The Biggest Threat To Newspapers is Newspapers
No Associated Press content was harmed in the writing of this post
Journalistic solipsism requires that outside phenomena be treated with clinical detachment but those within the industry be screamed with lights and sirens. For instance, enormous nationwide job losses are dispassionately reported but high double digit layoffs in a newsroom are greeted with bold, caps, updates and overheated rhetoric. It also explains the myopia over what troubles the industry. We are in a recession, so it seems obvious that newspapers would be in the doldrums too. Yet the internet is the focus of their ire. Why? Nothing is on the scene now that wasn't around five years ago. If the economy tanks then looking at your online operations should be part of weathering the storm, but why make it the primary focus?
In typically self-centered fashion news organizations only focused on the web's "information wants to be free" ethos and expanded competition now that they are feeling its effects. It is nothing that travel agents, computer programmers and real estate agents have not already experienced. But newspapers observed changes in those industries without understanding their eventual impact on them. In fact, for all the distaste they have for bloggers, the latter have spent more time pondering it. Some, like Allison Hantschel (aka Athenae of First Draft) have a foot in both worlds. She has been posting over and over again for months about how newspapers' wounds are largely self inflicted; that, for example, they consider a 16.7 percent profit margin cause for layoffs. (Ask someone in the airline or retail industries if they could make do with that.) As she points out:
If there was no Internet, if Craigslist disappeared tomorrow, if nobody ever blogged again, the greed, shortsightedness and selfishness that looks at a 40 percent profit margin and cries poverty - as was the case at some Gannett newspaper properties this year - would still smother newspaper journalism eventually.
Business concerns aside, the deeper problem is with content. Papers have gotten smaller and smaller. Last year I finally decided my local paper was too small to justify a subscription, and others may feel similarly. If you remove stock and mutual fund prices and point people online for them, can you be surprised if they begin to migrate? Also, sometimes the remaining content is shoddy. Bill Kristol offered consistently faulty takes on foreign policy and was rewarded with one of the most prestigious jobs in journalism - where he promptly phoned in more lazy and incorrect commentary. There is no room for a Daniel Larison who might offer a view of conservatism even slightly at odds with received wisdom. Similarly, Richard Cohen can identify himself as at least a tentative liberal but then claim Dick Cheney "poses a hard, hard question: Is it more immoral to torture than it is to fail to prevent the deaths of thousands?" Couldn't the Post employ a fully self-identifying liberal like digby who both writes brilliantly AND understands that torture is a war crime?
The biggest problem is with the hard news though. Frank Rich issued this caution on Sunday: "without their enterprise, to take a few representative recent examples, we would not have known about the wretched conditions for our veterans at Walter Reed, the government’s warrantless wiretapping, the scams at Enron or steroids in baseball. Whatever shape journalism ultimately takes in America, make no mistake that in the end we will get what we pay for." But as Walter Pincus points out many investigative pieces are done with an eye on winning journalism awards, not serving the public interest. Even worse than indulgent reporting is that which is flatly wrong. The Iraq war utterly destroyed the credibility of not just the newspaper industry but news outlets in general. Every organization not named Knight-Ridder was more interested in working sources for access than independent reporting. The Bush administration was able to create links in the public's mind between Iraq and 9/11 only - ONLY - because outlets refused to challenge the self-interested spin of government officials.
The elephant in the room for the industry is that on the most important issue of the last generation it routinely and wildly misinformed its audience. It is a systemic deficiency, not an isolated accident. It wasn't just Judy Miller then, and it didn't stop with the Iraq war. The Paper of Record still cannot bring itself to describe torture as torture when Americans do it. On this important issue papers continue (via) to mislead. (For hundreds of years and across all cultures nobody ever suggested waterboarding was not torture until George Bush became president; its defenders are the flat earth lunatic fringe of humanity and need no accommodation.) Subscribers are paying for that too, Mr. Rich. The biggest problem facing newspapers is a well earned skepticism that they will accurately inform their readers.