A newspaper editor’s critique of Marshall McLuhan in 1969: “I find no generalities here that I am able to distill into editing particulars”

This being McLuhan Week at the Lab, we’ve shared a couple essays looking back on the media theorist’s legacy. So it’s only appropriate that we dive into the Nieman Foundation archives to see how people were talking about Marshall McLuhan at the height of his fame and influence.

While the Lab is less than three years old, our sister publication Nieman Reports has been chronicling the world of journalism since 1947. And in 1969, it ran an essay (pdf) by Sylvan Meyer, then editor of the Miami News, looking at McLuhan from a newspaper editor’s perspective. The essay’s conceit is that its form is an internal memo from Meyer to his publisher, trying to suss out what McLuhan has to offer to the news business. (Meyer’s not much of a fan.) A few excerpts:

Though McLuhan doesn’t specifically articulate the point, what this says to me is that writing — print — confronts a generation oriented to the obvious, perhaps to communications by osmosis. Youngsters with this “low visual orientation” induced by TV will not grow up to be “between the lines” readers. In addition to the code signals we use in reporting, we also leave a great deal unsaid. We suggest and imply. We expect the reader to put two and two together and to fill in around the core of our reporting. In opinion columns, particularly, we rifle ideas to the insider and expect the outsider to understand us. The TV-oriented person won’t take the trouble. If we can’t expect him to learn how to read our writing, with a minimum of effort, we will have to find a new way of writing.

It is to the mass that the press is indispensable, he is careful to emphasize. The literateur, who thinks the typical European journalist is what a reporter should be, is “book-oriented” to McLuhan. This intellect has the illusion, McLuhan says, that newspapers would be better off without ads, as ads are commercial and as they expose us to advertiser pressure. McLuhan states what we have long known, that readers desire ads since ads are a form of news and information. But McLuhan does not concede another point that newspapermen make, that advertiser pressure, subtle or overt, simply is not a publishing consideration to an economically sound newspaper. The significant pressures on us, of course, are personal and not the least bit as obvious as either McLuhan or his esoteric literati seem to think. He does not provide us with enlarged understanding of our medium in this area.

Again and again McLuhan seems to say that content doesn’t matter, that the individual stories, the individual pictures and essays, are of little significance to our total impact on the reader. He seems to be saying that the reader’s response (in the newspaper’s case, not the reader’s involvement because we are too “hot” for that) is to the form, shape, feel, smell, crazy quilt of the product itself; to its place in the culture and to its historicity, not to what the print says. It is somewhat beyond my reach as an involved editor to resolve tha t McLuhan is saying, even in the abstract, that whether we pr int good or bad, well-written material or illiterate, sloppily inked or clear and sharp as a tack makes no difference whatever. Yet he says emphatically that content has little to do with the “power” of the medium on the mass mind; that the medium itself is the power, not what the medium contains. Can he be saying that any newspaper, “good” or “bad,” has the same power as any other to involve its readers in their community, to evoke reaction from them or to help them understand the changes around them? I find no generalities here that I am able to distill into editing particulars.

It’s a terrific historical document. Go check out the PDF, and thanks to Nieman Reports’ Jonathan Seitz for pointing it out.

This Week in Review: Murdoch’s defense, objectivity in nonprofit news, and a new paid news project

Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

Murdoch’s damage-control efforts: As News Corp.’s hacking scandal continues to metastasize, it can be difficult to keep up with all the background, angles, and implications. The best one-stop source is Mallary Jean Tenore’s explainer for Poynter, and I’ll try to update you on all the developments of the past week.

The big event came on Tuesday, when Rupert Murdoch, his son James, and his former British chief Rebekah Brooks answered questions from Parliament about the scandal. The Guardian gave a great, quick rundown of what happened there, and the general theme was Murdoch’s professed lack of knowledge of the illegal activity at his News of the World tabloid. That’s what the Daily Beast’s Howard Kurtz took away from it, and Slate’s Jack Shafer noted that while the Murdochs kept playing the victim card, they wouldn’t say who exactly victimized them. That was all part of a calculated PR and legal defense, outlined by Nick Davies of the Guardian.

While many people obviously found the idea of a blissfully ignorant Murdoch family hard to believe, Reuters’ Felix Salmon said their strategy was effective enough. Still, the scandal has led to some probing questions about the culture that the Murdochs have created at News Corp. The New York Times’ David Carr documented a history of illegal and anticompetitive behavior in the company’s American arm, and Poynter’s Steve Myers called this a corporate corruption story in the Enron vein. In the Guardian, NYU prof Jay Rosen asserted that “News Corp is not a news company at all, but a global media empire that employs its newspapers — and in the US, Fox News — as a lobbying arm.”

