February 27, 2010 - February 20, 2010
Some comments are worth responding to. This one, offered by
BProxy, about the post "Their
Finest Hour" may have been addressed in part by the subsequent
post, but it's worth addressing separately because it focuses
specifically on newspapers as an endangered species and because it
articulates the position I believe most traditional media
organizations would regard as the truth of the matter:
Part of BProxy's analysis is right. It's true that "nobody has figured
out how to reliably make
real money online via content," at least in the news business. The rise
of the Internet has created a
structural business problem for them of considerable magnitude. But
BProxy is wrong when he states that bias has nothing to do with the
business problems of newspapers, and he is wrong when he implies -- as
I think he does -- that newspapers couldn't have avoided their current
freefall in circulation and advertising revenue. He speaks of irony. So
will I. Ironically, the key fallacies are embedded in his own text:
First, his defInition of news is fatally incomplete. It's more than
plane crashes, fires, rapes, and McCartney concerts. It vitally
includes the ins and outs of local politics, which I'll elaborate on
later. Second, his final sentence exposes the reason why there shouldn't be any possibility
that the grand soup of the internet as a whole could ever replace real
news reporting: it costs money, and it can't be done by a distributed
gang of amateurs, however large. Even now, there's still no reason the
newspaper industry shouldn't recover strongly and compete vigorously in
the 21st century information market.
Fancy new technologies come along all the time. The invention of the telegraph and telephone didn't kill newspapers but rather increased their capabiility. Radio didn't kill newspapers, nor did television. (And for that matter, television didn't kill radio, and the internet isn't going to kill television.) What new media technologies tend to do is force older media to rethink their strengths and weaknesses and refocus their business models on those things they do uniquely well.
To pursue the radio example, television knocked radio clean out of the business of nightly dramatic programming, daytime soap operas, and big-time national news reporting because it was impossible to compete with a box that could beam pictures as well as sound from a single network source in New York. So radio broadcasters discovered what they could do better than television and regained their prosperity. They're still doing it today. Long-format entertainment shows that could be spontaneous and unscripted because there was no need for cameramen, lighting, blocking, props, and other limiting visual artifices. Call-in shows aimed at local audiences, who were empowered to be heard on the air and express their own opinions on any number of subjects (People tend to forget that talk radio thrived in local markets for decades before Rush Limbaugh refashioned it into a national political forum.) And niche broadcasting of music genres, made spectacularly successful by the stereophonic capacity of the FM band, which television wouldn't develop for many many years. Did radio broadcasters suffer while they were relearning their business? Yes. Many businesses failed along the way. But that's just the wasteful-looking efficiency of capitalism. Those who can't compete go away. Those who can replace them.
Now, the internet appears to have chopped down the newspaper industry in just a handful of years, and there are few signs of any renaissance on the way. Is it really the case that the internet has invalidated the entire conceptual business model of newspapers? No. It's merely exposed the rot in the fatally flawed business model newspapers had been getting away with for more than a generation.
Whether BProxy likes it or not, bias is a significant part of that rot, and not just as a turn-off in and of itself to big chunks of the potential customer base. It has also crippled editorial and business decision making in a variety of ways, and worse, there's more than one kind of bias at work. These are threaded through what follows and will be mentioned as they become relevant, but there are plenty of other sins to enumerate as well: snobbery, ignorance, incompetence, laziness, addiction, lack of vision, irresponsibility, and complacency. Let's consider them in reverse order, with an initial emphasis on the small newspapers that make up the overwhelming majority of businesses in the industry.
Complacency. Most newspapers behave like monopolies. They act like they're the phone company (the old phone company, when AT&T ruled the roost): "We're the only game in town and you'll take what we give you because where else you gonna go?" They operate out of habit on a yearly schedule, much like the communities they supposedly serve. They cover these public meetings, these entertainment events, these court proceedings, and these sporting events, as well as deaths, fires, car accidents, and the occasional state or local political controversy. They cover them pretty much the way they always do, the way they did last year. Their ad revenue tends to run to form, consistent with population, which governs classified ad volume and even that of display ads for local retailers and entrepreneurs. So essentially they're order-takers. More than they'd like to admit of their news coverage operates the same way. They do puff pieces and photo ops at the request of local bigshots, and even much of their other coverage depends on what local and state police desk sergeants share with them on regularly scheduled phone calls. In fact, that's what everybody involved is doing -- phoning it in. If they've been in a long-term decline it's a gradual one and there are ways they can take up the slack without upsetting the routine too much.
