What is the future for newspapers?

In recent years several major metropolitan newspapers have gone out of business and more have cut back considerably on their coverage. The reason is a decline in readership and advertising revenue, mostly because of the popularity of the internet but also because of reader dissatisfaction. Advertising provides the bulk of newspaper revenue, while subscriptions and street or other sales lag far behind. However, the larger the circulation, the larger the market for products or services advertised in the newspaper, so readers and ads are inextricably connected. A decline in circulation leads to a decline in advertising. As one who grew up with newspapers and believed that they were here to stay, it is a shock that this can no longer be taken for granted. The truth is, many people who do not read newspapers give no indication that they will ever do so. Does this mean that newspapers are doomed?

Maybe, maybe not. But a friend asked a question of me the other day which made me wonder if the alternative to the newspapers going the way of the dodo bird is lurking in the shadows. My friend asked: "Is there a possibility that with the evaporation of ad revenue, the print media will drift back toward express partisanship?"

My answer was "Yes." Let me explain why. Originally, newspapers were not very profitable and many fell by the wayside. Whig (or Patriot) newspapers competed with Tory (or Loyalist) newspapers during the American Revolution and later divided over the wisdom of establishing a national government. After the people elected their first national Congress and president in 1788, newspapers turned to political parties for subsidies, as well as government printing contracts. The most prominent were the Gazette of the United States, a Federalist organ supported by Alexander Hamilton, and the National Gazette, a Republican newspaper supported by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. These and other more or less intelligent, wide-ranging and often mud-slinging publications dominated the political and journalistic landscape until the Civil War. But technological changes made possible a change in the character of the newspapers, although how much is a matter for debate.

The introduction of the high speed rotary press in the 1830s reduced printing costs and enabled publishers to give up party patronage. Editors’ partisanship replaced party loyalty. Newspapers sold for as little as one penny and attracted many readers who were less interested in national politics than they were in local developments, especially crime and scandal. The audience had expanded beyond political partisans. The invention of the telegraph in 1832 and the subsequent establishment of the Associated Press in 1848 made it possible to provide wider coverage by many newspapers sharing a few correspondents at sources of news around the country. The price for mass circulation newspapers was the foregoing of overt partisanship in what came to be called news pages and the open presentation of political opinions on the editorial page (while reaping the benefits of large circulation and heavy advertising). The price for the wire services was the need for correspondents carefully to tailor their accounts to newspapers with varying political opinions. The device of choice was the inverted pyramid in which the more important news appeared first and the less important was placed further down in the article, making it simple to edit due to limited space.

In my opinion, the model newspaper in that period and for many years thereafter was the New York Times, founded in 1851. Publisher Henry J. Raymond combined devotion to the Republican party with dedication to factual accuracy in both news articles and editorials, an example widely imitated until the present time.

Now, if the newspapers today have a hard time surviving because of the decline of readership and advertising revenues, it would not be surprising if they turned to partisan patrons. There is even talk of stimulus money for newspapers (in Connecticut and Illinois), which is possible (though undesirable and indefensible), but so far it is not happening. Turning to wealthy patrons would strike many as odious, inasmuch as the myth prevails that partisanship (or at least open adherence to a party) is incompatible with good journalism. Of course, it would be odious because of the identity of the particular patron (say, George Soros?), not because of patronage per se. It is also widely believed that money in politics is somehow a bad thing, even though the costs of campaigns are not cheap. At the same time, newspapers are exempt from the laws regulating campaign financing, reinforcing the myth of journalistic objectivity.

Of course, anything can be corrupted, but as long as every party is free (in a moral, as well as a legal sense) to support newspapers, and for newspapers to accept that support, there is no reason why this should not happen. But there is a major difficulty, caused by the general belief that politics as such is a questionable thing (the contribution of Progressivism), to be endured only because it cannot be stopped but not because it has any intrinsic worth (administration of the service state over party politics). I would not be surprised to see the overt newspaper-party link, if it took place, to resemble the bitter partisanship of the early party press, rather than the restrained partisanship of Henry J. Raymond. After all, if partisanship, as many believe, means to be governed only by one's ambition or interest, the case for accuracy and fairness is not compelling.

In other words, if something like the fact-value distinction (facts can be substantiated but values cannot) accompanies any shift to an openly partisan press, the obligation for accuracy may well be sacrificed to partisan advantage because of the belief that "values" need not be supported by fact and, perhaps more important, devotion to factual accuracy will be dismissed as just another value, not grounded in reality, which is "a blooming, buzzing confusion," as Walter Lippmann, the "Dean" of American journalism for many years, once put it. One man's fact is another man's scourge. (Not thy will, but mine be done.) There is an old rabbinical saying, viz., "What went wrong this time?" which reminds us that we are as apt to screw things up as we are to improve things.

"Objective" journalism has been a disguise for partisanship from its beginnings, but that doesn't necessarily discredit it. Partisans can be accurate and public spirited, and so-called independents can be inaccurate and mean spirited. Republicans (e.g., the old New York Times) used to dominate the press, although they had plenty of Democrat competition. The old sensationalist press was more often Democrat (e.g., Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst) than Republican, and the 20th century version of "responsible" journalism almost invariably favored liberal causes (e.g., the New York Times when the Sulzbergers took it over, but also the Washington Post, the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the Milwaukee Sentinel, the Kansas City Star, and the Denver Post). More conservative were the Chicago Tribune, the Detroit Free Press, the St. Louis Globe Democrat, the Oakland Tribune, the San Diego Union and the Dallas Morning News.

Lippmann founded a new standard of objectivity that stressed cosmopolitanism in foreign affairs and non-partisanship in domestic affairs. The "ideal" for the journalist was not the statesman or public-spirited citizen but rather scientists and historians who ostensibly are neutral observers with no stake in political action. This has culminated in the presumption of moral equivalence between America and her enemies in news reporting and commentary, a point of view which seems to have taken up residence in the Obama White House.

As this summary indicates, the rise of liberal partisanship is not a recent development. The critics of the liberal press were vocal in the 1960s (e.g., Goldwater campaign), and even in the 1940s (e.g., Hiss case) and the 1950s (e.g., John Foster Dulles' "brinkmanship"). However, one's own partisanship is harder to acknowledge than the partisanship of those who disagree with you. In any case, the press is always partisan, the only question being what kind of partisanship and for what ends.