Troubling Times For Journalists

Bob Jones
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Wednesday - January 18, 2006
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Last year was an annis horribilis for journalists. More than 2,000 newsroom jobs cut in America. Salary reductions or freezes were common, and that’s continuing in 2006.

KHON-2’s new owners say they’re laying off at least 35 of 112 employees. KHNL-13’s news ratings are near non-existent. KGMB-9 is known to send only a cameraman to cover some stories - no reporter.

There’s that troubling plagiarism. It resulted in the firing of longtime Star-Bulletin reporter Tim Ryan. Scripps Howard News Service has just fired columnist Michael Fumento for taking payments from agribusiness Monsanto while praising it in his columns.

Ethics columnist Thomas Kostigen of Marketwatch is calling for the prosecution of such errant journalists.

“More than the prospect of shame, job loss or ostracism, journalists and writers should have to face criminal or civil consequences like everyone else,” Kostigen suggests.

Fortunately for me, I worked the years of few such problems. When the newspaper and TV owners were like sports team owners. They were paying for champions who swung for the fences. Ethics sometimes were breached but nobody much cared.

I recently turned 70 and I look back on a much different time in the business - or what I always call the “craft.”

Was I ever fired? Yes, at age 20, by my first newspaper editor in 1956, Tom Harris of the St. Petersburg Times. I took some St. Pete cops out boozing to schmooze them and they shot at traffic lights from inside my company car.

Most exciting workplaces? Serra Williamson’s Noticias y Viajes in Madrid in 1959 when we were one-half step ahead of the censors. Then Marion Rospach’s Overseas Weekly, targeted at 250,000 GIs in Europe. It’s where I learned that a good journalist should never need to be loved. Just tell the story and to hell with the consequences.

My byline topped our 1961 story of Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker indoctrinating U.S. troops in the right-wing politics of the John Birch Society. Walker was canned. But we lost advertisers in those Cold War, McCarthy times until Time magazine profiled us as the good guys and we got a Heywood Hale Broun award for journalism excellence.

Next I worked politics and general assignment under one of the giants of newspaper ownership, Barry Bingham of the Louisville Courier-Journal in Kentucky, with a three-person Washington bureau, a national education reporter and a national religion reporter.

In January of 1963, on to the Honolulu Advertiser under Thurston Twigg-Smith who financed a permanent, two-person Vietnam bureau staffed by me and my now-wife, Denby Fawcett. That was big stuff for a small, privately owned paper.

I did 28 years in television news between NBC News in Africa and Asia, and KGMB-TV here. Money was no impediment in those days.

Cec Heftel hired me away from the Advertiser by saying he’d pay me twice whatever I was making. In 1970, a local columnist speculated that I was making $30,000 at KGMB. My salary was actually $50,000 plus ratings bonuses. Today, a local reporter is doing well if he/she is making $50,000-$60,000.

When KGMB sent me to do double documentaries - Vietnam and China - the general manager handed me a check for $20,000 for expenses.

What’s in the future?

Former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll says “in the current scramble for market share, the work of the principled journalist is being lost in a din of marketing and propaganda.”

Respected national journalist Richard Reeves predicts that “the free papers will become better in their news content, analysis and advocacy” and become major players in American media.

So maybe I’m still in business. To all my daily newspaper and TV colleagues - good night and good luck.

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