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March 30, 2009


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Indeed, we are living it. The last 20 years show an increasing trend to alternative versions of reality. The "lamestream" media lies to you, therefore, we'll be "fair and balanced" and report what you want to be true. And since decibels do count, alternative realities actually shape - and distort - consensus reality. Sometimes, it doesn't even matter if it's factually true as long as it seems true (the justification many pundits gave for repeating the canard that Al Gore said he invented the Internet). Stephen Colbert calls it Truthiness.

Journalism at the high point of American culture could be fierce and crusading. But the light it shone on our collective sins eventually brought about a kind of revenge. Right-wing talk radio was the step-child of yellow journalism, directly distilling talking points for those with low-carb information values. Later, cable TV expanded this development and now the Internet is the fools' playground for those using chain e-mails to process reality.

Jack Shafer is a libertarian, so it's understandable that he'd see journalism as merely a consumer item that may or may not be useful for individuals (once called citizens). We'll find out eventually if this experiment in hyper-distraction evolves new ways of understanding the world. The fragmentation of "audience share" means people can completely opt out of civic life is they so choose. And given the din coming from political "news" shows, it might not be the worst thing.

You recognize the evolution of journalism from the founding of our country thru the last century. This current trend may be a continued evolution. The forces that made newspapers less valuable, which you have so ably recorded over these last months, combined with interests that have figured out how to distort the message to suit themselves (also described by you) make papers not relevant enough. Social ingnorance and complacency also contribute.

Don't count the internet out. It is allowing voices that were never heard before. Yes, many of them are ignorant, many wrong, but how many pages of the newspaper that you cherish were the important commentary that you are sad to lose?

You are correct that the internet does not pay as well as the newspapers. Maybe that is another bubble that needs to deflate. Maybe we just need new business models for news. Certainly there are billions spent over the 'net for ring tones. There are ways to make it pay.

No ,matter how it plays out, this is the Great Disruption and things are changing. If we value freedom and the knowledge that it requires, we'll find a way to sustain it. If we don't value it any longer then we will get what we deserve.

It seems to me that a perfectly good case can be made for linking newspapers with democracy.

The first step in the chain involves an informed populace. What good is representative democracy if the people who elect those who govern are not informed? An uninformed populace is simply a rubber stamp for those who have the most resources to manipulate them and are cleverest in doing so.

The second step in the chain involves a comparison of different mass news media and their virtues. The question is not whether any medium informs the people in an ideal sense, but rather, which informs them best among the actual, concrete options on offer.

Television is a visual medium. There are certain circumstances which can be conveyed in a superior fashion by its imagery. It's one thing to read about Bull Connor, and quite another to see the archival footage of the police dogs and firehoses.

However, the information content, imagery aside, of television, is quite low. Anyone who has ever purchased a transcript of a half-hour evening news broadcast can see how remarkably, how shockingly few words are actually involved in the 20 minutes or so left after commercial ads are deducted.

Radio, at least in some formats, offers greater outlet for the spoken word, but a daily radio news show is ex tempore: it's more about personalities and (especially in its modern variants) providing a comfortable venue for listeners of a particular political bias (almost always conservative) to take-part, not in a genuine exchange of information, but in emotional catharsis.

The printed word offers the greatest "information density" of any mass medium. It offers the greatest chance for research. It offers the greatest chance for thoughtful composition and editing. The end product, therefore, is much more likely to be of value, in the general instance, to someone looking for information.

Magazines and books may, of course, provide more in depth coverage than newspapers: but they lack timeliness, and breaking news may change the background (or one's understanding of it) in a way that leaves them obsolete by the time they leave the presses.

A daily newspaper provides not only information density, but timeliness. Once, newspapers published not only once a day, but morning and evening editions, and before that, update editions as well.

While it is true that newspapers can be as politically biased as any other news medium, it was also true, once upon a time, that large cities had several competing dailies and that these covered, if not an ideal range of viewpoints, then at least a contrasting range.

However, for the last several decades, the trend has been toward monopoly markets for newspapers of record in major metropolitan areas, and toward less frequent publishing. Obviously, then, this is the result of changing business models, rather than limiting factors intrinsic to the medium.

Now, it might be argued that the Internet provides something akin to newspapers. There are, however, a couple of problems with this argument.

The first is that newspapers have traditionally been manned by professional journalists. The field of journalism has developed, over the years, certain salutary rules (e.g., use multiple, primary sources, verify information firsthand when possible, seek out opposing viewpoints, etc.).

Furthermore, newspapers, by virtue of their social importance, have traditionally had superior access to primary sources (e.g., interviews with those directly involved in events).

Finally, there is the question of media concentration. When the news came via a handful of local dailies, or a few broadcast television networks, the audiences were large and concentrated. As a result, there were common frames of reference, and everybody knew where to "get the news".

The Internet, though providing a forum (at its best) through which to circumvent establishment biases and provide a genuinely democratic form of information content, also simultaneously suffers from several defects.

The very feature which permits establishment filters to be circumvented, namely, that everybody and his uncle can create a blog and comment on it, also tends to blur the line between editorial and news content: a line that, to be sure, has always been illusory, but which in the case of the Internet also may fall prey to lack of professional practices or access to primary news sources by its practitioners.

Additionally, the very multiplicity of Internet news sources makes it difficult to find any particular source, unless one is already aware of it and looking for it. The rules governing search engine results are neither democratic nor merit-based. What good is a solitary voice of reason crying in the wilderness?

The Internet, by virtue of this multiplicity, and by virtue of the tendency to market to increasingly specialized niche audiences, has a strong tendency to splinter audiences into ever smaller fractions; and this tendency can only increase over time as the Internet grows and participation in it spreads to more individuals, whether locally, domestically, or worldwide.

Finally, even the Intenet generally takes its cues from the major news media, and in particular the newspapers, at least where news-oriented Internet content is involved.

Internet bloggers do not personally run around seeking to discover news stories: they lack the financial resources, the time, the personnel resources, the social connections, and the establishment bona fides to gain access to primary sources.

What the Internet does best is REACT to the newspapers: to provide, at best, a sophisticated gloss upon it; to interpret it, annotate it, explain it, critique it, and link it to a deeper context via online print resources such as articles, encyclopedias, interviews, and OTHER NEWSPAPERS whose coverage or emphasis may be contrasting or superior.

So, it seems to me that newspapers are a basic starting point for an informed populace: they provide timely, professionally crafted, researched stories. To be sure, they are full of bias, and may quite often be laughably inept. This, however, can be said of every other mass news medium. Furthermore, newspapers provide a shared framework for further investigation and deeper understanding of the news and the world it reports upon.

Regarding the question of paper vs. electronic implementation of newspapers, I think we can probably agree that moves toward Internet consolidation of newspaper publishing have not increased readership, and that they were not intended to, but rather, are designed to attack the problem of profits from the other end: not by increasing readership, but by decreasing publishing costs.

I also suspect that the apparent gold mine of Internet advertising will eventually prove less enticing for online daily newspapers than previously was thought. Internet advertising is still in its comparative infancy. Though marketers prefer niche audiences, they do not especially like splintered audiences whose individual components are small. Also, the readership of a general interest daily newspaper is not a niche audience, particularly by the increasingly specialized standards sought by Internet advertisers.

The Internet's strength (aside from its diversity) is its ability to search, but only if one is searching for something sufficiently specific. Also, in practice, many search engines (especially in house newspaper search engines) are primitive, superficial, error prone and oblivious to numerous valid results (often the specific story one is looking for). Or else, they provide such an embarrassment of riches that finding the result one wants becomes difficult and time consuming.

At the university library where I am writing from, they no longer keep hardcopy versions of the Yellow Pages, claiming that such results can be found online. Have you ever tried browsing by general category (say, laundromats) online, with the idea of finding local businesses of a particular kind, but no particular business, and with an eye to finding addresses that are geographically near to a home, business, or current location, but which the computer has no concept of in terms of local geography? It's terribly frustrating, time-consuming, and difficult.

With a paper newspaper, I can browse easily and quickly. I can carry it anywhere, and read it anywhere, including on the bus, at a restaurant, or in bed. Even in the bath if I were able and disposed to do so. I can clip out articles, and file them as I wish, and never have to worry about expiring Internet links (often a problem where older online news articles are concerned). It's aesthetically and tactilely more pleasing and convenient.

I use the Internet to read individual articles from newspapers I otherwise have no convenient access to, but I certainly don't "read the newspaper" (the local daily) online because that's infernally awkward.

If a newspaper is stolen it can easily be replaced and at little expense. I don't have to worry so much about dropping or losing it, or spilling a soft-drink or food on it, unlike a laptop (assuming that I own one, which I don't).

1) Kristof of the Times has been hot lately. Read "The Daily Me" to flesh out Jon's idea of the slef-reinforcing world view: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/19/opinion/19kristof.html

2) I now have home delivery of the NYTimes for the first time in my life. If you can afford it: do it. This is one paper we can not allow to die. It's survival is on our backs...

3) Regarding Jon's line about schools not teaching critical thinking skills: I was at the DMV yesterday dealing with a vast assemblage of common folk. I've got to say: Language skills are now lower than the DJIA. We are creating intellectually dead people. Sure there are some smart kids around tinkering with robots. But huge swaths of America's youth have gone dumb. If you can teach: Our schools need you more now than ever.

