a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Late to the funeral

Posted by Thomas Nephew on March 8th, 2009

I picked up a copy of The New Republic today because the cover looked promising — a watchdog flanked by the theme “The End of the Press: Democracy Loses Its Best Friend.”  While hopeful, I was prepared to be disappointed, and I was.

The New Republic, March 4, 2009:
The End of the Press

MSM, RIP , The Editors
Anchors Away, Michael Schaffer
Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers
(Hello to a New Era of Corruption)
, Paul Starr
The Media Misery Index
The Morgue: A reporter’s elegy for his
dying paper
, Joe Mathews
The Scoop Factory, Gabriel Sherman
D.C. Confidential, Michael Tomasky

It has become the latest, longest running whine of the print media to blame their decline on the Internet, and this issue proves no exception.  The New Republic editors sniff that “On The Huffington Post and its ilk, you would find rants about how “Beltway media really makes no effort to do anything other than parrot totally out-of-touch conventional wisdom.” — rather proving the point of the “ranters,” it would seem to me.  The digs continue even when they have no bearing on the article; in a piece ostensibly about local TV news, Michael Schaffer writes, “In a cheeseball 1970s way, winning market share by selling personality prefigured the formula that’s seen lone bloggers supplant venerable newspapers.”

There’s plenty to dislike about the new “model,” such as it is, of internet journalism.  Perhaps the main thing, though, has nothing to do with any of what TNR writers are talking about: it’s often sheer, rank exploitation.  I’ve been following the early stages in the career of a friend’s daughter as she tries to break in to writing and journalism.  One of her better offers recently was the chance to work 60 hour weeks for three months at Talking Points Memo — unpaid.

It’s probably no wonder.  In “The Scoop Factory,” about the rise of the “Politico” — a kind of slightly elevated Drudge Report in tabloid form — to inside-the-Beltway prominence, Gabriel Sherman could probably have saved several thousand words by simply cutting to this sentence: Politico also vastly undercuts the big dailies with lower ad rates (a full-page color ad costs $11,000, according to the rate card; a full-page ad in the Times runs more than $100, 000).” That and who’s bankrolling Politico — none other than Riggs Bank financier Allbritton family.  My guess is we’ll never hear about Politico’s red ink if (or rather: when) that ever happens — it’s too valuable a political base and weapon.

And that’s as good a transition as any to the notion that there was also plenty to dislike about the old model of American journalism, such as it was, in the late 20th and early 21st century.  Part of that is captured in the very metrics the New Republic uses to measure the tale of woe, in their Media Misery Index: “Percentage the Dow dropped in 2008: 34 percent”; Percentage the Gannett Company’s stock dropped in 2008: 79 percent. Etcetera.  Sounds like life is tough on investors trying to turn a buck on the newspaper business.

But maybe trying to squeeze the same profits out of the Times that you’d squeeze out of selling widgets or toothpaste is part of the problem.  In the centerpiece of the issue, Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers, Paul Starr seems to agree, seeing the “central problem” as this:

If newspapers are no longer able to cross-subsidize public-service journalism and if the de-centralized, non-market forms of collaboration cannot provide an adequate substitute, how is that work going to be paid for? […] When a society requires public goods, the solution is often to use government to subsidize them or to produce them directly.

After all the high-flying language in prior pages — “more of American life will occur in the shadows,” “integrity of government,” and so forth, that’s an oddly bloodless “central problem,” but so be it.  The real problem is that while Starr’s premise is worthy in a wonkish, business-school kind of way, it is also naive.  Because the other solution to “requiring” public goods is to dispute the premise, and keep doing what we have been doing — indeed, what the editorial boards of newspapers have generally been cheering on in every other aspect of our culture: devaluing the very notion of public good and public life.

In the real world I observe, as opposed to the one Starr believes in, the purpose of the journalism business isn’t to find and report news, it’s to justify the most inescapable elements of that news and declare the rest uninteresting — even if that flies in the teeth of public opinion.  In this, it has succeeded wildly.  I think the true newspaper business model is similar to that of sports teams: run at a loss for the intangible and tangible side benefits that accrue to their owners.  Just as the touchdown pass is the showy decoration for the real work, done in the skyboxes, so newspaper reporting is the decoration for the real work, done on the editorial page.