The episode also has implications beyond News Corp. itself: Media consultant Alan Mutter said it weakens the already damaged trust Americans have in the media, and the New York Times reported that media consolidation opponents are hoping it provides an opportunity to re-examine the problems in modern media ownership. Here at the Lab, Ken Doctor wrote about why media concentration could be an issue on the rise in the U.S., and the Online Journalism Review’s Robert Niles said that’s why he’s rooting for News Corp. to fail.

So what’s next for News Corp.? The long-term future of both Rupert and James Murdoch at the company was in question this week, though Rupert assured Parliament he’d be sticking around. Felix Salmon speculated that the whole company could be in play if things go sour, and CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis looked at one possible scenario resulting in a News Corp. news and publishing sell-off. Ken Doctor, meanwhile, said News Corp. might end up becoming a more American company as a result of the scandal.

Murdoch still has his defenders, though the most vocal of them at this point (aside from the New York Observer) are media outlets owned by Murdoch himself. Perhaps the most full-throated of those defenses came in the Wall Street Journal, which ran numerous opinion pieces, including one equating the hacking with WikiLeaks and an editorial lashing out at Murdoch’s critics. PaidContent’s Staci Kramer said the Journal would have been better off spiking the editorial, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Ryan Chittum argued that the Journal’s characterization of investigative reporting as ideologically motivated tells us a lot about the “intellectual bankruptcy” of the Journal’s editorial page itself.

Even before the editorial, the New York Times’ Joe Nocera said the whole paper had been “Fox-ified” — turned shallow and ideological — by Murdoch’s influence. Ryan Chittum countered that the paper has declined under Murdoch, but it’s far from hopeless, and Journal staffers also defended themselves against the “Foxification” charge. Meanwhile, a Pew study found that the actual Fox News Channel is covering the scandal far less than its rivals, and the Guardian continued to earn praise for its coverage of the story, with editor Alan Rusbridger describing in Newsweek how they did it.

Should nonprofit news be more objective?: Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released a study this week examining the growing group of nonprofit news organizations, evaluating them specifically for ideological nature and transparency. The study found that of the several dozen new nonprofit sites covering state and national news it looked at, about half are clearly ideological. Poynter’s Rick Edmonds wrote a good, quick summary, noting in particular that several of the most ideological sites offered no clue to their orientation in their names, and that the most productive sites tended to be the least ideological ones.

The Lab’s Joshua Benton inferred the study’s implicit message — the new nonprofit news isn’t objective, can’t be fully trusted, and especially not to replace newspapers. Benton pushed back against those conclusions, arguing that the new sites aren’t meant to replace newspapers, and that their lack of objectivity doesn’t keep them from being useful to society.

The Columbia Journalism Review’s Greg Marx was a bit more pointed in his response, picking apart some of its examples and particularly the implicit conclusion that Benton identified: “The PEJ report is suffused throughout with a sense that it’s the obligation of the new non-profits to reincarnate as best they can the status quo ante … But it’s worth remembering that, in many times and many places, the status quo ante wasn’t all that good.”

Scribd to see if news will Float: Over the past year or so, we’ve seen several new attempts to charge for news online by aggregating news from a variety of news outlets, with services like Ongo and News.me. This week, the document-sharing site Scribd launched its own entry into that space with Float, a mobile reading app that allows users to read subscribers from a variety of sources — what it calls a “Netflix for news.” Float launched a free version this week, but will introduce its paid subscription service this fall.

Float has a social media-oriented aspect and an Instapaper-like reading list, but as TechCrunch described, its main feature is its ability to present any type of page, from books to blogs to news articles, in the same uniform, easily browseable format. GigaOM’s Colleen Taylor found the fluid presentation remarkable, but wondered if Float could get a critical mass of news sites to make it worth paying for. PaidContent’s David Kaplan said that Float works like a hybrid between Instapaper and Pulse, but that it could try to sell publishers on the idea of picking up browsing readers, rather than devoted subscribers.

Meanwhile, another traditional media outlet moved forward with an online paid-content strategy: Time introduced a plan that allows readers to subscribe to a bundle of the magazine’s print publication, mobile/tablet apps, and web version. As All Things D’s Peter Kafka reported, that also includes shutting off magazine articles on the web from nonsubscribers, though most of the web content should remain free. David Kaplan of paidContent said while it’s always an uphill battle to get readers to pay for news online, magazine publishers are aided by the fact that they’re becoming more unified in charging for their tablet editions.

