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The media meltdown

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Robin Doussard
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Early Saturday morning, I sat facing dozens of sharp young women who were prepared to pepper me and two other panelists about the state of the media.

This was the third year that I’d been on the panel, which is part of the NEW Leadership Oregon program at Portland State University. It’s always a daunting request to sum up such as vast and complicated question, and this year even more so, coming as it did in an historically transformational time for all media.

I wish I had been able to tell the group something more positive. Each year, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism exhaustively analyzes the state of the media and this year’s report doesn’t mince words: “This is the sixth edition of our annual report on the State of the News Media in the United States. It is also the bleakest.”

Bleak because the report chronicles how print revenue is plummeting, newspapers and magazines locally and nationally are failing, local TV staffs “are being cut at unprecedented rates,” and though more people are going online for news, the online revenue to support that news is not growing with it.

This was mostly the case before last year, but the report states that the recession by some estimates doubled the revenue losses in the news industry in 2008, and swamped most of the efforts at finding new revenue, adding that “2008 may have been a lost year, and 2009 threatens to be the same.” The report stated that nearly one out of five journalists working for newspapers in 2001 was gone by the end of 2008, and 2009 may be the worst year yet. Daily newspapers, the biggest employers of journalists but by no means the only ones, alone shed 5,000 journalists last year.

Bleak. But talking about this to the next generation of political leaders was more exhilarating than depressing. These young women understood the need for good journalism even while they were pretty critical — and rightly so — of some of its practices. (In particular, the “hemlines hair and husbands” line of questioning that many women politicians must endure from news outlets rankles them — and me.)

Just as bleak are the statistics about how few women there are in political leadership positions. The current 111th Congress is being lauded for having a record number of women. That's great until you get to the numbers: 17 women now serve in the 100-member Senate and women hold 73 of the 435 seats in the House. It's a little less than 17% of the 535 total seats. But fortunately, unlike journalism jobs, those trend lines are getting a little better each year, and programs like NEW Leadership are part of the solution.

The Pew report is fairly damning about the current leadership of news organizations saying, “there are growing doubts within the business about whether the generation in charge has the vision and the boldness to reinvent the industry.”

It’s too bad the women I met Saturday morning were not interested in a career in journalism. It was a room full of passion to re-imagine the world and it made me jealous that I didn’t have them working for me. But maybe someday I'll be working for them.

Robin Doussard is the Editor of Oregon Business Magazine.

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