The two flagships of the American journalism, the Washington Post and the New York Times, seem to me to be Exhibits A and B for this “model” of newspaper business.  The “pro war” Washington Post, as my friend eRobin invariably labels it, often permits its reporters to break the odd embarrassing story, but its truest function seems to be to express and enforce the Beltway Zeitgeist.  Like the Times, it was gung ho for the Iraq War before it started; unlike the Times it has remained so through thick and thin since then — all but cheering the post 2006 failure of Congress to set a timetable for pulling out, even though that was what they’d been elected to do.  The Times, for its part, famously blew the Iraq WMD story before the war as well, and sat on the warrantless electronic surveillance story long enough — under pressure from the administration — to deprive voters of the chance to react to that story in the 2004 election.

For all that Starr’s piece isn’t as sharp as it might have been, it’s OK.  I’d also be remiss not to recommend  Joe Mathews’s “Reporter’s Elegy,” a detailed, passionate account of the decline of his L.A. Times that echoes my point above.  Describing his invariable disappointment with the newspaper, he writes: “There’s nothing in the paper that enrages me. The articles are professionally done. No, my rage is from what I don’t see, all the stories that aren’t there any longer.”

But it’s Michael Tomasky’s brilliant book review of “The Rules of the Game” — by former Washington Post managing editor Leonard Downie, Jr. — that comes closest to the real “End of the Press” analysis the New Republic’s editors ought to have commissioned.  After pretending to consider his own “inside the Beltway” novel closely modeled on the Bush years (“I am even considering–it may test the credulity of my readers–that I will have Washington’s most celebrated investigative journalist produce a book lionizing the president’s march to a tragic and ill-considered war” ) Tomasky writes:

The non-fiction version, I mean the actual historical record, of how Washington acquitted itself in the Bush years is not a flattering story. Congress, the media, the foreign policy establishment–Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and (many) liberals–far too often enabled an administration that will clearly go down in history as one of our most incompetent and mendacious.

Tomasky concludes:

Look, there are big problems in this world. Leonard Downie’s novel is not one of them. But it is certainly a document of the capital in the years when the capital has much explaining to do, and precious little is explained here. Quite the contrary: the novel is valuable for the fidelity with which it exemplifies the local spirit of complacence and absolution. It is itself the expression of the deeply problematic urge to reach for an airbrush when the writer ought to be firing up a chainsaw.

And so the clearest statement of what I think is wrong with American journalism comes not in any of the thousands of words elsewhere in the magazine, but in a review of one journalism veteran’s (apparently dreadful) work of fiction — his bedtime make-believe story — about that pillar of American democracy business.

To me, the real problems with the newspaper business — and why I’m increasingly unwilling to subsidize it — have little to do with the Internet and everything to do with an institution that isn’t as interested in covering the news as in having first dibs on telling us what all that news “really means.”  It’s a small thing, but I think that taking away this monopoly is really what mainstream media have against bloggers, who rarely pretend to be “citizen journalists” in the sense of reporting breaking news.

I surely don’t welcome reporters being fired by the bushel, of stories going unreported, of big power free to proceed unobserved and unchallenged.  But as the Iraq WMD story showed us; as the mortgage meltdown and financial crash showed us; as Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 showed us: big stories go unreported, big power is free to proceed all but unobserved and unchallenged.  At the end of the day, I can’t do much about that, but in the meantime I won’t be lectured on what to read and where to read it by the very people who have done so very little observing and challenging.

The New Republic mourns the end of the press.  I say they’re years late to the funeral, and if they still can’t figure out what the cause of death was, I wish they’d just shut up.

6 Responses to “Late to the funeral”

  1. eRobin Says:

    But as the Iraq WMD story showed us; as the mortgage meltdown and financial crash showed us; as Florida in 2000 and Ohio in 2004 showed us: big stories go unreported, big power is free to proceed all but unobserved and unchallenged. At the end of the day, I can’t do much about that, but in the meantime I won’t be lectured on what to read and where to read it by the very people who have done so very little observing and challenging.

    It’s like you’re reading my mind! With some obvious exceptions, I’m sad for the reporters who are going to get crunched in the gears as this new model grinds ahead. But I’m not tolerant of explanations that blame teh bloggerz for the meltdown. And I look forward to what comes next – in my home county, the paper has decided to pay more attention to local issues in the hopes of grabbing readers and it’s working. I think that’s going to be the answer for mid-level papers. As for the big ones, I have no idea. They could try being relevant to people’s lives by writing about stuff we care about and look into reasons why other stuff happens and then staying on the story … but cheerleading for corporate interests is fun too.

