As with hog belly futures, the routine commercial affairs of the news "media" arouse no passion in the land, nor in most newsrooms, for that matter. If the North Platte Telegraph forgoes its dividend or if William Buckley yet again passes the beggar's cup for the "National Review," the markets do not tremble, nor do strong men cry. Our Style section, wherein the lives of parlor revolutionaries and Third World poets are limned at great length, pays little heed to the Disneyland trip of the Loudoun County Carrier of the Month.
Occasionally, however, the commerce in which we engage sets newsrooms all atwitter as we have seen in the dog days of this summer. There was first the spectacle of the great men of television descending en masse on the sands of the Middle East in search of war, peace and a jump start for the ratings. This is big-time commerce, with the ABC, CBS and NBC news divisions generating about $1 billion a year in advertising revenues. The evening news shows alone -- Jennings, Rather and Brokaw -- bring in $475 million, according to Richard Kostyra of the J. Walter Thompson agency. A single rating point is worth about $16 million to any one of those shows. Thus, against backdrops of pyramids, huddled masses and the palaces of Arabia, Dan, Tom and cohorts hied to the Gulf, evoking images of the journalist Henry Morton Stanley on his lonely but successful search through the African wilds in 1869 for the lost missionary, Dr. Livingstone. Mr. Stanley, too, had a commercial aim: expanding the readership of the New York Herald.
More recently we have had the saga of Lisa Olson, the Boston Herald sports writer who endured, on behalf of her commercial employer, "mind rape" in the locker room of the New England Patriots football team; nude players taunted her with naughty words and behavior. Like her male colleagues she was "just doing my job," seeking post-game interviews.
Sports is big business for the teams and for the "media" as well. Post-game locker room interviews have become a basic part of the business, a highly competitive exercise in wringing, so to speak, pearls and profundities out of hogs, as these behemoths are sometimes called. They utter each week the same limited anthology of banalities and schoolboy cliche's, exemplified by these insightful zingers from Redskin stories in The Post last week following the Phoenix game:
"They gave us their best shot."
"He put the ball in the end zone."
"They ran it right at us."
"We made some plays that hurt them."
That is the sort of thing for which Lisa Olson risked "mind rape." It made her the only memorable locker room story of the 20th century and gave the Boston Herald its 15 minutes of celebrity.
The third commercial tale to cast its shadow in American newsrooms this fall is the tale of the cash register. It ain't ringing like it should. Newspapers in the 1980s got accustomed to annual revenue growth of 8 percent to 12 percent and, for the most successful, profit margins ranging from 20 percent to more than 35 percent. Washington Post stock sold at about $20 a share in 1979 and last year topped $300.
It is a different story this year. The compound annual inflation rate has hit 7 percent, but newspaper revenues are flat or declining; no upturn is seen for at least a year. Unlike the speculators of 1929, no editors or publishers to my knowledge have stepped off skyscrapers or have taken to riding the rails. But there have been unexpected retirements. Anguished bleats over budget-cutting emanate from newsrooms and appear in the trade press. The Newspaper Guild for the first time in my memory takes at face value the poor-mouthing of newspaper managements. Some papers are offering employee "furloughs," meaning extended periods of unpaid leave. Health care cost-sharing is being imposed.
At The Post, there will be less conventioneering and fewer parties at company expense, Christmas included. Vacancies may go unfilled; selected space cutbacks may occur. The specter of staff layoffs -- almost unheard of in the news business -- is raised throughout the land. Equally terrifying is the prospect of unforgiving expense account review.
It is useful to be reminded occasionally that journalism is not a fairyland, that we are not divorced from the workings -- or the workers -- of the marketplace, that as much as General Motors or K-mart we are part of a capitalist system and will rise or fall with it.