Big Google+ possibilities: As Google+ continues to grow, tech writers continue to think bigger about what it could end up being. O’Reilly Radar’s Edd Dumbill said Google+ could be the program that connects people across the entirety of the web, just as search does for information. “Google+ is the rapidly growing seed of a web-wide social backbone, and the catalyst for the ultimate uniting of the social graph,” he wrote. Tim Carmody of Wired argued that Google+ is also part of the ramp-up to the coming “Cloud Wars” between Google and Microsoft.

We’re starting to see more possibilities for Google+ and journalism, too: Mashable provided a list of ways journalists can use the service, and 10,000 Words put together a guide to Google+ and breaking news. Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman said Google+ can teach news organizations some lessons about innovation and developing new products. Unfortunately, Google is removing many company/brand accounts from the service right now, including the innovative BreakingNews and KOMU-TV accounts.

Reading roundup: Here’s what else we talked about this week:

— The Columbia Journalism published online its feature on the Journal Register Co. from earlier this summer, while the Lab’s Martin Langeveld gave some smart analysis on what Alden Global Capital’s purchase of the newspaper chain last week might mean for the company’s media consolidation plans.

— Yesterday would have marked the 100th birthday of our best-known media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, and the Lab celebrated with some fantastic essays on his legacy by Megan Garber and Maria Bustillos. At the Guardian, Douglas Coupland wrote about why McLuhan still matters.

— NYU j-prof Jay Rosen and author Nicholas Carr finished their debate over whether the Internet has been good for journalism, and Rosen also expounded on five key works to understanding journalism in the Internet age.

— Three great pieces to read now…or later…whenever: Anil Dash on how to make sure the people using your website treat each other with decency, Paul Ford on the way Facebook defies the journalistic impulse to craft simple narratives, and Scott Rosenberg with a book (available free via PDF) on the new ethics of online journalism.

Links on Twitter: Innovation at Google after Labs, ads sales booming on NYT iPad app and eBook tips for journalists

The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle (@asymmetricinfo) shares her writing and interviewing tips http://nie.mn/nxKHjj »

How do news pages on Facebook keep readers engaged? Insights on Facebook + Journalists http://nie.mn/ncMa0R »

Janet Robinson says the ad inventory for the NYT iPad app is sold out through the third quarter http://nie.mn/nZ1y68 »

PSA: The Washington Post is looking for a news applications designer http://nie.mn/nl0uCO »

A Forrester survey finds advertisers are ahead of publishers in investing in new kinds of ad products http://nie.mn/r4GSSy »

The Washington Post has a neat new interactive Census map. Check your city! http://nie.mn/pdeXPY »

Media General says its deals site, DealTaker.com, has been hurt by change to Google’s search rankings http://nie.mn/pYFhzn »

RT @andrewkueneman: Hiring 2 experienced designers & 1 design tech in the NYT digital design group. DM me I’d interested. Will be postin … »

Interesting note: NYTimes.com has 57,000 digital subscribers on Kindles and Nooks http://nie.mn/rglPJM »

Tips for journalists on how to turn their work into a viable eBook http://nie.mn/pYbxfq »

Why media companies (and marketers) need new metrics for ads on tablets http://nie.mn/neamo3 »

What’s the future of innovation at Google with the end of Google Labs? http://nie.mn/oiwOST »

Marshall McLuhan, Superstar

Today would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday. Continuing our informal McLuhan Week at the Lab, we present this essay by Maria Bustillos on McLuhan’s unique status as a media theorist who was also a media star.

There was no longer a single thing in [the] environment that was not interesting [...] “Even if it’s some place I don’t find congenial, like a dull movie or a nightclub, I’m busy perceiving patterns,” he once told a reporter. A street sign, a building, a sports car — what, he would ask himself and others, did these things mean?

—Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan:
The Medium and the Messenger

The public intellectual was invented in the mid-20th century. Certainly there were others before that who started the ball rolling — talented writers and academics with flexible, open minds taking the whole culture into account, trying to make sense of things as they were happening — but few of them penetrated far beyond the walls of the academy or the confines of some other single discipline. We might count Bertrand Russell as an early prototype, with his prominence in pacifist circles and campaigns against nuclear disarmament, or better still G.B. Shaw, an autodidact of boundless energy who cofounded the London School of Economics and also helped popularize Jaeger’s “sanitary” woolen undies. Until Al Gore came along, Shaw was the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar.