Irresponsibility. They actually think they're behaving responsibly as businesses. The most important content on their pages is the ads, and the news is what there's room for after the ads and the comics page are made up. And the column inches available for news are finite, absolutely limited by what ad revenue will pay for. They think they're doing all there's room for. And so their definition of their responsibility is doing what the paper does, has always done, and they never take count of what they don't cover, and even if they occasionally go out on one small limb regarding local politics, they almost never follow up. They don't do investigative reporting. They don't dig into why the local school system is still in the bottom quartile on state test scores while tax assessments and school budgets keep increasing. They don't interrogate police about why it's still not safe to walk downtown while the police cars get more sinister-looking and expensive every year. They don't research detailed biographies of candidates for local elections or report on their voting history when they come up for reelection. They don't call the county road department on the carpet about why five businesses in a neighboring hamlet have been shut down for five months by a bridge project nobody ever seems to be working on. They don't interview members of the planning commission, zoning board, and housing authorities about decisions they've made in secret that affect hundreds or thousands of people. They don't augment the nice photo of the new poster created by the Economic Re-Redevelopment Commission (the fourth in ten years) with in-depth reportage of how and when exactly the commission is finally going to attract new business to town this time. Why? There's no room. It's all taken up with photos of the Jaycees and the octogenarian Garden Club, a numbly written feature about the local glassblower, and a pictorial essay about this year's farm fair.
Lack of Vision. It doesn't occur to them that if they actually reported the news, dug up the news, that more people might buy the paper, more businesses might advertise in it, and along the way, some actual good might come out of it. Maybe if the paper got out of its rut, the town might, and the voters, and municipal and school board officials might start getting more accountable, doing their jobs better, based on the idea that the best cure for the bad things that grow in the dark is sunlight. And because none of this ever occurred to them, the rise of the oh-so-threatening internet didn't strike them as an opportunity to escape from the tyranny of column inches -- as a gigantic, in fact unlimited, "continued to" page whose password comes free with every paid subscription. No, the internet was only a junky new fad that was somewhere you had to be with a bunch of the same old meaningless junk reformatted to be even harder to navigate than it is in the paper.
Addiction. Let's pretend a smallish newspaper and its staff really understood their journalistic responsibility and wanted to discharge as much of it as possible within the obvious limitations of column inches. Why on earth would they piss away so many of those inches on wire service copy from the AP? Because otherwise their readers might miss rereading a big or freaky national story they could see anyway on the nightly news or CNN? Because otherwise their readers might tumble to the fact that the local paper isn't a publication of vast national and international reach? [Gasp] Or because they've been paying for this wire service subscription for years and now they depend on it, couldn't even fill the few column inches they allocate to news now without it?
Laziness. Well, of course they could go cold-turkey from the AP and hire another reporter or a few stringers to do more local reporting, but let's face it. It's easier to keep doing what you've been doing all these years. It's easier and it's been working pretty well, hasn't it? And besides...
Incompetence. Don't let all the talk and publicity surrounding prestigious graduate schools of journalism fool you. There aren't that many of those in the first place, and most so-called journalists are the product of undergraduate majors in journalism (or even worse, broadcast journalism), which teach journalism the way most education majors teach teaching, with a lot of meaningless junk courses that leave them as fundamentally uneducated in the basics as they were at the end of high school. What do journalism majors learn about writing? That every sentence is a paragraph. They don't learn grammar, diction, sentence structure, exposition, or rhetoric (so they can leave it out). They learned how to write in high school didn't they? They don't learn the unique cyclical newspaper style of repeatedly returning to the same points with additional detail as the article progresses so that editors can break the piece where they want to and readers can quit reading when they've gotten the level of detail that's enough for them. Why? There are no more long pieces in 90 percent of newspapers. No room. (Does anyone remember the joke told on USA Today in its earlier years? What did that paper win a Pulitzer for? Best investigatve paragraph.) Most of the journalists in this country couldn't write a news story if they had one dropped in their laps from above.