    Re: the pro-war WaPo
    I call it that b/c it sponsored the Pentagon’s Freedom Walk. The sponsorship was pulled, but for me, the die was cast.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    cheerleading for corporate interests is fun too.
    Pays the bills and the heftier salaries. I loved the point Sean Quinn relayed the other day, about the sudden interest of the White House press corps in the finer points of tax policy: “Did you notice all the questions about taxes came from reporters making over $250,000 a year, especially the TV guys?”

    Which reminds me of another point: one thing that TNR kind of grandfathered in to “serious press” status was broadcast news and TV news. That’s often deserved (in both the good and bad senses), but I’m an old enough geezer to remember that TV news used to bring out the same sort of head shaking, beard stroking seriousness that those bad bloggers do now. With far more justification, too: there are clearly all kinds of barriers to entry of the TV market, judging by the scarcity of competing TV news departments per major metro area, let alone the scarcity of competing news philosophies beyond ‘if it bleeds it leads.’ Factor in the rise of phenomena like “Entertainment Tonight”, and you have a pretty strong competing hypothesis: TV’s economies of scale came, dumbed down, and conquered. (I’ll cover my a** and concede that may be buried somewhere in Starr’s treatise, but I don’t have the time to go back and check.)

  3. janinsanfran Says:

    Out here in NorCal, we’re about to lose the Chronicle. It’s business model no longer works.

    Curiously, I’ll miss it. It has always been a fluff-fest. I remember being shocked that this sensationalist rag claimed to be a newspaper when I first encountered it in 1965. And yet it is had some moments of journalistic quality. Curiously, its early coverage of both the Afghanistan and the Iraq wars was quite good. They sent reporters and they saw things. It probably helped that the paper was sold to a public that actually was willing to read somewhat truthful accounts of war’s realities.

  4. RobertNAtl Says:

    Even if the “MSM” had done a bang-up job reporting the Iraq WMD tory, the mortgage meltdown and financial crash story, the Florida 2000 story, and the Ohio 2004 story, they still would be in the same exact financial position they are today, namely going broke, fairly quickly. IMO, the “cause of death” of the MSM is not being a handmaiden to the power structure, but that they are now giving away for free a product that costs a lot of money to produce, and that is apparently not highly valued by very many people. I think the blogs will suffer from the decline of the MSM; as an example, just in the past month or so, you have linked to three Washington Post stories and a Seattle Times story. If nobody is actually reporting the news, blogs will have less on which to intelligently opine, including the quality of the newsgathering itself. I wish the everything-available-for-free culture of the Internet could be changed when it comes to news reporting, but I suspect the trend will be more in the direction of voluntary contributions and limited advertising (like the blogs do), which will not generate the revenue necessary to maintain newsgathering efforts at even their current levels. I will mourn this development, but then, I regularly read 2 or 3 newspapers a day, so I’m hardly representative.

  5. Thomas Nephew Says:

    I don’t deny reporting is valuable, or that I link to it. (Even where I do, it’s not provided free of charge, as the advertisers on those pages will attest. It may be that as the supply of paper news is reduced, the price that can be charged for Internet ads might increase.)

    I do deny that reporting is valuable *to many of the corporations ostensibly gathering the news*, as anything other than a loss leader to be cut to the bare minimum needed to preserve the fiction of “independent press.” As evidence I point to the same developments TNR decries; I just explain them differently.

    I think / hope that at the national level, models like the Guardian, The Nation, Mother Jones, RealNewsNetwork or (maybe, someday) ThinkProgress will continue or pick up the ball on reporting. These are more frankly ideology-based publications, whose reporting nevertheless stands or falls on its accuracy. Readers/viewers can and do choose to subsidize them above and beyond the cost of subscriptions. At the usual metro level — Atlanta, SF, Chicago, LA — I think eRobin’s right, and local/hyperlocal coverage could pull in/maintain readership.

  6. Thomas Nephew Says:

    Jan, Robert — I suppose I also forget what it’s like to have a newspaper around that I’m fond or proud of. I remember sort of rolling my eyes about the “Comical” back in the 80s and 90s, but take your word for it that it’s been doing a good job lately. Don’t know much about the Atlanta paper other than it’s huge, but I’m sure you’d miss it, and I shouldn’t have shortshrifted that.

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