Both Russell and Shaw gained a great deal of influence outside their own spheres of work, but remained above it all, too; they were “authorities” who might be called on to offer their views to the public on this topic or that. But it was a devoutly Catholic, rather conservative Canadian academic who first succeeded in breaking down every barrier there was in the intensity of his effort to understand, interpret, and influence the world. Marshall McLuhan was quite possibly the first real public intellectual. That wide-ranging role having once been instantiated, others came to fill it, in ever-increasing numbers.

Though he was an ordinary English prof by trade, McLuhan’s work had measurable effects on the worlds of art, business, politics, advertising and broadcasting. He appeared on the cover of Newsweek and had office space at Time. Tom Wolfe took him to a “topless restaurant” and wrote about him for New York magazine (“What If He is Right?”). He was consulted by IBM and General Motors, and he coined the phrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” according to Timothy Leary. He made the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, shave off his beard.

In 1969, McLuhan gave one of the most revealing and best interviews Playboy ever published (a high bar, there.)

PLAYBOY: Have you ever taken LSD yourself?

McLUHAN: No, I never have. I’m an observer in these matters, not a participant. I had an operation last year to remove a tumor that was expanding my brain in a less than pleasant manner, and during my prolonged convalescence I’m not allowed any stimulant stronger than coffee. Alas! A few months ago, however, I was almost “busted” on a drug charge. On a plane returning from Vancouver, where a university had awarded me an honorary degree, I ran into a colleague who asked me where I’d been. “To Vancouver to pick up my LL.D.,” I told him. I noticed a fellow passenger looking at me with a strange expression, and when I got off the plane at Toronto Airport, two customs guards pulled me into a little room and started going over my luggage. “Do you know Timothy Leary?” one asked. I replied I did and that seemed to wrap it up for him. “All right,” he said. “Where’s the stuff? We know you told somebody you’d gone to Vancouver to pick up some LL.D.” After a laborious dialog, I persuaded him that an LL.D. has nothing to do with consciousness expansion — just the opposite, in fact — and I was released.

Until the mid-century, there was a wall between what we now call popular culture and the “high culture” of the rich and educated, and there was another wall, at least as thick, between popular and academic discourse. Cracks had begun to appear by the 1930s, when the Marxist theorists of the Frankfurt School began to take on the subject of mass culture, culminating in works such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (1944). These academics saw popular culture as a positive evil, though, undermining the chances of revolution; a new kind of “opiate of the masses.” Later critics such as Edward Shils and Herbert J. Gans would elaborate on the same themes. But none of these writers personally ID’d with mass culture in any way. Far from it. Indeed Shils said in 1959: “Some people dislike the working classes more than the middle classes, depending on their political backgrounds. But the real fact is that from an esthetic and moral standpoint, the objects of mass culture are repulsive to us.” To some degree, that academic standoffishness is with us even today. The sneering of the “high” for the “low”.

Marshall McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man, was published in 1951, and it took a quite different approach to the task of lifting the veil of mass culture in order to expose the workings beneath. The chief difference was that McLuhan never saw or really even acknowledged that wall between the critic of culture and the culture itself. After all, he too was a human being, a citizen, a reader of newspapers and magazines. McLuhan’s critique took place from the inside.

“[B]eing highbrow, in McLuhan’s eyes, never conferred the slightest moral value on anything,” observed his biographer, Philip Marchand.

McLuhan’s student Walter J. Ong wrote magnificently on this theme in his essay, “McLuhan as Teacher: The Future Is a Thing of the Past,” published in the Sept. 1981 Journal of Communication.

When [McLuhan] did attend to [...] popular works, as in his first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), it was to invest them with high seriousness. He showed that such things as advertising and comic strips were in their own way as deeply into certain cyclonic centers of human existence — sex, death, religion, and the human-technology relationship — as was the most “serious” art, though both naively and meretriciously. However, awareness of the facts here was neither naive nor meretricious; it was upsetting and liberating.

Marshall Soules of Malaspina University-College had this comment on the “high seriousness” with which McLuhan treated popular works:

It is this strategic stance which distinguishes McLuhan from many media critics — like those associated with the Frankfurt or Birmingham Schools, or like Neil Postman, Mark Miller, Stewart Ewen and others — whose views imply an idealized literate culture corrupted by popular, commercialised, and manipulative media. McLuhan used his training as a literary critic to engage in a dialogue with the media from the centre of the maelstrom.

