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Editorial: Buy Into This

1/02/2009 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Many of the early economic indicators out of the holiday season for retailers were more troubling than expected. We're more than a little spooked about what that may mean for finding the next Bernard Madoff before he strikes again.

What exactly does your decision not to buy that fancy new flat-screen TV after all have to do with someone having the ability to once again bilk a nation of investors? Pardon the play on words, but bear with us.

According to a report cited by The Wall Street Journal after Christmas, “Price-slashing failed to rescue a bleak holiday season for beleaguered retailers.” Excluding gasoline sales, the numbers cited by the Journal put total overall retail sales off 2.5% year-over-year for November and down 4% in December through Christmas Eve. An analyst from Deloitte LLP called it “one of the worst holiday sales seasons on record.”

If those figures hold up, retailers will be limping even more feebly into early 2009, a year expected to be mostly—if not completely—underwater in a drawn-out recession. Without the end-of-year bump we all optimistically (read: naively) hoped would come, that means more trouble for a plethora of companies that not only employ so many, but buy a ton of advertising.

With marketing budgets increasingly under siege, the all-too-familiar domino effect hammers those that rely—whether in part or full—on advertising revenues. And when those ad revenues fall, that means even more cost-cutting for the broadcast and cable networks as well as local stations, which inevitably means more belt-tightening for news divisions.

That brings us to the next Bernard Madoff. We've sounded this clarion before, but as we enter 2009 it bears repeating over and over: The news media have long been one of the most crucial watchdogs not only in our country, but for our virtually shrinking world.

So as newsgathering organizations stand to get killed by the revenue falloffs expected in 2009, with more layoffs and budget cuts being inevitable, how can the media be expected to do what the government often fails to, whether that means discovering the next Ponzi schemer, not getting caught up in the next weapons-of-mass-destruction sham, or really telling the public why entire industries are getting bailed out?

From the local consumer-advocate piece, up to the network news divisions practicing the seemingly dying art of good old-fashioned muckraking journalism, the need for a strong fifth estate has never been greater. Yet news divisions are way past skin and muscle at this point. Cuts long ago hit bone for many.

Which is why we're steadfastly standing next to news chiefs everywhere as they fight to protect every last dollar in that budget. As ink-stained wretches ourselves, we know the pressures you all are facing, but we also know the stakes. Obviously at its worst, the term “media” has come to include a bunch of snarky bloggers in their parents' basements. At its best, however, journalism can still serve as a protector of the public's well-being.

So if you have the means, go buy that flat-screen TV before the next undiscovered Bernard Madoff takes away your ability to do so. And once you get the new set, watching a few commercials within three days of their airing probably wouldn't kill you either.

 

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