The decline of newspapers — nothing to do with journalism

February 17, 2008

The decline of newspapers - nothing to do with journalism

Declin­ing news­pa­per read­er­ship has noth­ing to do with journ­al­ism. Should I say that again for the hard of hearing?

Amongst those not listen­ing, the nor­mally wise and per­cept­ive Howard Owens:

If our read­ers so eas­ily recog­nize that what we do isn’t trust­worthy for its accur­acy both in fact and spirit, then how can we expect to retain them as readers?

Some­thing needs to change.

Deaf, too, at New Media Bytes:

My guess is…journalism didn’t deliver what people wanted. Read­ers spoke with their wal­lets and read­er­ship rates. The same happened with U.S. auto­makers, which failed to pro­duce vehicles coveted by the Amer­ican public.

Wrong. And wronger. In case one, the decline of news­pa­pers has almost noth­ing to do with the lengthy moral fail­ures of print journ­al­ism. And in case two, how do you explain grow­ing news­pa­per cir­cu­la­tion in coun­tries like India? They must be prac­tising a kind of super-journalism!

I could call it a trib­ute to journalism’s cul­ture of self-flagellation — but it is actu­ally a typ­ical human response: seek­ing to explain events bey­ond our con­trol by ref­er­ence to ourselves.

Con­sider.

  • The decline of Vaudeville had very little to do with the declin­ing effect­ive­ness of one-liners and the rel­at­ive mer­its of nov­elty acts.
  • The decline of drive-in movie theatres was not the fault of Hol­ly­wood screenwriters.

And, if you really want to keep going back in time:

    The crops did not fail because we offen­ded the gods.

The prob­lems journ­al­ists are con­front­ing are to do with the chan­ging social habits of people who once pur­chased news­pa­pers and were thus appeal­ing to advertisers.

Besides, the very first study of reader pref­er­ences in news­pa­per con­tent (by George Gal­lup at the start of the 1930s) revealed that the things people liked best in them were not the journ­al­ism, but the pic­tures and comic strips.

This post is my — ok, late — con­tri­bu­tion to the Car­ni­val of Journ­al­ism, hos­ted this month at Innov­a­tion in Col­lege Media.

++Fur­ther reading++

Journ­al­ism not to blame for news­pa­pers’ decline 2

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Adrian Monck February 18, 2008 at 01:51

@Howard – understandably, you’re offering a product-centred explanation for the decline, with the injunction that we can journalistically “bootstrap” our way past social change.

I don’t agree. I’m saying the decline has little to do with the product, and thinking or hoping it does won’t help us.

One of your readers said the things you recommend were good practice 30 years ago (I don’t disagree with them or you on that btw) – but doesn’t that tell you that they are not in themselves the solution?

Evening papers did not decline in the US because they offered lousy journalism…

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Howard Owens February 17, 2008 at 20:12

Um, so I do a series of posts saying journalism has failed to meet the needs of a changing society.

And you say journalism is failing to reach as much audience because society has changed.

And I’m wrong.

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Ryan Sholin February 17, 2008 at 22:51

You’re certainly right on with the Vaudeville angle, but I have a hard time believing that Not Sucking wouldn’t hurt as newspapers try to transition to a model that still depends on actual written words, now and then.

What people like best about the *print edition* definitely = comics, crossword, TV guide (above a certain age), and movie times (barely).

That has zero to do with what online news users/readers/participants are looking for, so, if newspapers are going to use moderately new or innovative technology to tell stories, they still need to polish up on the actual storytelling bit.

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scribblercraig February 18, 2008 at 06:21

It’s a good point made here. Let’s look at just a few factors which help prevent people from buying a paper:

1) Less newsagents next to train stations now.

2) Metro available at some stations.

3) More and more people driving to work and driving straight to their workplace, so no intermediary stage to buy a paper.

4) People can surf for free at work. No need to buy.

5) People are just too busy to read papers. The car radio and web do the job just as good for them.

That’s not the say that the quality of journalism couldn’t be improved…

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shannon kinney February 18, 2008 at 08:48

I think the challenge here is that the way people consume media is changing.

And, in today’s world people want to participate in the conversation in a way traditional media and journalism has not allowed.

If you see newspapers delivering their content in multiple formats/media, and allowing readers to join and participate in the conversation, they will remain more relevant.

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Rick Waghorn February 18, 2008 at 10:11

It’s not in my little man’s genes, with a ‘g’, to read a newspaper; what’s in his jeans, with a ‘j’, is a mobile phone…

Well, if his mother has her way there won’t be till his 14, but you get the point.

It’s not the content that’s at fault; it’s the means of distribution. Put it into the palm of our Thomas’ hand and journalism has a rich and vibrant future.

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Howard Owens February 18, 2008 at 13:20

Actually, there is plenty of evidence that young people will read print.

I recently met with a publisher of college newspapers who’s business is booming … he considers his start-up company a print distribution company, not a digital company (though they do have a website, uweekly.com).

On most college companies, penetration of the print version of student newspapers remains high while the corresponding online version lags.

Kids will read print — they just won’t read our print. So that leaves the question, “why?”

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shawnsmith February 18, 2008 at 19:02

You’re right that social changes and technology have impacted newspaper sales. The gods and crops analogy makes a lot of sense too. But I still think the way journalism has been practiced has impacted newspaper readership.

How so? People don’t care about the news. If people don’t care about the news, they don’t read newspapers.

Is apathy journalism’s fault? Yes.

People have not evolved so much that younger generations are apathetic from the womb toward news. I’m no sociologist, but I can say that many young people in my network wouldn’t call news seeking their top hobby. Is that the fault of technology?

Doubtful. People don’t care about the news because they don’t see how it relates to them. That’s journalism’s fault. Not technology. Not social changes.

Also, broadband in India is expensive, which might account for why more people choose print papers over news web sites.

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Adrian Monck February 19, 2008 at 02:34

@Shawn – is apathy journalism’s fault? Journalism historically mapped geographic communities. Those communities have lost coherence as wealth and communications have given us increased car ownership, travel opportunities, and extended social relationships.

The Economist, with its stateless appeal to rootless cosmocrats (read its editor’s Future Perfect) grows audience, even as the Los Angeles Times splutters.

Unbundling, too, has exposed the fiction (first exposed by Gallup) that the old mass newspaper audience valued journalism anyway.

Can journalism be good and bad? Of course.

Can it still meet unmet needs? Absolutely.

Can its goodness or badness win back the mass audiences it bombarded with unread copy in the mid-20C? Not IMHO.

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hyokon February 18, 2008 at 21:55

I am sure you are simplifying, but just a comment in case ‘nothing’ (to do with journalism) could mislead. I think journalism consists of two things: news (new facts) and perspectives. The blogsphere began in the perspective side. They relied on ‘journalistic’ media for news, and wrote on it. Now, they are getting better and some compete in the news area. In the tech news, bloggers like Techcrunch delivers news often faster than large media companies. And there are millions of amateur bloggers who write about whatever new facts (and rumors) they hear about. Crowds are getting better than the elites in many areas. So yes, people are switching from papers to online. But more and more people are OK (or even happier) with the new blogger journalism quality. Product and channel issues are always related. It is just a matter of degree.

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Pramit Singh February 25, 2008 at 00:12

The problem of not enough journalists covering issues that people care about is a big problem.

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Robert Durison August 1, 2008 at 23:36

The Philadelphia Inquirer was an exceptional Knight-Ridder paper for many years. It had great investigative journalists, satirical columnists, etc. It won many Pulitzers. This golden era passed long before the paper was sold. Considering today’s bland publication I wonder why I still subscribe, as I get most of my news and intellectual stimulation–outside of books and the Sunday NYT–off the web.

I foresee no renaissance for the American newspaper.

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Geoff Dougherty August 2, 2008 at 08:09

Great companies, and great managers, do not keep foisting a past-its-prime product on their customers.

