today were nothing more than names on a spreadsheet. That's another danger of massive media ownership in America, and as more names fall off the front of media row, I get more concerned about the future of our country.

In 2003, the American people were unwittingly lead into a war in part because the national press corps didn't ask the right questions of our elected officials, and an angry punk rock band called Anti-Flag wrote a song about it called the "Press Corpse" that, in part, inspired me to become a reporter.

In 2003, ad revenues were fat and juicy compared to today, and the press's ranks were likely once-and-a-half to twice what they are right now. I feel safe in saying Anti-Flag hadn't seen anything yet.


Tim Morrissey said...

Another sad day in radio, Dusty. And there are a lot more of them ahead.

Marcus Carman said...

Any possibility the cuts were economic driven and not just the work of the evil bastards at Clear Channel...or don't you read the papers, er paper, er....

Dustin Christopher said...

Clearchannel started this process well before the economic catastrophe, Marcus... As early as the late 90's. And rest assured that when this economic crisis is over, locally-owned companies will try to hire back the bodies they cut along the way and beef up their staffs again. Clearchannel will not.

Marcus Carman said...

So I guess Tim Morrissey is just counting the days until his old job is offered back to him by that locally owned company you're referring to?

Dustin Christopher said...

Not my decision to make, Marcus. See:

But the point that you're missing, intentionally, I think, is that having fewer voices in the news, fewer sets of eyes on our elected officials, fewer watchdogs is bad for America. Massive media ownership drives the problem. The economy exacerbates it.

Mark Clear said...

A sad day for those of us who work in city hall, too. Lack of media scrutiny is not a good thing for the government or the governed. Just ask the county board.

Jason Fischer said...

Thanks for the kind words. It was indeed a fun run. I'll miss some of those side conversations on "media row." I do wish all my former colleagues all the best. It's a different news delivery model, but it's a model that can work OK when done right. That said...the product will never be of the same quality (i.e. depth, breadth, accuracy, originality, timeliness, etc.) as news produced/gathered in-house 24/7 by staff dedicated to news. There are too many variables with outside help. I hope I'm proven wrong.

Here's another blog posting on this whole "hub and spoke" thing: