In the classic film noir Deadline USA, Humphrey Bogart plays managing editor of The Day, a crusading New York newspaper menaced by a violent gangster and coveted by a competitor with designs on closing it. At the climactic moment, the racketeer seethes down a telephone line at Bogart: “Print that story and you’re a dead man.” Bogart holds the receiver towards the press and bawls: “That’s the press, baby. The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Nothing!” Then the coda: the last image is an evening shot of The Day’s offices, where the lights are being extinguished as a dirge-like theme plays.
The news media has always liked to think of itself in the former guise, and not so much of the latter reality. We’ve even made it official, with our firewalls between editorial and commercial, our independence charters and codes of conduct. But news is business, and business is business — and right now, business is as bad as can be. Historically, the profitability of media properties has moved in line with the economy: that is, when business has been buoyant, advertising has been healthy, and readers and viewers leisured enough to read and watch. Yet the past decade of economic plenty has been wretched for traditional media.