Sure, times, and people, change. And it’s the obligation of a well-managed company to change with them. Or … you know … become obsolete.

IBM started as an adding machine company. You won’t find them whining about how all the kids want to be on Facebook and won’t buy adding machines. You’ll find them making the servers that power Facebook, or websites like it.

American Express started out as a pony express company. You won’t catch them whining about how the e-mail is forcing them to lay off horses.

Blaming societal change for the plight of newspapers makes no sense at all. Blame the people running newspapers who failed to adapt to inevitable societal change.

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Michael Sewall August 2, 2008 at 18:48

I’m the managing editor at a college newspaper and I wanted to respond to Owens’ last post about young adults/college students reading print.

I think many college students read college newspapers, and that will never change. Why? Because it’s better than listening to the professor during lecture. This may change a bit with the rise of laptops in the classroom, but there aren’t any signs of that quite yet.

Students will read the print version of college publications mostly because (and this sounds weird) they are more available and accessible to students.

Most college papers have Web sites now, but I feel there isn’t a large promotion to those sites, and therefore not as many readers. But the print version – that is in bins all across campus and in the back of lecture halls, so it’s easy to find those and read about the campus news.

With “your” print, Owens, the Web does seem to be the first place to go. If we want sports news, we’ll go to ESPN.com. If we want political news, we’ll go to the Post or NYTimes. But we rarely see those papers or TV stations around campus.

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Sam Quinones August 3, 2008 at 15:55

As a reporter for 21 years, I’ve become concerned less for why newspapers are declining — though it’s an important topic — and more for what happens when they’re not around any more.

In the US, the entire under30, tech-absorbed population lives in – takes for granted — a world made possible, made better, made more livable, made more just and more fair by newspapers.

The very technology some of them seem to worship is made possible because of a world whose openness is due to newspapers’ scrutiny. Would Apple or Microsoft have been possible in the Soviet Union, where newspapers were controlled?

No, in the United States, we live in a world newspapers have created.

TV didn’t do it. Nor did radio. And the Internet most certainly didn’t do it. In fact, all those tech innovations were made possible only by the openness guaranteed by newspapers.

We just had a 5.4 earthquake in Southern California. No one was hurt. There was only minor property damage.

No one mentioned newspapers when this happened. But the building codes that protected people during the earthquake, and the local and state government agencies that were ready to protect them, were direct results of newspaper coverage in little and big ways over many years.

I lived in Mexico for 10 years. A 5.4 earthquake would almost certainly at least have toppled buildings there. I don’t know why it would surprise anyone that Mexico for decades had an unaccountable government, combined of course with a weak-kneed, context-less press that few read. Look at China’s earthquake, in which numerous schools collapsed. Why? A centralized, unaccountable government and no tradition of free newspapers. So schools fall down and kids died.

The problem is, the Internet feeds on newspapers, while destroying its business model, replacing it with nothing.

I have yet to read a public-affairs blog or called up Google News that didn’t rely on newspapers stories and, thus, reporters.

Today, advertising fragments into nanoslivers. Thus no website alone can support the kind of staff that will relentlessly look into and originally report on crime, public finance, land use, political malfeasance, business, not to mention entertainment, sports — and all in such a handy package.

The idea that newspapers are an inefficient delivery mechanism for news and information is only true, paradoxically, in a world where newspapers exist.

It presupposes that you can find all that a newspaper provides on its website, and thus presupposes a large reporting staff, and advertising revenues that support it.

But imagine a not-so-far-off world where newspapers don’t exist. Now: try to find on the net everything you can find in a newspaper today. First, you couldn’t, because there’d be no reporters around to find it for you. If you could, it would require searching dozens of websites every day.

But it appears people aren’t interested in how their tax dollars are spent enough to read a story about it in a newspaper. I’d argue that’s mostly because they take it for granted that someone else IS interested in it and paying attention. That’s how I perceive many Americans these days. They’d rather play Rock Band, or chat with someone they don’t know and will probably never meet. They’d rather stand in line for an IPhone. They are products of America’s great run up in wealth and thus have the luxury of not caring much about the world around them – the ultimate navel gazers.

