Recent optimism about last week’s sale of Michigan’s two largest daily newspapers — with the Detroit News sold to the smaller MediaNews Group and the Free Press snatched up by former News owner Gannett Co. — overlooks the larger problem of corporate ownership of newspapers. The deal has been heralded by supporters as an opportunity for more competition between the two newsrooms, with the News becoming a morning newspaper competing directly with the Free Press. But the sale is no more than a redistribution among large media conglomerates that focus on increasing profit margins and pleasing stockholders at the expense of public service and quality journalism. If the recent history of corporate media ownership has taught us one lesson, it is that investigative reporting and foreign coverage, which provide a far greater public service than USA Today’s brightly colored drivel, require a greater commitment of resources than corporate money-mongerers are willing to expend.

Corporate chains already owned 39 percent of the country’s newspapers as of 2002, and Gannett, the largest news media conglomerate in the United States, boasts a capitalist’s dream come true: It controls 101 daily newspapers including USA Today, roughly 750 non-daily publications and over 20 television stations, the most widely circulated daily newspaper in the country. Financially, Gannett’s tactics pay off — it declared a 2004 victory of $1.3 billion in profits, largely as a result of its ruthless cost-cutting. In the game where everyone wants ownership of Boardwalk and Park Place, Gannett’s media near-monopoly may be a winning strategy for the corporation and its stockholders, but not for the public.

When corporations and their investors demand high profit margins, newspapers must increase ad sales and cut costs on reporting. One only needs to peruse a few issues of the News and Free Press to see how corporations squeeze profits out of their papers at the expense of quality, with popular sports columnists and front-page ads trumping important news stories.

The New York Times, long the bastion of American journalism, is a member of a disappearing species of family-owned newspapers. The autonomy provided by its independent ownership enables the Times to maintain its well-earned reputation for in-depth and investigative reporting on breaking news stories, public and corporate scandals and controversial issues. For corporate-owned newspapers, however, the incentive to report such stories becomes a calculation based on profits and circulation figures. Trivial stories, acting more as entertainment than news, fill such publications with fluff and contribute to the tabloidization of the press.

Quality journalism is not profitable. But journalism shouldn’t be about profit; it should be about providing a service that holds the government and other institutions accountable to the public. It may be expensive, but the public should demand fearless, vigilant and in-depth reporting. Rather than feeling an obligation to the public, Gannett and other conglomerates are beholden to investors who control decision-making at the highest levels. Maintaining a free press involves a commitment not to profits, but to providing newsrooms with the necessary resources to conduct their work with integrity, courage and independence.

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