EDITORIAL At the annual awards dinner Nov. 9 of the Northern California Society of Professional Journalists, the mood was somber. One of the winners of the Journalist of the Year award, Josh Wolf, was behind bars for refusing to give unpublished material to the authorities. Two others, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada of the San Francisco Chronicle, were only free pending appeal of a judge's order that they go to jail unless they reveal the names of confidential sources.
On the eve of the dinner, the editor of the Los Angeles Times, Dean Baquet, had been fired for refusing to go along with drastic newsroom job cuts ordered by an out-of-town corporate headquarters. The event's keynote speaker, Jerry Roberts, had been forced to leave his job as editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press after the multimillionaire publisher demanded that basic news reporting be squelched.
The buzz around the room was that more layoffs were coming at the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News, papers just recently purchased by Dean Singleton, who now owns every major daily in the Bay Area except for the San Francisco Chronicle (which is owned by Hearst, one of his business partners). And indeed, the CoCo Times announced the day after the dinner that it had cut jobs across the board and was outsourcing some production work to a firm with facilities in India.
Linda Jue, the president of the SPJ chapter, made a point in her opening remarks about the need for journalists to take a more active stance, to fight against the assault on freedom of the press and journalistic standards that's happening across the country. She had exactly the right point — and local and national journalism groups need to wake up and start paying attention.
These are particularly ugly times — the amount of government secrecy, particularly at the federal level, is almost unprecedented. But there's something else just as bad going on: consolidation of media ownership is destroying the profession of journalism. And that's something that groups made of working journalists have to start addressing.
There are all sorts of ways to get started. The SPJ, both local and national, ought to formally request the federal Justice Department to overturn the deal that gave Singleton hegemony over the Bay Area market and should press for a full investigation into Hearst's role in the deal. These organizations (including the big unions that represent newspaper workers) ought to be working with the likes of Media Alliance in demanding that the Federal Communications Commission tighten the rules on ownership of broadcast media. Publicly traded companies that own newspapers should face organized shareholder-resolution campaigns opposing debilitating newsroom cuts. They should look at ways to support San Francisco investor Clint Reilly in his lawsuit against the Singleton deal and should at the very least issue statements on it. They should send regular delegations to see Wolf in jail and should press Rep. Nancy Pelosi to demand a federal shield law — an end to the federalizaton of law enforcement investigations (which can land people like Wolf in jail).
Sure, the Internet is changing the face of the media industry, and there are all kinds of other challenges — but in the end, no matter what the publishing platform, there will always be a need in a democratic society for qualified professional reporters and editors. And those of us in that line of work need to stand up to make sure that big media chains demanding obscene corporate profits don't suck the life out of American journalism. SFBG