But democracy – or perhaps it’s just life — has a way of being just. You DO get what you pay for, and pretty much only that.

Ben Franklin said, when asked what he and other founding fathers had just created, said, “It’s a Republic, if you can keep it.”

So I’d agree, newspapers’ decline is due to more than problems in journalistic quality. Technology is changing how we live and is making newspapers seemed so old. The question is, what happens when they’re gone?

Sam Quinones

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ET August 4, 2008 at 08:03

Am I wrong in saying that classifieds have traditionally been the cash cow behind newspapers and that they are now moving to the web in huge numbers?

In addition: as a local living in a college town, 2 things are immediately obvious. The small town paper uses too much AP, UPI stuff that’s old by the time you read it, while the campus paper is almost entirely local. The only thing people read the small-town paper for is the sports: particularly college sports. The campus paper is also free and small and filled with ads, while the local paper cannot even convince the movie theaters to advertise with them more than once a week.

So college papers may be thriving because they are so very local. They fill a niche that a lot of small town papers forgot about.

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Jack Sanderson August 4, 2008 at 12:59

Just try to get an American journalist to print a story that evenly mildly criticizes the most virulent strains of feminism. It won’t happen. This is why tons of men have canceled their newspaper subscriptions. Of course, they probably would have canceled the print edition delivery anyway, but they may have made the newspaper website their default home page if the journalists had not abandoned them.

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Johnny Nemo August 5, 2008 at 14:46

Some intelligent thoughts here (except Jack Sanderson’s) about why newspapers are declining. I would agree with “ET”: my local paper too has cut back its reporting staff so much that I’m hard pressed to call it a local paper any more; it’s all wire stories. Local stuff is pretty much limited to sports and traffic accidents, and always includes lots of big colour photos and few, you know, words.

Newspapers are also very expensive for a daily habit; it’s been a while since I’ve seen a daily paper for less than a buck-fifty, and often two bucks. For something that takes five minutes to read, and then you throw it away? And what about that throwing-away? As people are more concerned about the environment, is that a factor?

Fewer media owners also means that newspapers are less about news, and more about propaganda for the ruling class. There is a huge disconnect between what newspapers say “the people” think, and what the people actually think as revealed by polls. People look at the world the newspaper describes, and see that it isn’t the same world they live in.

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Jeff Kersten August 7, 2008 at 21:14

I would disagree that the world the newspaper describes in “false” — it is reality and truth mostly, whether you want to know about it or not. Too many in the younger generation are living in a fantasy land and have NO interest in the realities of their society.

My father told me at an early age that if you want to be a productive member of society you read the newspaper. My children will be informed the same as I was and I’ll make sure my grandchildren know it, too. It just happens to be the truth, or at least WAS the truth. I agree that it is NOT any moral decline of the newspaper or its’ many editors & publishers that is at the root cause of this mess. Radio, then TV and now the Internet have slowly drawn away what was exclusive to only the newspaper. That’s why it was once so widely circulated and read and such a cornerstone of US society.

Now, this is simply my opinion on this matter, but I can’t figure out why the newspaper industry in this country has not exploited those FEATURES that remain exclusive ONLY to the newspaper. For example, years ago the Sunday newspaper was always constructed with the Comics Section on the OUTSIDE of the paper. Why would they do such a thing, you ask? Simply, those full-size comic strips were AMAZING and fascinating with both high quality art and thrilling stories. Newspaper fiction has been lost for the most part but remains, like the comic strips, a missed opportunity. The crossword puzzle, the Jumble and now Sedoku are FEATURES that remain exclusive to the newspaper and unexploited by the editors.

