Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

The Romance of the Press

It's been interesting, though a bit odd, for me, watching the hand-wringing over the "death of the press" as some of the major newspapers struggle to figure out how to make their budgets work in a world in which fewer people read "dead tree" editions and advertisers can take advantage of more targetted advertising online and in specialty publications. There is, it seems, a level of reverence which many people seem to attach to "the press", which does not seem well born out what it actually is.

Looked at historically and economically -- newspapers exist as a delivery system for ads. They seek to provide stories that people want to read (whether "news", human interest, comics, crosswords or recipes) in order to persuade people it's worth parting with the artificially low newstand or subscription price. Based on the number of people who can be persuaded to buy the paper, the newspaper then turns around and charges advertisers for the privilege of advertising to those readers.

Because people will sometimes stop reading a paper if it's flagrantly biased or routinely prints false information, it is sometimes in the interests of papers to print the truth to the best of their ability. On the other hand, examples throughout the history of our press can be found in which it was found to their advantage to print something other than the truth, or simply allowed themselves to be deceived.

Our constitution protects freedom of the press, but this is not in the sense that the press is some sacred part of the civic order. Rather, this is a matter of simple freedom: our freedom to print what we want (whether or not people are actually interested in reading it is another matter) is protected.

At a practical level, the press can serve as a useful check on political power, in that given our political dispositions and culture stories about how those in power are abusing it sell well. Thus, it is often in the interest of news venues to be critical of power. However, in other cases, the incentives run the other way. Most news outlets also have a necessary bias towards whatever story is most exciting -- even if that means supporting political authorities rather than critiquing them. (Any progressives who doubt this should do a little critical thinking about the enthusiastic reporting which almost invariably issues forth when a national move towards war is being considered.) And, of course, since selling news is the true reason for being for news -- news venues also have a necessary bias towards whatever they think their readers will want to hear.

Freedom of expression is certainly essential to our republic, but the preservation of specific news organs is not. Nor should we allow the self-serving myths which newspapers built around themselves in the 50s through the Watergate era about how they are the selfless bastions of objectivity and truth to be confused with anything like reality. It was, in the end, just another way to sell papers.

7 comments:

blackadderiv said...

I think this recent post by Matt Yglesias is a propos:

“[J]ournalistic objectivity” as traditionally practiced by reporters at American newspapers and television stations is a business strategy as well as an ethos. The way it works is that when a market has only a small number of competitors (one or two daily newspapers in a given city, three television networks) the economic incentive is to try to be generic and inoffensive. Attracting passionate fans doesn’t really help you—even if you love the Indianapolis Star you’re not going to buy two copies a day.

In a more competitive marketplace like the one highbrow magazines and UK newspapers have always operated in things look different. You need to differentiate your product, and it pays to develop an audience of passionate fans.

Anonymous said...

Nonetheless, *someone* has to hold our government accountable. Blogs can't do it because only a tiny number of them do anything like original reporting. Local news outlets can't do it because they are mainly interested in murders, fires, and car accidents. And national news outlets can't do it because they are a) going broke; and b) clinging to their sources like their lives depend on it, and thus unwilling to publish anything that might embarass those in power.

It is noteworthy that the most significant and impactful political news story in the US last month was broken by Rolling Stone.

Joel

JMB said...

I agree with Joel. I live in NJ, a state sunk in political corruption. Although I don't always agree with our local paper, I'm happy that someone out there thinks it's worthwhile to report about our looming financial crisis due to under funded pensions and the like. Moreover, I'm not about to go to every town council meeting, board of ed or planning board meeting, so it's a nice service to have a reporter do just that.
My favorite paper, however, is the NY Post. To mix conservative editorial with tabloid trash is priceless!

Darwin said...

Well, and, to be clear: I don't think that major news outlets will totally die out. I think there will be a lot of difficulty, and those which haven't managed to find a working value proposition will die out. Others (WSJ for example) are doing just fine, because they've found a niche that works.

So my answer would be: I do think that it's important for there to be informational and opinion voices to keep the government in check. However, I think that given a free press some form of this will emerge. The idea, however, of making major newspapers government funded in order to keep "the press" around, however, strikes me as one of the more pernicious attacks on the free press that I've heard in a while.

Kevin J Jones said...

Joel writes:
"Nonetheless, *someone* has to hold our government accountable."

Unless the crimes are blatant, accountability comes only if corruption exposed can be exploited by one of these factions (or occasionally an outsider).

Since the government is divided by factions, there will always be incentives to leak info damaging to one's opponents. But this probably means that systemic corruption cannot be effectively challenged and reformed by the press.


"the economic incentive is to try to be generic and inoffensive. Attracting passionate fans doesn’t really help you—even if you love the Indianapolis Star you’re not going to buy two copies a day."

Yglesias is all wrong here. Passionate fans convince other people to read your paper and attract advertiser loyalty too.

To the extent it exists, "Generic and inoffensive" is a product of corporate bureaucracy, which has both a technocratic view of things and a politically correct one (often required by law).