The Mechanical Bride consists of a selection of advertisements with essays and captions attached.

“Where did you see that bug-eyed romantic of action before?

Was it in a Hemingway novel?

Is the news world a cheap suburb for the artist’s bohemia?

— from The Mechanical Bride

The playful and wide-ranging tone of The Mechanical Bride was entirely new, given that its intentions were as serious as a heart attack. McLuhan thought that the manipulative characteristics of advertising might be resisted once they were understood. “It was, if anything, a critique of an entire culture, an exhilarating tour of the illusions behind John Wayne westerns, deodorants, and Buick ads. The tone of McLuhan’s essays was not without an occasional hint of admiration for the skill of advertisers and capturing the anxieties and appetites of that culture,” Marchand wrote.

The Mechanical Bride was way too far ahead of its time, selling only a few hundred copies, but that was okay because the author was just warming up. McLuhan had found the voice and style of inquiry that he would employ for the rest of his career. In the Playboy interview he said, “I consider myself a generalist, not a specialist who has staked out a tiny plot of study as his intellectual turf and is oblivious to everything else [...] Only by standing aside from any phenomenon and taking an overview can you discover its operative principles and lines of force.”

This inclusiveness, the penetrating, metaphorical free-for-all investigative method that appeared in McLuhan’s first book would gain him increasing admiration, as an understanding of the “rearview mirror view” of the world he used to talk about gained currency: “[A]n environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world [...] The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone but the artist, the man of integral awareness, is alive in an earlier day.”

Because he refused to put himself on a pedestal, because everything was of interest to him, McLuhan was able to join the wires of pure academic curiosity with the vast cultural output of the mid-century to create an explosion of insights (or a “galaxy”, I should say) that is still incandescent with possibility a half-century later. Simply by taking the whole of society as a fit subject for serious discourse, he unshackled the intellectuals from their first-class seats, and they have been quite free to roam about the cabin of culture ever since.

As his books were published, McLuhan’s influence continued to spread through high culture and low. He loved being interviewed and would talk his head off to practically anyone, about the Symbolist poets and about Joyce, about car advertisements and cuneiform. You might say that he embraced the culture, and the culture embraced him right back. The Smothers Brothers loved him, and so did Glenn Gould and Goldie Hawn, Susan Sontag, John Lennon and Woody Allen. (Apropos of the latter, McLuhan very much enjoyed doing the famous cameo in Annie Hall, though he had, characteristically, his own ideas about what his lines ought to have been, and a “sharp exchange” occurred between Allen and himself. McLuhan’s most famous line in the movie, “You know nothing of my work,” is in fact one that he had long employed in real life as a put-down of opponents in debate.)

An aside: In 1977, Woody Allen was very far from being the grand old man of cinema that he is now. He had yet to win an Oscar, and had at that time directed only extremely goofy comedies. It was a mark of McLuhan’s willingness to get out there and try stuff, his total unpretentiousness, that he went along with the idea of being in a Woody Allen film. Only imagine any of today’s intellectuals being asked, say, to appear in an Apatow comedy. Would Noam Chomsky do it? Jürgen Habermas? Slavoj Zizek? (Well, Zizek might.)

Even better was Henry Gibson’s recurring two-line poem about McLuhan on the U.S. television show Laugh-In:

Marshall McLuhan,
What are you doin’?

Last year, I briefly attended the Modern Language Association conference in Los Angeles, met a number of eminent English scholars, and attended some of their presentations on Wordsworth and Derrida and on the development of that new, McLuhanesque-sounding discipline, the digital humanities. What I wished most, when I left the conference, was that these fascinating theorists were not all locked away behind the walls of the academy, and that anyone could come and enjoy their talks. The McLuhan manner of appearing anywhere he found interesting, which is to say all over the place, instead of just during office hours, does not diminish serious academics or writers: It enlarges them.

Is this, when it comes down to it, a mere matter of shyness? Or is it a matter of professional dignity, of amour-propre? The academy has so much to contribute to the broader culture; huge numbers of non-academics, I feel sure, would enjoy a great deal of what they have to say, and perhaps vice-versa. But somehow I find it difficult to imagine most of the academics I know agreeing to visit a topless restaurant with Tom Wolfe (on the record, at least). I hope, though, that they will consider venturing out to try such things more and more, and that today’s Wolfes will feel emboldened to ask them, and that the culture indeed becomes more egalitarian, blurrier, “retribalized” as McLuhan seemed to believe it would.