Those amazingly colorful Sunday comics for decades upon decades made the newspaper supreme to other media — radio, and then television. Why have newspaper editors shrunk such a VALUABLE asset into practical anonimity while the internet media has increasingly invaded their business model, distributing all they can away from newspaper to fatten their own bottom line? I’ve never gotten a rational answer to this question, sadly. It remains an opportunity. Will the newspaper take advantage of what is UNIQUE to only them or miss an opportunity to reverse this path to obsolescence?

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NotHoldingMyBreath August 11, 2008 at 22:37

I couldn’t agree more with Ryan Sholin, hyokon, Robert Durison, Geoff Dougherty, ET, annd Johnny Nemo.

Jeff Kersten’s first two paragraphs resemble the Disney agitprop coming out of the robots at Tomorrowland. How appropriate to the topic of discussion.

Sam Quinones argues with passion and tugs the heartstrings. His is an old argument and one which, in a simpler time, would surely have convinced myself and most every thinking person. Alas, it is not to be.

I see there are many scribblers posting here, so I’m not going to waste my time trying to explain the *whole* world to them, a lost cause if there ever was one. I’ll have to content myself with just explaining part of it.

I don’t often post comments on the web. But I feel compelled to make a couple of surpassingly important points that seem to be lost on everyone here.

First, Sam, you speak of the prospect of a world without pay news in which all the fine things of yesteryear are gone with the wind.

That’s right, you seem to say, without pay news there’d be no competent engineering, no prosperity, no jobs, no occupational safety (well I guess we don’t need that without jobs), no labor rights, no law and order, no justice system, no security in the prisons, no learning in the schools, no fact or reason in the textbooks, no restraint in the churches and the temples and the mosques, no hope among the poor, no virtue among the wealthy, no honesty among public officials, no information about where our taxes go, no liberty and no personal responsibility, no right to believe what you want rather than what the state tells you, no habeas corpus, no freedom from being disappeared or tortured within an inch of your life, no government in the sunshine.

In fact, you suggest, we wouldn’t even have a republic because our elections would be fraudulent, our leaders would be mere milquetoast pawns of secret nobility, and our so-called news would be fed to us by the media’s new editorial master, the government of a one-party state.

If you’re worth even half what you can make as a salaried reporter at a major daily newspaper, then you already know that most of what I just mentioned has already happened or is well on their way to being a fait accompli. (Replace “no” with “little”, and you’ve pretty much described the nation as it is today.) But regardless, it happens to be the case that the USSR was a highly industrialized and, for a time, a highly stable and orderly country with an unparallelled level of education. By some measures, it could have also been called prosperous, though like the U.S. (another country that’s a shell of its former self), that wealth was not distributed equitably, but with a pointed regard for the politics, the religion, the race, the family, and the economic value to the state of each citizen.

And as far as democracy is concerned, well, frankly with some of the testimony I’ve heard in the last couple of years from the mouths of election-equipment engineers and elections officials, our elections at this point are no better than the Soviet Union’s ever were, and I think it has to fairly be asked how certain we can be that ours were ever better. (By the way, the testimony I refer to comes to me via YouTube and not one word of it has been seen by me in the pay newspapers, and it hasn’t been for lack of me looking.)

So I think it’s pretty clear that there’s something other than lack of readership of pay newspapers that makes Mexico (or the U.S., for that matter) what it is.

The points that have been made on this page about youth are key. But it is not that being young, today, makes one dysfunctional or even just different, as some have suggested. The difference is *generational*, and I submit that it extends back a generation. This means that, if I’m right, there are now two generations out there who are sufficiently disheartened or incensed by the mainstream media that they’re largely unwilling to pay for its printed products. Now, the price of those products may be a factor for many of them, but I don’t believe for a second that it’s the only factor. Apathy for news in general may be a factor among the most recent generation of adults (which I define as those born in 1976 or later), but again I believe this is secondary to the main issue of being disheartened or incensed. And, if I’m right, this generational behavior will carry on through their whole life, so long as the “news” does not change its character, or should I say its lack thereof.

