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The journalism bloodbath

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The news business in Oklahoma is committing suicide.

The journalistic bloodletting that is leaving a trail of dead and dying newspapers and anemic broadcast stations across the country continued last week in Oklahoma after the Tulsa World cut 26 staff members from its newsroom.

Yes, in case you've been wondering, this is a trend.

Last fall, The Oklahoman cut 155 employees, many from its newsroom. The Oklahoman also cut its circulation area. In March, the World closed its Community World publications and eliminated 18 positions (but four were rehired back into the newsroom). And it's not just affecting newspapers. Both KOTV and KTUL television stations in Tulsa cut 13 staffers late last year.

Unfortunately, the effects of these cuts will be felt far beyond the newsroom.

Few outside the business " and some inside, apparently " don't know it, but the media carnage is threatening the state's historical record, culture, education and politics. And anyone interested in those things had better be paying attention.

Publishers and station managers blame the economy, technology " specifically, the Internet " and cultural changes for their troubles.

They're right, but only to a point. The economy is obviously a problem for everyone. And the Internet has provided unlimited ways to get information. No longer does one need to go to traditional media outlets for news. Fragmentation of the media has increased competition for fewer advertisers. As a result, circulation and ratings have fallen along with ad revenue. Changing demographics and an Internet generation that first stopped reading and then stopped watching also have contributed.

Given the rising cost of newsprint, no one is arguing that the future is going to be rosy for newspapers. The future is the Internet, and many news outlets, including The Oklahoman and the World, have attempted to beef up their Internet operations. Yet, many traditional readers and viewers aren't buying into these new formats, while the younger ones who aren't in the habit of reading or watching haven't joined them now that they are online. Consequently, the news world finds itself in trouble, losing its base of loyal readers and unable to attract younger ones.

Unfortunately, in an effort to make the transition, many in the business have forgotten why they're in business and abandoned the news they're supposed to be reporting, especially comprehensive news of record that chronicles the history of a community and enlightens citizens about their government. Instead, they have replaced it with the trivial or sensational, or adopted an online format for their papers that offers snippets of information often heavy on sports or stories that require less investigative work. New formats that offer shorter, less detailed stories leave one wondering what's going on in the community. And commercial television stations that are long on car crashes, fires and crime don't provide us with information we need.

There must be more going on in this state than OU football. But with fewer reporters, we'll not find out.

These changes are often a reflection of what's happened in management. At some news outlets around the country, editors no longer run newsrooms alone. In an effort to stop the financial bleeding and find what sells at the moment, marketing experts and advertising managers now have a say in what goes in the paper. Many take the short view, propping up profits with sensationalism and nonessential information to maintain the bottom line and satisfy stockholders.

The result is often a product that becomes just another entertainment option, not a necessity. This content, in turn, skews the perception of what is really going on in the community and its culture.

If the downsizing trend continues, it also will be hard to justify three large journalism programs in the state. Many graduates are no longer looking for work here. Others are going into different fields.

It will be harder still to educate our citizens about state issues and to maintain a media that can serve as a watchdog of government. That will mean less efficient government and higher taxes.

Some in the news business don't believe young people are interested in the news anymore and say nothing will save the business. Untrue. Students want quality information about things that affect their lives, but they want it delivered in new ways.

If the state's media are to survive, they will need to find these new ways and make the transition from newsprint to online delivery without abandoning traditional journalistic principles and the news that affects Oklahomans' lives. Otherwise, the bloodbath will continue.

Mark Hanebutt is a journalism professor at the University of Central Oklahoma.

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