4) You can get the NYTimes on the Kindle. Not sure how the linking works, but the potential for saving newspapers that way, by eliminating delivery costs, is enormous.

5) One of the things Jon didn't talk about: The loss of the daily news cycle as we get our news from the web. Constant 24 hour news in not human in scale. If I get a newspaper on the Kindle I want a finished edition that is delivered once daily. Call me circadian... but once-a-day with time-to-reflect is in my genes...

I too have recently subscribed to the NY Times. Got tired of it always being sold out at the newsstand. Isn't that a good thing that it was always sold out though?

Reporters for any media have a choice.They can chase news or they can chase ratings by sensationalizing the news or reporting on what they determine their audience wants.As ownership becomes more invisible through corporations,the more emphasis their is on ratings(profits) and accountants and investors become the arbiters of what is news.

Dogs chase cats and corporations chase not just profits,but large profits that will help them destroy the competition.This will not change until there are laws and regulations, with stringent enforcement, that will prevent the consolidation and monopoliztion of news organizations.

Monopoly is not a game.It is the goal of every corporation.I have been incorporated since 1985 and I would love to monopolize my market and I could justify it eloquently.But bottom line,it isn't right and shouldn't be.

By the way,was I the only schmuck that paid for NY Times online last year?????I hope they try that again rather than making us all subscribe to the dead tree business.

I agree about the value of the New York Times. This is not to say it is without serious problems: initially, it rather uncritically adopted the Bush administration's casus belli for Iraq (though later apologizing to its readers), and its coverage of the Reagan administration's adventurism in Central America left much to be desired. No doubt there are other examples, but the point remains that the New York Times is head and shoulders above most daily newspapers, and primus inter pares amongst the elite.

I think one could do worse than to read the local daily, the New York Times, and USA Today (which has some surprisingly good articles), ideally with the Wall Street Journal thrown in. That's a lot of newspaper reading, but much of that is duplicative and can be skipped (including sections of non-local newspapers dealing with the arts, if one wishes to cut down on newspaper time).

Don't forget libraries as a source for free newspaper reading. McDonald's often has a local paper laying around, and Starbucks has baskets for discarded reader copies of the local, and the New York Times. Some university campuses provide free copies of major dailies. My problem is that I am not always able to read even the local daily (being out of town often), and almost never all of these newspapers, and so end up missing much of the best coverage of the news.

Incidentally, I think it's clear that newspapers cannot compete with other mass media by becoming more like them, but only by building on their strengths, and distinguishing themselves thereby, using this to attract, cultivate, and keep an audience (and the advertisers who find them attractive).

This suggests an emphasis on literate, deeper, and more sophisticated content, including more useful analysis, more investigative journalism, and more "beat" (specialized) journalism.

Of course, in their rush to cut costs and appeal to "busy people" (e.g., impatient nincompoops who program their cellphones to receive texted news alerts), most newspapers have been doing just the opposite: jettisoning their most talented reporters, columnists and department editors like so much flotsam, cutting funding for serious journalism, and making an endless series of cosmetic changes to typography and layout, all dictated by Dilbertian pointy-haired corporate bosses who equate productivity with constant modification and meddling because they have nothing to do otherwise and because this strikes them as a high profile way to justify their existence and exhorbitant salaries (at least among their peers).

Another serious problem is the growing influence of public relations on news reporting (again, a method which corporate owned newspapers have for cutting costs). How can PR sources cut newspaper costs, you ask? According to a recent USA Today article:

"A 2008 study of news stories in U.K. newspapers found that more than half contained mostly PR material. A study in the Columbia Journalism Review found that more than half the stories in an edition of The Wall Street Journal 'were based solely on press releases.' Good PR is often subtle, informing an even larger percentage of news stories..."


As if that, combined with an increasing reliance by local dailies on wire services for news items, weren't enough of a problem, there is also the influence of PR and special interest groups (many of them well funded by conservative interests) on op-ed columnists. Many of these columnists get their ideas, and even (in large part) the content for their pieces, simply by reading the junk produced by paper mills.

It leaves ever so much more time for latte sipping at Starbucks when you don't have to think up, research, or compose a column, but can simply react to the latest conservative propaganda screed passing over your transom. It's all there, from the topic, to the sources, to the statistics, to the manufactured outrage (because conservative op-ed columns are almost always about outrage over liberal shenanigans, government incompetence, or some combination).

Between all of these factors, and shared ownership of newspaper chains, and the tendency of feeders at the lower levels of the food chain to ape their betters, it's easy to see why television and newspaper reporting is so remarkably homogeneous in America, for the most part. The same stories, covered in essentially the same ways, appear day after day and night after night in newspapers, on television, and on talk-radio.

