Why We Don’t Have A Better Press Corps (Part I)

Since Brad has been so kind as to mention this very young blog as a candidate for his project to subvert the dominant internet link hierarchy, (and what better candidate given my BlogShares market share of either 0.00109649638077873 % or 0.00441336872434729 %!) it's time to dust off and commit to finishing my post on Brad's long-running and no doubt never-ending series on 'Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?' (See, e.g., Part CCCCLXXVI). My thoughts are also influenced by a steady diet of the incomparable Daily Howler.

On and off I've been thinking a lot about the press question, maybe because I used to love reading the newspaper, maybe because reporting was one of the careers I (very) briefly considered while in college. I was an active student journalist, news editor of the campus paper, and both my mother and brother are journalists. I agree that the state of mass media reporting is terrible—although it bears mention that specialty journalism is flourishing. Not only is the Economist selling well, but so are a plethora of smart high-price, low-circulation publications like the National Journal.

The problem or problems is with the mass media. What explains the cowardice of major newspapers, their focus on the trivial at the expense of the significant, their weird idea that one has to give 'both sides' even if one is demonstrably false and believed by almost no one, and their failure to communicate (to understand?) basic social scientific concepts?

The changes in Big Newspapers seem to me to be driven by the unfortunate coincidence of four factors: economic, sociological, technical and ideological. I'll address the first the two today and the other two in Part Two, which I'll put up Real Soon Now™.

[As to what's wrong with TV I have nothing to offer that hasn't been said often before (partisan ownership, licensing rules that entrench owners and fail to protect the public, the economics of cable access, the 'MTV' approach to soundbite reporting, and so on and so on) , and am in any case handicapped as a TV commentator by my failure to own one.]

Economics. Print newspapers are as a class a slowly shrinking business, although there remain substantial profits for the last paper standing in a big market. There are many fewer newspapers than there used to be, and far, far more owned by newspaper chains. Absentee owners with stockholders demand high profits. The Miami Herald, for example, recently had to trim its staff in order to attain the profit target imposed by Knight Ridder. (And it has recently been redesigned to look like a USA Today McPaper, but that's another issue.)

Even more significantly, there are now almost no cities with two serious daily newspapers. That means fewer newspaper wars, less concern about being “scooped,” and generally a loss of the competitive dynamic that kept news reporting sharp and aggressive. Newspapers now see their competition as TV (and maybe radio). But while these may be fierce competitors for consumer attention, they are rarely competition for news gathering — indeed many TV stations take their agendas from the morning papers.

To the extent that the market for the attention of news consumers could be modeled as Downsian and linear, ranging from serious to fluff (with TV very much on the fluff end of the spectrum), it's not surprising that in the absence of serious print competition, many newspapers have gravitated to the fluffier end of the news provision spectrum. So long as they are a little meatier than the TV, the incentive is to converge towards TV, as the newspapers keep everyone to the meatier side of the spectrum, and reducing poaching from TV.

(As I'll discuss in Part 2, the lack of rivals also has an ideological effect, in that it makes some papers think they have an extra duty to avoid taking sides—or play everthing down the middle—since they are the only game in town.)

Sociology. In Ye Olde Days, many newspaper reporters were in effect the intellectuals of the working classes. Most reporters didn't have a college education. The job did not pay that well. While undoubtedly frequently chummy with some of the power brokers of the day, the press nonetheless identified with readers who were not rich, not powerful, and not necessarily well-educated. The print press today is a profession. The Fourth Estate not only went to college, it went to better colleges than many politicians — or, worse, went to college with the politicians. The print press gets a professional's salary. The print press not only doesn't identify with working people, it often identifies with the politicians, or at least some of them.

This, I think, partly explains why the print press will pile on to a “scandal” when someone casts the first stone but remians curiously reluctant to say, or even suggest, that the emperor has no clothes when it comes to policy issues. Note the word “partly”—

(What the zeitgeist of the TV press is, is harder to say. The salary variance is greater, with some salaries in the showbiz range. At its best it's still journalism, but at its worst it's something lower than the Yellow Press of yore. Indeed, it's all too easy to imagine that the comparison between Fox News (and CNN's) handlilng of the Iraq conflict and the treatment of the sinkingif sinking it was—of the Maine, may become a historian's set-piece.)

In Part Two, I'll discuss the technology of news management, the press's misguided definition of “news”. I hope to conclude with some thoughts about What Can Be Done — if I can find the right note between despair and Utopianism
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