Ignorance. And they don't know anything about reporting, either. Their idea of reporting is to ask a question at a press conference, a meeting, or on the phone and get a usable quote. They're content to be filled in on the subject matter by one or more experts who claim to know what they're talking about and trust the majority opinion or the editorially desired opinion. Specializing in any subject in today's newspaper environment is a matter of acquiring your own stable of subject matter experts who can provide all the background and quotes needed to cover the topic of the moment. Which has absolutely nothing to do with being a good reporter. Real reporters are most of all quick studies. They know how to learn a great deal about any subject in a remarkably short period of time. They don't trust any authority, any expert, any professional mouthpiece but themselves, because anyone and everyone could be lying to you. It's a lot like being a good cop.
That's why in the old old days, reporters frequently started on the police beat. They learned about lying from the experts and the elusiveness of facts from the messy world of crime scenes and the world weary cast of characters that always surrounded those crime scenes. If they were smart and learned their lessons well, that prepared them for the truly gifted liars and more subtle crime scenes of city hall. They were protected in the monastic isolation of their craft by the fact that they had no discernible social status. They didn't go to cocktail parties or theater openings with the people they were covering. They learned to take pride in being a breed apart. Their job wasn't to be liked, or admired, or feted, or to receive awards, but to get the story. And that's something most of them would have told you you can't get a college degree in, at least not one worth the paper it's printed on.
There are a few reporters like that still, but not many. The journalism majors aren't taught that subject matter knowledge is important to being an effective independent reporter, and they don't have any. I doubt that they're even required to take economics, history, statistics, business law, a hard science of any kind, or a course in the American Constitution to qualify for the degree they get, although all of these disciplines are routinely relevant to covering everything from a government report to a piece of legislation to a case of possible political corruption. (The value of the hard science course is to teach you what knowing something thoroughly might feel like, why you probably don't know anything that thoroughly yourself, and how you go about the difficult business of teaching yourself something technical for which you have no natural aptitude -- like, say, the process for testing whether the macadam used in a road project meets the technical specification required by the contract for County Road 645 in your town.) I dare say the good reporters that presently exist in technical fields like aviation, climate, finance, and agriculture started in those fields and migrated to journalism because they had a fire in the belly to report the stories experts didn't know how to tell or didn't want anyone else to know.
Snobbery. But who wants to be a reporter on the police beat? Nobody. Everyone today wants to be Woodward and Bernstein, whose success story is (as popularly told) mostly about sources, access, and an overweening desire to save the world. But the purpose of being Woodward and Bernstein is, ultimately, not really to save the world, because everyone knows it can't be saved, but to be seen fighting on the side of the angels and rewarded accordingly. With fat book contracts, TV appearances, and... well... fame, money, invitations to all the right parties, and best of all, power.
Which is why the newspaper business in particular has created a kind of pyramid of snobbery that has rotted the industry from the top down and the bottom up. Another irony (just for BProxy, who loves them so): the newspaper business is, despite its Johnny-One-Note fixation on the democratic principle of free speech, an almost purely feudal aristocracy with scant ties to the capitalist system in which it presumably competes like other businesses.
Just as an exercise, name as many American industries as you can that have been dominated by individual families so significantly that a family name and a company/industry became permanently intertwined. For example: the Rockefellers and Standard Oil (SO/Esso/Exxon), the duPonts and Dupont (chemicals), Henry Ford and Ford Motor Company. In these three cases, members of the family continued to run the family business for multiple generations. All of these traditions finally gave way in the twentieth century. Yet the news business was dominated for most of the twentieth century by five family-run enterprises, at least four of which continued under the same family's management into the twenty-first century. There was Henry Luce, who (co)founded Time Magazine in 1922 and ran it in one form or another until 1967 (after which his closest associate since 1929 ran it for another dozen years) . There was William Randolph Hearst, who founded a newspaper empire that is still privately owned and managed by Hearst family members today. There was the Graham family, which acquired control of The Washington Post in 1933 and retained that control through 2001. There was Knight-Ridder, the first component of which was established in 1892 by Herman Ridder, which became a chain that was finally sold off in 2005 after years of decline presided over by CEO Tony Ridder. And there is the Sulzberger family, which is currently completing its 112th year in the office of Publisher of The New York Times.
