Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Incredible Collapsing Newspaper Industry

The City of San Francisco is about to be without a daily paper for the first time since 1856 due to the impending demise of the San Francisco Chronicle. In Los Angeles, the Daily News has fired all but a skeleton staff and the L.A. Times is up for sale and may be shut down if no buyer is found. In Denver, the Rocky Mountain News published its last edition last week and the Denver Post's last payroll checks bounced, and if MediaNews, the owner of the Denver Post, goes down, then not only will Denver not have a daily paper, but San Jose and Oakland will join San Francisco on the no-daily-paper list.

So what's going on? Well, two things: First, the newspapers missed the Internet boat. They should have leveraged their Internet sites and news stories to sell advertising -- i.e., if you buy an advertisement in the print edition not only does it appear in the print edition, but it appears online too. This would have preserved their advertising income once their print circulation started falling, because as people move to getting their news online rather than on dead trees, the advertising income would have remained steady because the same number of eyes would have seen the ads. Craigslist and eBay would have never appeared if newspapers had leveraged their own classifieds sections and put them online complete with their own shopping cart and online payment processing mechanisms.

So missing the Internet boat is a big deal. I remember when the local rag's classifieds section was 20 pages on Sunday. Now it's 6 pages, and a lot of that is filler articles to fill in the blank spots. The rest of the ads are on Craigslist or eBay. But that's not the biggest reason. The biggest reason is pure free market economics: They simply are not providing a product that people want to buy.

I always laugh at the "one sided reporting" slur always being thrown at newspapers, because other than on the editorial page, they don't do a lot of what non-journalists think of as "reporting" (i.e., seeking of truth), they mostly transcribe what they're told by people in power or by powerful interest groups and do so accurately and without taking any sides in the matter. For example, in the runup to the Iraq War, New York Times reporter Judith Miller accurately transcribed what she was told by Iranian agent Ahmed Chalabi regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (which turned out to be an utter fabrication by Chalabi, as we have now found out, Chalabi had lived in London for thirty years and hadn't the slightest clue of anything happening in Iraq other than what he was told to pass on by his Iranian handlers). Lefties deride her reporting as "one-sided reporting", but she accurately transcribed what she was told. According to every newspaper editor I've ever talked to, it's not a newspaper's job to determine whether what their reporters are being told is true or not, that would be "analysis" not "reporting" and thus not a newspaper's job.

I once got into an argument with a newspaper editor about that. The problem is he said she said journalism. If Joe Schmoe from the Flat Earth Society gets up and announces that the Earth is flat, and Neil Armstrong from Apollo 11 gets up and says err no, he's orbited the Earth and taken photos of it and it's round as a billiard ball, the newspaper will blithely announce that person A said that the Earth was flat and person B said that the Earth was round. So is the Earth flat, or is it round? Well, newspaper editors nationwide will tell you that the answer to that question is "analysis", not "news", thus is not the job of a newspaper. The newspaper's job, the editors will tell you, is to accurately report what person A and person B said, not to figure out which of the two is telling the truth.

So if people can't find out the truth from newspapers, they turn to other sources to try to find out what's true or not. They listen to Art Bell or read Internet conspiracy sites or watch screaming commentators on one of those horrible television shows where people yell at each other and never manage to complete a sentence without someone screaming louder and drowning them out, they listen to talk radio or visit blogs like this, and where are newspapers in all of this? Nowhere. Because newspapers decided that truth -- the product that people are looking for -- is not a product that they're interested in selling, even though newspapers are uniquely qualified to sell that product because they are so effective at gathering accurate information. But they're not interested. What they're interested in selling is transcription -- the accurate transcription of the words of persons A and B regarding whether the world is flat or round -- with no indication as to which of A or B is telling the truth. And so it goes. People want to know whether the world is flat or round, newspapers don't tell them that, so they go elsewhere to find that out and never come back. The industry was dying before the current economic problems, all it's doing is making a dying industry die faster. Which is sad, but (shrug). What can you do, when a whole industry commits collective suicide by deciding that its job is to *not* provide the product that people want?

-- Badtux the News Penguin


  1. Homerun!! It's kinda like the bobbleheads on the east coast who do not have a clue what is going on in the real world outside.

    Truth of the matter papers are getting just what they deserve and some of these editors need to be strung up as well along side the bushys if that can ever happen.

    The internets and lefty bloggers are the last line of defense in the war of truth.

  2. Tux, in my previous career, I remember having the same argument you had, with a muckraker named Mark Lane. Only, I was taking the position of the editor.

    Lane wrote the first major book attacking the findings of the Warren Commission, so he's like the father of the JFK assassination conspiracy theory movement. He wrote a number of conspiracy books, including one in 1968 about the case of a black fruit picker in a small Florida town who was sentenced to the electric chair after his seven children were poisoned to death. In 1988, new evidence came out that eventually led to the poor bastard being set free after 21 1/2 years in prison. I was based in that town, covered the story, and had lots of chats with Lane as he worked to get the guy out. (Lane's original theory about the case was wrong, and he's a nasty SOB in his personal life, but sometimes a scoundrel can serve the cause of justice.)

    The crux of the case was that the county sheriff and the area's State Attorney had cooked up false evidence to frame the fruit-picker/father. As more damning evidence of the officials' crime came out, I was convinced that Lane was right. But as a reporter, it was my Holy Grail that I MUST be impartial. My duty was to present all sides; and no one would believe newspapers ever again if I came to any conclusions. I strongly suggested, through my word choices and how I presented one side vs. the other, that the officials were liars. But I couldn't come right out and say it. Not that my editors would have allowed it. We were all of the same faith.

    I remember phone calls where Lane raged at me for being neutral in the face of such monstrous injustice. I thought him a biased fool for not understanding the pure nature of newspapers. But I realise now that he was correct, and I was foolish. You can't give equal footing to the spokesmen for Hitler and the 6 million Jews.

  3. Well-said, Badtux. Stenography≠journalism, no matter what the owners find convenient or profitable.

    The Houston Chronicle has an interesting approach: they make the paper smaller, physically, both in number of pages and in the dimensions of a page. By now it's approximately tabloid size, though it's a lot uglier than most tabloids. I stopped my subscription when they endorsed GeeDubya... for his second term.

    I believe I once was forced to play billiards with that ball that is as round as the Earth...

  4. What can you do?

    wave goodbye.

  5. And now what the hell am I gonna wrap fish guts with?
    Will the paper companies still make newsprint?
    Won't have the classifieds to roll up into a fly swatter on Sundays.
    Have to sell the parrot.
    More expense for paper towels to clean windows.
    Bitch, bitch, mumble, mumble. . .


Ground rules: Comments that consist solely of insults, fact-free talking points, are off-topic, or simply spam the same argument over and over will be deleted. The penguin is the only one allowed to be an ass here. All viewpoints, however, are welcomed, even if I disagree vehemently with you.

WARNING: You are entitled to create your own arguments, but you are NOT entitled to create your own facts. If you spew scientific denialism, or insist that the sky is purple, or otherwise insist that your made-up universe of pink unicorns and cotton candy trees is "real", well -- expect the banhammer.

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