Personally, I have a great faith in the resiliency and adaptability of man, and I tend to look to our tomorrows with a surge of excitement and hope.

— from the 1969 Playboy interview

The newsonomics of U.S. media concentration

The rise and potential fall of Rupert Murdoch is a hell of a story. It is, though, closer to the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins’ description Tuesday, “not a Berlin Wall moment, just daft hysteria.” Facing only the meager competition of the slow-as-molasses debt-ceiling story, the Murdoch story managed to hit during the summer doldrums. Plus it’s great theater.

Is it just imported theater, though? We have to wonder how much the cries of “media monopoly” will cross the Atlantic. Is there much resonance here in the States for the outrage about media power in the U.K.? Will the sins (its newspaper unit now being called to account by a Parliamentary committee for deliberately blocking the hacking investigation) of News International impact its cousin, Fox Television, the one part of its U.S. holdings regulated directly by government — or can it build a firewall between the different parts of News Corp.? (See “New News Corp. Strategy: Become Even More of an American Company.”)

Certainly, the tales of News International’s ability to strike fear in the London political class are chilling. Our issues in the U.S., though, are largely different. Both come down to who owns the media, and what we need in the diversity of news voices.

The question of media concentration here is tricky, complex, and a profoundly local question. Yes, there are national issues — but the forces of cheaper, digital publishing and promise of national and global markets easily reached by the Internet have spawned much more competition on a national level.

As to what kind of local reporting we get, we see powerful forces at work, shaping who owns what and how much. Likely, we’ll see some News Corp. fallout in FCC debates now re-igniting in and around Washington, D.C. — as the fire of regulating media burns more brightly here, even as Ofcom, the British regulator, grapples with similar issues.

That said, the question of media concentration, or what I will call the newsonomics of U.S. media concentration, will be fought out on two battlegrounds in the U.S. One is at the regulatory level, as the FCC looks at cross-ownership and the cap on local broadcast news holdings by a single national company, like News Corp., and may take into account its U.K. misdeeds. (Especially if the 9/11 victim wiretapping claims are borne out.) Second, and probably more important, sheer economic change is rapidly re-shaping who owns the news media on which we depend. The fast-eroding economics of the traditional print newspaper business are changing the face both of competition and of journalistic practice faster than any government policy can affect.

So this is how our time may play out. Smart, digital-first roll-ups align with massive consolidation.

First, let’s look at the print trade, at mid-year. The numbers are awful, and getting no better. We’ve seen the 22nd consecutive quarter of no-ad-growth for U.S. dailies, the last positive sign registered back in 2006. Further staff reductions, albeit with less public announcement, continue at most major news companies. This week, Gannett — still the largest U.S. news company — reported a 7-percent ad revenue decline for the second quarter, typical among its peers. Its digital ad revenues were up 13 percent, a slowing of digital ad growth also being seen around the industry.

We see a strategy of continuing cost-cutting across the board, with a new phenomenon — roll-up (“The newsonomics of roll-up“) — trying to play out.

Hedge funds — which bought into the industry through and after 14 newspaper company bankruptcies — are having their presence felt. Most recently, Alden Global Capital, the quietest major player in the American news industry, bought out its partners and now owns 100 percent of Journal Register Company. Alden, with interests in as many as 10 U.S. newspaper chains, apparently liked the moves of CEO John Paton. Paton’s digital-first strategies have more rapidly cut legacy costs than other publishers’ moves, and moved the needle more quickly in upping digital revenues.

No terms were announced, but Paton says “all its lenders were paid in full.” That would be a qualified success, given the bath everyone involved in the newspaper industry has taken in the last half-decade.

In JRC’s case, we’d have to say the push of hedge funds for faster change has been more positive than negative. Pre-bankruptcy, it was derided for its poor journalism and soul-crushing budgeting. Under Paton, who has brought in innovators like Arturo Duran, Jim Brady, and Steve Buttry, the company is trying to reinvent new, digital-first local, preserving local journalism jobs as much as possible. A work very much in early progress.

You can bet that Alden’s move is just one of its first. Sure, as a hedge fund, it may just be getting JRC ready to sell; hedge funds don’t want to be long-term operators. Before that happens, though, expect the next shoe to drop: consolidation.