As a young adult in the early- to mid-1990′s, I read newspapers constantly, paying quite a bit of money to do so. But I was very naive about the world in those days, and a funny thing happened as I got older — the internet and personal contact with people *educated* me about things that college, graduate school, and the oh-so-diligent newspapers had not. And, in retrospect, it seems the more I learned, the less desire I had to keep reading the paper.

Today, I still read it, both in print and online, mostly online because like others of my generation (born 1951-1975) and the subsequent one (1976-2000), I don’t like paying for the “privilege” of being lied to and deceived. But the main reason I read it is because it’s a starting point for me to find the truth about all the crap that goes on around me.

I now know that the harder a commercial media source tries to make me believe something, the more likely it is to be false, while the things that seem huge but only get one or two paragraphs of coverage, and only get covered once, are probably true. But again, it’s just a starting point.

I have read in the work of a distinguished Sovietologist, writing in the 1960′s, that it was in much the same way that the average Soviet went about finding the truth about this or that, if and when he felt motivated to do so. This was a time when the idea of their country having a public internet, let alone one with free speech, could have been fodder for a hilarious joke, had anyone had enough foresight to understand the joke. The point, then, is that with no internet, and with the papers themselves being a sad joke, word-of-mouth or what journalists would call “unsubstantiated rumor” was as reliable as, and often more reliable than, than the official news media.

The overriding point here, I think, is that the thinking person of today wants every source he can get his hands on, but if we live in an age (which we surely do) when the military, the Party, and its agents and friends decide for us which “news” is fit to print or to broadcast, and when these efforts (as they surely do) result in gains, monetary and otherwise, for them, why the hell shouldn’t *they* take care of the distribution costs? At least the Soviets did that much! We capitalists and liberal democrats, supporters of human dignity, believers in equality and the inherent value of all people, expect the consumers of our news, not only to be lied to and suffer the consequences of ignorance, but to *pay the salaries* of those whose job it is to keep from knowing too much? Well, unfortunately this is how too many of us think, and it is why we are a global laughingstock and have been for many years.

According to Slate.com, U.S. daily newspaper circulation peaked in the mid-1960′s. It is at about the same time that you started to hear the rumblings of unqualified dissent from my generation, the rumblings about the “Establishment” and what they had done and what else they seemed intent on doing, the rumblings suggesting that many of their PARENTS’ generation had held their toungue for years and that the critics of all ages were nearing the end of their rope, that a decent person could only take so much, and they’d just about had their fill. Many of their children know even more today of what goes on than their parents did back then.

Ask yourself, how much of *their* point of view has made it into the major daily newspapers? Now ask yourself if you can really believe, in your heart, that this is not the main factor in the demise of the newspapers. Be honest with yourself.

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Jeff Kersten August 12, 2008 at 00:23

Your panacea is misplaced, NotHoldingMyBreath. The world is more transparent today than EVER before in recorded history, mostly due to the advancements of journalism resulting from the individual freedoms established at the birth of our American republic. American journalism from the beginning is filled to the brim (perhaps OVERFLOWING) with information and news produced with political intention. I would challenge you to name a single US newspaper that has EVER been grossly objective in reporting the news as a whole, regardless of political leaning. I do not intend to promote the notion that the facts are not reported accurately by the individual journalist but, rather, news is reported or not reported from an editor’s POV with perhaps some political objective in mind. That “objective” will be categorized by the consumer in political terms, logically, and those media organizations who are obvious in their editorial policy will typically be singing to their choir of subscribers. To conclude that the resulting journalistic reportage of ALL major U.S. media is politically “tainted” and therefore without TRUTH or VALUE in societal terms is, IMHO, naive. We the consumer will discover the TRUTH of the news depending on our own pursuits.

Now, that being said, the evidence would more likely point to what you refer to as apathy among the majority of our populace resulting in your notion of diminished freedom of information today. I don’t see what evidence there is that it is the result of the US print media, really. The laziness, self interest and resulting apathy is more likely due to the expansion of personal freedom that brought us this increased transparency I reference, not the news media “covering up” the truth. One example of ACTUAL government encroachment on the news media’s freedom of the press does not come to mind since the Roosevelt administration. What say you?