Yglesias is generally wrong that papers go for the generic. They could appeal to the average reader, but instead go for elite concerns about diversity.

Here's one newsman's take:
"It is a very narrow row from which these young journalism sprouts have been culled. Today, many large media companies have written policies — NBC/ General Electric and Gannett to name two — whereby station managers and executives cannot be promoted unless they themselves promote minorities and women. And where do managers go to ensure their own advancement, while hiring the perfect rainbow of staffers? The NABJ. NAHJ. NLGJA. NAHJ. These are the minority journalists associations. Black, Hispanic, gay and lesbian, Native American, Asian American."

My local paper's columnists, for instance, include one Irish Catholic, a Jewish man, a Jewish woman, a Hispanic Catholic woman, and a black man. Identity issues are pretty common among the latter three. But my state is mostly white, non-Catholic and non-Jewish. There are no columnists representing this broadest cross-section, and no reporters that come to mind either.

I suspect a big reason for the newspaper's decline is that it can no longer effectively address the mass of readers and gain their loyalty, precisely because media businesses are defined by "diversity" issues.

My master plan to save the media would involve exemptions from laws that create a politically correct climate and thus limit the frame of debate.

Kevin Jones said...

Joel writes:
"Nonetheless, *someone* has to hold our government accountable."

Unless the crimes are blatant, accountability comes only if corruption exposed can be exploited by one of these factions (or occasionally an outsider).

Since the government is divided by factions, there will always be incentives to leak info damaging to one's opponents. But this probably means that systemic corruption cannot be effectively challenged and reformed by the press.


"the economic incentive is to try to be generic and inoffensive. Attracting passionate fans doesn’t really help you—even if you love the Indianapolis Star you’re not going to buy two copies a day."

Yglesias is all wrong here. Passionate fans convince other people to read your paper and attract advertiser loyalty too.

To the extent it exists, "Generic and inoffensive" is a product of corporate bureaucracy, which has both a technocratic view of things and a politically correct one (often required by law).

Yglesias is generally wrong that papers go for the generic. They could appeal to the average reader, but instead go for elite concerns about diversity.

Here's one newsman's take:
"It is a very narrow row from which these young journalism sprouts have been culled. Today, many large media companies have written policies — NBC/ General Electric and Gannett to name two — whereby station managers and executives cannot be promoted unless they themselves promote minorities and women. And where do managers go to ensure their own advancement, while hiring the perfect rainbow of staffers? The NABJ. NAHJ. NLGJA. NAHJ. These are the minority journalists associations. Black, Hispanic, gay and lesbian, Native American, Asian American."

My local paper's columnists, for instance, include one Irish Catholic, a Jewish man, a Jewish woman, a Hispanic Catholic woman, and a black man. Identity issues are pretty common among the latter three. But my state is mostly white, non-Catholic and non-Jewish. There are no columnists representing this broadest cross-section, and no reporters that come to mind either.

I suspect a big reason for the newspaper's decline is that it can no longer effectively address the mass of readers and gain their loyalty, precisely because media businesses are defined by "diversity" issues.

My master plan to save the media would involve exemptions from laws that create a politically correct climate and thus limit the frame of debate.

Kevin Jones said...

Joel writes:
"Nonetheless, *someone* has to hold our government accountable."

Unless the crimes are blatant, accountability comes only if corruption exposed can be exploited by one of these factions (or occasionally an outsider).

"the economic incentive is to try to be generic and inoffensive. Attracting passionate fans doesn’t really help you—even if you love the Indianapolis Star you’re not going to buy two copies a day."

Yglesias is all wrong here. Passionate fans convince other people to read your paper and attract advertiser loyalty too.

To the extent it exists, "Generic and inoffensive" is a product of corporate bureaucracy, which has both a technocratic view of things and a politically correct one (often required by law).

Yglesias is generally wrong that papers go for the generic. They could appeal to the average reader, but instead go for elite concerns about diversity.

Here's one newsman's take:
"It is a very narrow row from which these young journalism sprouts have been culled. Today, many large media companies have written policies — NBC/ General Electric and Gannett to name two — whereby station managers and executives cannot be promoted unless they themselves promote minorities and women. And where do managers go to ensure their own advancement, while hiring the perfect rainbow of staffers? The NABJ. NAHJ. NLGJA. NAHJ. These are the minority journalists associations. Black, Hispanic, gay and lesbian, Native American, Asian American."

My local paper's columnists, for instance, include one Irish Catholic, a Jewish man, a Jewish woman, a Hispanic Catholic woman, and a black man. Identity issues are pretty common among the latter three. But my state is mostly white, non-Catholic and non-Jewish. There are no columnists representing this broadest cross-section, and no reporters that come to mind either.

I suspect a big reason for the newspaper's decline is that it can no longer effectively address the mass of readers and gain their loyalty, precisely because media businesses are defined by "diversity" issues.

My master plan to save the media would involve exemptions from laws that create a politically correct climate and thus limit the frame of debate.