United States

At the end of February, two stunning announcements reinforced what many already knew -- the media business in the United States is struggling through one of its worst periods in modern history. First, E.W. Scripps Company announced it was closing the 150-year old Rocky Mountain News in Denver. It is the largest U.S. daily newspaper to shut down since the steep two-year decline in advertising revenue. "The Rocky" has long enjoyed a reputation as one of the country's best newspapers. But it lost $16 million in 2008 and its economic challenges were insurmountable. The Final Edition -- headlined "Goodbye, Colorado" -- published on Feb. 27, leaving Denver with one daily newspaper. A few days later, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) announced it was canceling its annual convention for the first time since World War II. That followed a similar announcement that the magazine publishers group was cancelling its convention. Registrations for the newspaper editors' convention were lagging far behind previous years. The industry "is in crisis," said the president of the largest editors' group in the U.S. Also in February, Philadelphia Newspapers filed for bankruptcy protection, with at least $400 million debt. Since December, three other media companies have filed for bankruptcy protection -- The Tribune Company, with papers in Chicago, Los Angeles, Fort Lauderdale and Orlando; the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, and the Journal Register Co. based in New Haven, Conn. In Detroit, the newspapers plan to stop delivering four days a week. According to one blog -- graphicdesignr.net/papercuts/ -- that tracks newspaper staff reductions, about 15,000 jobs vanished in 2008. This year so far the total is another 3,000 lost jobs. The disturbing implications for press freedom and vigorous journalism in the U.S. are obvious. Fewer newspapers and newspapers with far fewer journalists means fewer watchdogs to expose corruption and incompetence both in government and the private sectors. The growing demands of providing readers with continuous news online around the clock has changed the culture of most newsrooms. The daunting challenge to most editors is how to maintain a semblance of time-consuming investigative and public service reporting at a time of greatly diminished resources. It can be done, but traditional news coverage assumptions must change. On a more hopeful note, early signs are that the new administration in Washington is receptive to open government and press freedom issues. The major piece of unfinished business for U.S. press freedom advocates is passage of the federal "Free Flow of Information Act," also known as the "shield law" to protect journalists from identifying confidential sources. It overwhelmingly passed the U.S. House of Representatives in late 2007. But opposition by the Bush administration stalled the bill. Now, prospects for Senate approval are greatly enhanced since President Obama co-sponsored similar legislation while he was in the Senate. But he will likely seek input from his Justice Department before revisiting the issue. More than 70 media organizations and companies have endorsed adoption of a federal shield law. Last year, a bipartisan group of 41 state attorneys general wrote to U.S. Senate leaders supporting the law. It has already passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a wide margin. The need for a federal shield law was dramatized most recently by the case of Detroit Free Press reporter David Ashenfelter. Ashenfelter wrote stories questioning the conduct of a former federal prosecutor. After the prosecutor left his job, he sued his former bosses and is asking a judge to hold the reporter in contempt for refusing to divulge his sources. The judge has yet to rule on the contempt motion. On his first day in office, President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise to eliminate Bush administration restrictions on access to presidential records. The new policy reimposes a 30-day deadline for former presidents to review records before they are released. And it removes the right of the vice president or family members of former presidents to do these reviews. Under the Bush rule, there was no deadline. In another executive order -- the Presidential Memorandum on the Freedom of Information Act -- Obama restores standards from the Clinton administration that transparency is the assumption governing records requests. In the Bush administration, policies were adopted to delay FOI records requests. Now, the Obama executive order restores the old Clinton rules that presume disclosure of information unless "foreseeable harm" would result. Obama pledged an "unprecedented level of openness in government." The American Society of Newspaper Editors president praised Obama for his "immediate and strong statement in favor of open government" and for sending "a clear message that transparency and accountability will be cornerstones of your administration." The question remains, though, whether Obama's Justice Department will be more willing to yield to earlier lawsuits seeking information about the Bush administration's legal rationales for warrantless domestic wiretapping, its treatment of terrorism detainees, and the practice of rendition or transporting suspects to foreign countries known for torturing prisoners. New Attorney General Eric Holder has announced a review of every court case where the Bush administration used a different legal tool -- called the "state secrets privilege" -- to have lawsuits dismissed. But Justice Department lawyers continue to use that argument to fight attempts to get more information about questionable government activities. The Obama administration "should not be invoking state secrets to cover up charges of rendition and torture," a The New York Times editorial chided in February. Also at the end of February, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a change in an 18-year-old military policy that prohibited the news media from photographing coffins of America's war dead. Now, photographs will be allowed if the families of the dead agree. The order mainly affects coffins arriving from Iraq and Afghanistan at the Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.