The larger issue, as I see it, is that this dissection of news distribution over several mediums will either succeed or fail based on the journalists reporting. Those that value objectivity will gravitate to media organizations that share this philosophy. This is a business, after all. The notion of journalism’s sudden death, likewise, will be solved economically. All evidence I see today points to mass syndication in all news reporting as the likely end game. Those journalists that excel will become valuable assets of the syndicate and their success, as a result, is shared economically by contract with their employing syndicate based on circulation and measurable readership in print OR online. With this in mind, the news MEDIUM would become an unimportant factor in an individual journalist’s success. Seems quite logical to me.

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Johnny Nemo August 12, 2008 at 04:16

My argument is that “ACTUAL government encroachment on the news media’s freedom of the press” isn’t required. The government doesn’t have to tell the newspapers what to publish, because the government officials and the newspaper editors are all of the same class (the “Village”), operate from the same assumptions, and manifest the same prejudices. The media isn’t adversarial; they don’t want to criticize their friends, those nice people they see at the parties they all attend.

Who was it who proudly claimed, “Nobody tells me what to write in my column?” only to have it pointed out, “If you didn’t write the way you do, you wouldn’t have a column,”? You don’t have to order newspapers to toe the government line if they already want to do that.

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Sam Quinones August 12, 2008 at 04:29

I think it’s mostly a mistake to respond to people who make arguments on the Internet anonymously, because if you don’t sign your name, I mean, why should anyone take what you say seriously?

But Not Holding My Breath makes some arguable points, so I‘ll respond.

The essence of his point is distilled in the following sentence: “Our elections at this point are no better than the Soviet Union’s ever were, and I think it has to fairly be asked how certain we can be that ours were ever better.”

The idea, I guess, is that even with newspapers US society/economy/political process was really no different than the Soviet Union.

This is an absurd claim and can only be made by someone who’s never lived in a country with a one-party state.

There are problems with our elections, now and before, but they have been fairer, cleaner and, I dare say, more substantive usually than any ever held in the Soviet Union, or dozens of other countries. Among them is Mexico, where I lived for 10 years and which was ruled by a one-party state for 71 years.

One thing the Soviet Union and Mexico had in common is the general suppression of newspapers.

Yes, I believe our prosperity up to now is due to a general openness in government, business, religion, and society. Perfect? Of course not. But very open nonetheless.

Much of our openness is due to newspapers – not TV, or the radio. It is due to large numbers of reporters out there covering local affairs, state and national issues, investigating health, environment, the workplace, religion, city halls, etc etc etc.

The list of what they have uncovered is so long and monumentally healthy for the Republic that I find it amazing anyone would argue the point.

The United States has many problems, which NHMB lists. True. But I think you can chart a lot of them to the slow decline of newspapers – generally since the 1980s — being replaced gradually by television and lately by blogging and the belief by many that news somehow grows on the Internet the same way meat and vegetables grow from supermarket shelves.

The reason why newspapers deserve the credit is simple: again, no medium but newspapers has been able to muster the huge numbers of reporters to get out there and in a relatively steady and reasoned fashion (though not without arrogance or error) cover the most important issues facing US citizens today.

They are an essential check and balance on power at all levels of government and society. I don’t see how that’s a debatable point. They may not always do a good, or thorough enough, job — particularly now that they are being cut relentlessly. But their presence is healthy nonetheless.

I suggest you take a look at the town of South Gate, California, which I wrote about in my second book (Check it out at http://www.samquinones.com). what happened there was entirely due to a lack of newspapers and the corruption that fostered was remedied only when newspapers began to pay attention.

When reporters disappear – and cannot be replaced by Youtube or any one blogger – the damage is to our democracy, our society’s openness, to how easily you can find out what’s happening at your city hall or planning department, and eventually to our prosperity. You betcha.