JRC owns numerous properties around Philly, and a roll-up with Greg Osberg-led (and Alden part-owned) Philadelphia Media Network, has been talked about. Meld the same kind of synergies, and faster-moving print-to-digital strategies of Paton with Osberg’s new multi-point, Project Liberty plan, and you have a combined strategy. Further combine the operations into a single company — removing more overhead, more administration, more cost — and you have a better business to hold, or sell, or still further combine with still more regional entities.

It’s not just a Philly scenario.

In southern California, the question is how the three once-bankrupt operations — Freedom Communications, MediaNews’ Los Angeles News Group and Tribune’s L.A. Times (still not quite post-bankrupt, but acting like it is) — will mate. Over price, talks broke down about merging Freedom and MediaNews (both substantially owned by Alden; see Rick Edmonds’ Poynter piece for detail). Yet, everyone in the market believes consolidation will come. Now with Platinum Equity, another private equity owner, putting its San Diego Union-Tribune back on the market just two years after buying it for a song, we could see massive consolidation of newspaper companies in southern California.

Media concentration, perhaps in the works: Southern California, between L.A. and San Diego, contains at least 21 million people — or a third of the total population of the U.K. Philly and Southern California may among the first to consolidate, but the trends are the same everywhere.

So this is how our time may play out. Smart, digital-first roll-ups align with massive consolidation. It’s time to get our heads around that. That won’t necessarily mean that Alden, or other hyper-private owners, keep the new franchises. Their goal probably is to sell. But to whom, with what sense of public interest?

Which brings us back to broadcast, to which newspaper people give much too little shrift.

Both those in the old declining newspaper trade and those in the mature and largely flat broadcast trade (as an indication, Gannett’s broadcast division revenues grew to $184.4 million from $184 million in the second quarter) are beginning to figure the future this way: there may only be enough ad revenue in mid-metro markets (and smaller) to maintain one substantial journalistic operation. Not one newspaper and one local broadcaster. But, one, presumably combined text and video, paper and air, increasingly digital operation.

So, finally, let’s turn back to the FCC. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals just returned cross-ownership regulations back to the FCC, largely on procedural (“hey, you forgot the public input part”) grounds. In addition, it will likely soon take up the national cap on local broadcast ownership. (Good sum-up of FCC-related action by Josh Smith at the National Journal.)

Which brings us back to the News Corp story. The national cap — how much of the U.S. any one national company can serve with local broadcast — is 39 percent. Fox comes close to that with 27 stations, and, of course, has lobbied for more reach. So, the media concentration issue may play out as the cap is further debated, and as cross-ownership — a News Corp. issue in and around New York/New Jersey — returns as well. Will Hackgate’s winds blow westward, as local broadcast news concentration comes up again?

Though it may be shocking to many newspaper people, though, local TV news is a major source of how people get the news. Some 25 to 28 million viewers watch local early-evening or late-evening TV news, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism. That compares to about a 42-million weekday newspaper circulation, so those numbers aren’t quite apples to apples. In my research for Outsell, I noted that local survey data indicated that reliance on TV news equaled that of newspapers.

As Steve Waldman’s strong report for the FCC pointed out, local TV news is “more important than ever” — but thin on accountability reporting.

So while much of the media concentration questions centers on print, local broadcast ownership, and direction of news coverage, matters a lot.

Combine that local concentration — 39 percent or more — with the sense that the market may only support single journalistic entitities and we’re back to the theme of media concentration, perhaps on a scale hitherto unseen.

A declining local press, with signs of impending roll-up. Stronger local TV news, weaker in accountability reporting, and pushing for more roll-up. Winds of outrage wafting over the Atlantic. Regulatory breezes gaining strength.

These are powerful forces colliding, and in the balance, the news of the day won’t be quite the same.

With the end of NASA’s shuttle program, science journalists are rethinking the space beat

At 5:57 this morning, Eastern Daylight Time, the space shuttle Atlantis returned to earth, and NASA’s space shuttle program, for all intents and purposes, came to an end.

There’s been a lot of discussion about what that will mean for the people employed by NASA and its subsidiary organizations. But what about the journalists who have been covering them? What happens to this very particular brand of beat journalists after the end of the shuttle launch program?

“Those of us who cover launch and mission operations certainly face quite a bit of uncertainty,” Todd Halvorson, Kennedy Space Center bureau chief of Gannett’s Florida Today, told me.

Halvorson has it a little bit better than some his fellow space journalists, whom he called the “nucleus of people in the NASA press corps.” He’s stationed in an actual trailer-type office at Cape Canaveral, and Florida Today is located right on the Space Coast. But the outlook for some of the other journalists covering space full-time looks a lot bleaker.

