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Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2006 12:05 pm

Conglomerate journalism

Profits trump investigative reporting at Time magazine

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The new managing editor of Time magazine has a rather grandiose sense of his publication’s place in the scheme of things. He declared that Time is for people “looking for one source to speak with authority and explain the world.” Perhaps he could start by explaining (authoritatively, of course) why Time Inc. dumped Bartlett and Steele.

Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele are the premier investigative team in journalism today. Their in-depth work on everything from corporate welfare to our jury-rigged tax system has earned two Pulitzer Prizes and given mass-market media some respect at a time when “journalism” has been degraded to sensationalism.

In May, however, after nine years at Time, these two suddenly found themselves on the street, unceremoniously sacked in a round of corporate cost-cutting. A company honcho said of Bartlett and Steele: “They’re very good but very expensive,” adding that there just wasn’t room in the budget for the duo.

Well, yes, real dig-it-out journalism certainly is more expensive than yet another Britney Spears profile, but investigative work is supposed to be a journalistic responsibility. As for tight budgets, I recall that Time splurged about $4 million this year for the right to run photos of Angelina Jolie’s new baby! Come on — this is Time Warner we’re talking about, a $140 billion multimedia giant.

The problem with conglomerate-owned media is that its primary focus is not on producing good journalism but on producing fatter profits. At the time of the firing, Steele said simply but pointedly: “The decision was made at the corporate level not to fund this type of work.”

Bartlett and Steele have now landed happily at Vanity Fair and will continue their great work. Time may be making more money, but it’s paying with its reputation.

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