I suggest NHMB take some time and go live some place that doesn’t enjoy that level of relentless coverage, then he should let us know how similar the US is to the rest of the world.

Hey, how about China? It’s, from what I can tell, the best example of a society today created without newspapers. I bet parents of those kids killed in those rickety schools that collapsed in the earthquake could tell him a bit about the important difference between living in a country with newspapers performing their essential role and one where they don’t.

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NotHoldingMyBreath August 12, 2008 at 05:15

Jeff Kersten,

I never said that news organizations are, or should be, objective. I don’t think it’s possible. I think if they want to try for balance, that’s fine and if they want to be blatantly one-sided, that’s fine, too.

As for what say I to gov’t encroachment on press freedom, I DID say “and its agents and friends”. So my statement did not restrict the “encroachers”, as you would hypothetically characterize them, to the monolithic “government”. And, truthfully, “encroachment on press freedom” is not how I would characterize what I was referring to. I was talking about the view, which is widespread today and getting more so by the year, that we have come to a state in which the two ruling parties prop each other up whenever necessary, even to the extent of ignoring their own ideology when necessary, and therefore really merit the label of “one party”. Ya don’t see THAT much in the daily papers, do ya?

What do you think would happen if a source or, God forbid, a journalist were to try to get a statement like that printed in a mainstream publication? It would of course be set aside. The defense of mainstream journalists to such an action would be that it’s not fair. Well, that’s their opinion, and they’re entitled to it. It so happens a huge percentage of the adult population would disagree (I’d guess 40-60% depending on how you’d word the question), and my main point was that if that large a piece of the nation believes they’re being taken for a ride, they’re not gonna take kindly to the idea of paying for the privilege.

As for specific examples of covering things up, please don’t insult my intelligence. I’ve said my piece already, and I will not be drawn into a useless debate with someone who has a minority agenda to push. I will just say that I don’t buy that you’re ignorant of the thousands of cases of the press helping this or that interest hide or distort this or that over the years. Tens of millions of angry and fed-up readers are not all hallucinating or delusional. They weren’t in the Soviet Union, and they’re not in the United States. The U.S. press has been surprisingly open in admitting its sins over the years, most recently in the Edwards scandal, where an NBC reporter freely admitted on their live air that the mainstream media had deliberately refrained from reporting the affair that they knew about on the grounds that it would be inappropriate to do so before Edwards himself had admitted to it. In other words, NBC actually expected viewers to believe that this is standard policy for any scandal involving a VIP — you don’t report it without the perp’s permission. That was a novel way of defending an admitted cover-up. I wish I could report to you that the admission itself was a rarity, but it is not these days.

As I mentioned, this is just one example of thousands, and an inane one at that. The serious ones make you physically ill to read about, if you have a conscience, which most editors obviously do not. As I said before, I didn’t come on this board to explain the whole world to the catatonic journalists who are posting here. That would be a complete waste of my time. I thought I’d post some ideas for the benefit of those who already have some idea of how the world works.

I never said all US media were without truth or value; if I believed that, why would I still read their stories myself? Do not mischaracterize me. That only helps reconfirm for me and others what we already knew to be true about the media.

If newspapers, and mainstream media in general, want to have a dignified future, they must stop this tendency they have to jump to the defense of the elite at every actual or perceived slight. That is the primary cause of the problems happening now. In the past, they were generally believed, or at least it was believed that they were doing their best to be an honest broker. Beginning in the Sixties, that perception began to fall, and today they are widely disbelieved and almost universally despised. They can change that, but only if they stop belittling their critics, talking down to their readers, and parroting the talking points of their narcissistic minders who, from their posts outside the profession of journalism, pull the strings to steer the message.

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Cynthia J. July 5, 2011 at 18:59

I wonder what is the general consensus on this topic today, after three (long) years since the original post.
One recent survey I came across (can’t find the link now) went on to reveal that a high percentage of today’s young generation get their news mainly via just the headlines that they read online (via PCs, PDAs, Smart Phones etc.)!

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