The purpose in reciting this history is not to indict American plutocracy. It's to illuminate the social structure of the American newspaper business model, which is more obsolete caste system than adaptive entrepreneurial organism. The Publisher has the big office and does little while the managing editor scurries like a rat to feed the printing presses that are always hungry and always page-limited by ad revenues. (Yes, I'm generalizing, but this model does account for what has happened in recent years, so bear with me.) It's not a system that would have survived in any major industry, but it has survived in this one because of unique market forces that are only changing, very belatedly, at this late date. Until the blossoming of the Internet, all the flaws in the business model were forgiven by two universal truths: 1) It's a kick like a heroin rush to see your name in print, ten times that if it's a byline; and 2) if your business is words, and people read those words, you automatically command respect beyond that of other entrepreneurs who produce only money It may be a less sweeping form of celebrity than people who are beautiful and sexy and in the movies, but it's every bit as powerful to a lot of powerful people.
Bottom line? Even small town newspaper publishers are respected beyond their financial success. By gar, they put out the paper. So who do the small town newspaper publishers emulate? The bohunkus who opens five car dealerships or ten furniture stores? No. They emulate Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. Every small town newspaper is positioned as the local New York Times. It feels like The New York Times because it has no local competition. That vanished years ago. (I live in a small town among many small towns in the rural half of the state; every small town newspaper in the eight nearest counties is "the paper of record," without competition from other papers.) And there are ties to the high end of the caste.
In fact, almost all newspapers are feudal vassals of The New York Times. The Times is king, of course, but second tier cities are dukes (The Times owns the Boston Globe, for example), and below them are earls and knights and squires. How many days a week does your local paper feature a national news headline? About the Obama election? Or the Scandal with No Name? That's not reporting. That's the runoff down the slopes of the aristocratic pyramid. We are the newspaper of record. For you. The peasants we happen to command. So why would we care if you're getting ripped off by your local freeholders, dirty contractors, and hyper-organized teachers?
You see, this is where the bias comes in. Where the contempt comes in. Where the hatred for the customer comes in. We are the nobles. You are the peasants. We own the words and the pictures of the local reality and until we print them, they don't exist; you don't exist without us to make your lives real. And so your reality is what we say it is. Only that and nothing more. Part of the enforcing authority is that we can make you believe what we believe, and our beliefs come from the very highest levels, the most educated and best informed and most enlightened of the most elite among us. That's where the crazy left-wing political bias enters the picture and starts to piss people off. Because at least half the peasants don't agree. And NEVER will. Jeez. Is it possible? Them getting pissed off at our editorials? Them starting to see our biased rhetoric in straight news articles? Them cancelling subscriptions? Yes. Them ARE cancelling subscriptions. On account of bias, on TOP of a whole generation of other failures. To the small town paper. The county newspaper. The city newspaper. And even (gasp) the "paper of record" for the whole damn country. How dare they? Because you sit there like a placid little turd, polishing yourself as if you were some gleaming jewel while the light of the world exposes you as compost. Lords of dung.
Just imagine what the Internet did to that bullshit feudal perspective. Anyone, everyone could speak, get printed, have a byline, sit in the equivalent of the publisher's chair. For free. How come the newspaper barons failed to see the Internet as an opportunity? How come their sponsored serfs felt obligated to begin trashing everyone who dared to blog while professional journalists were writing weak, sloppy articles that could be machine-gunned to death with facts? How come newspapers panicked rather than responded to the presence of a huge new media technology?
Because they were the last nineteenth century business left in America. And they will hit the canvas like a ton of bricks for that very reason. They are the amateurs now in a new world that has changed all the rules and no longer cares about their self-granted medieval titles.
Final question: If nobody wants to take the lesson, why do they keep
voting "Citizen Kane" the greatest movie ever made? The press, I mean.
A closing thought. If newspapers really WERE a business instead of a caste system, how might they have responded to unlimited column inches and the unfettered opportunity to do real reporting to maximum capacity? No force on earth is better positioned to do LOCAL reporting to LOCAL audiences than LOCAL newspapers. It's an unbreakable business model. If they'd just DO it. But apparently they're too old to and too good to. If there ARE reporters out there somewhere, they're sharpening their blades as we speak. Unless America is as weak and supine as Obama thinks it is, they will kick ass in newsprint and on the Internet. And, BProxy, political bias isn't one of the knives in their optimum kit. So there.