In 2009, the Houston Chronicle laid off its full-time veteran space reporter, Mark Carreau, who had been covering the beat for more than 20 years. Carreau covered the Challenger disaster in 1986, and over his two decades on the job, spent most of his time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. And still, “they laid him off,” said Eric Berger, the Houston Chronicle science reporter who took over part of the beat.

In 2008, CNN laid off its space reporter, Miles O’Brien — who also covered science and technology — though Miami bureau reporter John Zarrella remains. Around the same time, Aviation Week, a NASA-and-aeronautics-junkie trade magazine, closed its Cape Canaveral bureau.

From a pure business perspective, the scale-down of the space beat probably makes sense; though there’s still much to cover in terms of space exploration itself — the end of the shuttle program is, of course, by no means the end of NASA — Atlantis’ final landing will most likely mean a plummet in reader interest in the subject of space itself. Berger, for example, who covers science as a broad beat, has been writing 50-60 percent of his stories about space in the ramp-up to the final shuttle launch, he told me. That ratio, now, will change — drastically.

“People are transfixed first and foremost by accidents,” Berger noted, “and, after that, blasting people into space. And once you get beyond that, there is not a lot of public interest in the space program.”

The space beat, in short, is losing its automatic human interest angle. Or, at least, its American interest angle. After today, with Russia continuing its space program, “launches will occur half a world away,” Berger noted — not to mention “at odd times of night.”

“Most Americans have never seen a Soviet launch,” Berger said. “The space station is really cool, but it is not particularly sexy, what they are doing now.”

Space journalism has pushed on regardless of daily breaking news about human spaceflight, Irene Klotz of Reuters pointed out. “In reality, the space launch is just one day,” she said.

At the same time, though, “it’s a different type of story now, and there’s certainly a gap,” noted MSNBC science editor Alan Boyle. “There’s no two ways around that. And so it will be a challenge for people to tune into what’s been going on.”

And that will mean a challenge, certainly, to the people whose livelihoods have relied on the existence of the space program. But beyond the personal — the profound professional consequences for the reporters at outlets both national and local that have made careers of U.S. space explorations — what happens to the shape of the space beat itself?

The space and science journalists I spoke with had a few different theories about what might happen to the type of news we see about space journalism.

  • More focus on commercial enterprises in space, as NASA shifts away from public funding to encourage more private investment and innovation.
  • More stories about robotic space exploration.
  • A new policy angle as we start to learn about funding issues, rather than simply the next manned mission.
  • Attempts to get people jazzed about the International Space Station, an amazing feat of human engineering and one of the coolest untold stories out there.

In other words, not all is lost when it comes to the space beat, as these journalists were eager to remind me. The space program itself is still very much alive. NASA aims to build a heavy-lift launch vehicle — which will continue human expeditions beyond Earth’s orbit. President Obama has set a 2025 goal for a mission to an asteroid, followed by, it is hoped, missions to Mars. Our storied explorations of space are certainly not ending.

Still, for journalists like Halvorson, Boyle, and others, the launch of the U.S.’s last shuttle launch was certainly bittersweet. As Halvorson put it: “It was pretty emotional watching Atlantis blast off on the last shuttle launch. Terribly emotional. People who have been tied to this program for that many years…all feel the same way. You go about being professional and you go about your job, but yeah, it sucks.”

Image via NASA.

Links on Twitter: NYO’s hiring, Google Labs says goodbye

RT @djspooky: @brainpicker @NiemanLab Don’t forget rare version of Mcluhan’s first, only album: The Medium… http://bit.ly/ly14Mj »

Goodbye, Google Labs http://nie.mn/ofgXcV »

PSA: @NewYorkObserver is looking for an art director, a marketing director, and a developer http://nie.mn/qtTCgT »

The future of hyperlocal: to be considered at Street Fight Summit 2011 (Oct. 25-26, NYC) http://nie.mn/o2dkbM »

MT @xenijardin: We at @BoingBoing are already finding G+ to be a significant source of traffic referral. Shocking given how new & beta. »

The Daily Beast is launching an online talk show http://nie.mn/qizCBg »

“Work in public. Reveal nothing.” @robinsloan on the tricky balance between transparency and novelty http://nie.mn/nfi1jw »

RT @jenny8lee: Instagram meets Gilt! @snapette has mobile app to help you crowdsource shopping. Snapette.com »

The News Corp. scandal could influence the FCC’s review of media ownership rules http://nie.mn/qbU3SX »