By the way, the New York Times has traditionally been controlled through the Ochs-Sulzberger family trust, which controls 88 percent of the Class B (voting) shares, which may explain why it produces a superior product when compared to the corporate owned junk which dominates the American news industry. The Times company also publishes the International Herald Tribune and the Boston Globe.

Recently, two hedge funds purchased 19 percent of the times, and a Mexican billionaire named Carlos Slim purchased 6.4 percent. The newspaper is currently over a billion dollars in debt. Those who wish to read more should check the Wikipedia entry, which is quite informative:


I don't really know a lot about journalism (part of why I read your stuff), but it does bother me that I see the same stories reported with almost no variation through various news agencies. Way to call it like it is.

Incidentally, Mr. Talton's feature "The Front Page" links to a piece by Stephen Hume of the Vancouver Sun called "The Limits of Citizen Journalism":


Though the writer makes some good points, he also misses some important ones.

James D. Squires was the editor of the Chicago Tribune during the 1980s, and had a long journalistic career before that. In the early 1990s he wrote a book called "Read All About It: The Corporate Takeover of America's Newspapers".

His thesis (quoting Publisher's Weekly) was "the steady decline in the quality of American print journalism in the past 30 years, attributing this to the growth of the 'ethically bankrupt' concept that public service must be subsumed to cost control, return on assets and the courting of customers for advertisers".

That book was published roughly 15 years ago, and the trends it noted have only accelerated. Mr. Squires' criticisms have all the more power precisely because he was a member in good standing of the establishment.

Mr. Hume also misses the point in constructing straw man arguments such as this:

"I've never met a reporter or editor who took money or who accepted favours to place a story. I've never been told what to write -- or not write -- or how to write it."

Of course, the process of influence is a bit more subtle, at least in the general instance, than envelopes of cash passed under a table, or an editor directly dictating story content.

First, owners hire managers, including senior editors, who in turn oversee the hiring of journalist employees and columnists.

So, bias is potentially built into the system from the top, and implemented via the interview and screening process. The question is not whether a new hire will write exactly what is desired, but whether or not his general philosophy or his track record is consistent (most of the time) with what are considered to be the limits of acceptable discourse. Those who slip through the net face additional barriers described below.

Second, journalists, like any other employees, quickly come to understand what the boss values, what pleases him, and what displeases him, whether through water-cooler chit-chat amongst themselves, or seeing who gets plum assignments and moves up the ladder -- and who languishes. Management comments to journalists, and their tone and context, also give a sense of what is approved of and what is not appreciated.

So, even without explicit threats, the employee develops a sense of what in practice (as opposed to the abstract ideals of journalism school) may advance or maintain his career, and conversely, what may result in its stagnation or even in his being let go when the next wave of layoffs occurs.

This can lead to a kind of self-censorship which is every bit as poisonous as the considerably rarer case of dictating editors -- perhaps more dangerous because it undermines journalistic standards in an insidious way that leaves intact the appearance of integrity and separation of powers.

Third, journalists who insist on making a habit of aggressively challenging sources, pointing out lies, errors, or misleading remarks in print, or otherwise stepping on toes, are unlikely to retain the kind of access to power which they need to function well, unless they have very understanding and supportive bosses.

If a journalist (as the representative of his newspaper) is no longer invited to public and private events where newsmakers, movers and shakers congregate or give press conferences, or because persona non grata, many bosses are likely to point to this as evidence of a defect on the part of the reporter, asking why this individual rubs people the wrong way when most of his peers have no such problems.

Additionally, those who stubbornly cling to principles are generally less likely to get ahead or even to stick around (whether they are let go "for economic reasons" at a time of general layoffs or leave of their own accord in frustration). So, the absence of complainers, especially among high-profile journalists, may indicate a failure of the system rather than proof of its tolerance and functionality along ideal lines.

Obviously there are exceptions, because there are some excellent, stubborn, sharp investigative journalists in place. What I am saying is not that the current system makes them impossible, but rather that it encourages their rarity. And I suspect that even these journalists have had to make compromises, because being hard-nosed 100 percent of the time is not a recipe for longevity in the industry. You have to pick and choose your battles, or quickly get a reputation as a troublemaker.

Finally, I have come across Mr. Hume's argument that criticism from both sides of the aisle indicates that journalists are doing their job properly, but over the years I have come to regard the argument as specious and weak.

EVERY journalist will receive criticism from "opposite poles". V.I. Lenin was criticized by Trotsky on his left, and Bukharin on his right. Does this indicate that Lenin was a political centrist, or that his views were ipso facto balanced or correct?

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