Internet & new media

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.

News reporting not enough

These are the times that try journalists' souls, to paraphrase Thomas Paine, as newspapers try mightily to survive in an exponentially expanding electronic world. Radio and television were once thought to be the death of newspapers, and now the Internet, with its multiple applications and formats, is greatly feared. This is no phantom. Many afternoon dailies bit the dust in the 1950s when news was broadcast to our television sets at dinner time. Now even morning newspapers are disappearing while the Internet thrives. Kathleen Parker, the sometime conservative columnist with the neat turn of phrase and low tolerance for all lacking that gift, whatever their politics, blames critics of media bias while singing the praises of the underappreciated news reporting function as the foundation of our free republic.

Let's sort out of the salient observations from the nonsense here. There is no denying that years of so-called media bashing have had their effect. Millions of Americans now understand that the major media regularly skewer conservative Republicans and favor liberal Democrats under the guise of "objective news coverage." That means nothing more than utilizing the format of the standard inverted-pyramid news story to engage in selective reporting and quoting. It is an easy task for bright journalists to hide their partisanship while "giving the facts."

Unless the journalist is a god, his point of view will color his accounts, although there is still plenty of room for full and fair summary and explanation. Otherwise, every newspaper editorial or op-ed, and articles in opinion journals, have to be written off as hopelessly biased, which is absurd. Every article should be judged on it merits, regardless of format.

When Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States, he received letters from an aspiring Virginia journalist who asked him his opinion of what standards should govern newspapers. Jefferson wrote a lengthy reply, including a scathing indictment of the press. His most succinct and telling advice was to restrict the newspaper to "true facts and sound principles only." Not only a commitment to factual accuracy but to the principles of a free government were necessary, Jefferson emphasized.

For critics of media critics like Kathleen Parker, the main thing is factual accuracy with sound principles as only an afterthought. She rightly cherishes a free press as necessary to preserving our form of government, but she apparently has given little thought to what principles should govern that press beyond news reporting. As one of those pundits whom she obviously chooses not to deride, she performs the equally important, if not more important, function of contributing argumentation to the nation's deliberations on public policy.

But that is only half the matter. Commitment to factual accuracy is more than a good habit. It arises from minds devoted to finding the truth and doing what is right. Bad reporting, as Walter Lippmann wrote long ago, is akin to false testimony in a courtroom which, if done with knowledge, is perjury. Only a citizenry habituated to some semblance of moral and intellectual virtue practices, and honors, factual accuracy.

But Lippmann wrongly believed that factual accuracy in the media and the government would suffice to refine public opinion and improve public policy, at least he said so early in his career. Doubtless this man who became the premier "pundit" for half a century in this country appreciated the importance of informed commentary as well.

Someone once said that "Figures don't lie but liars can figure." He could have been referring to news reporters. The mere inclusion of multiple facts in a newspaper article is no guarantee of its accuracy, much less its contribution to public deliberation. By the same token, the proliferation of punditry on the Internet is hardly cause for alarm. However much we may cherish newspapers, many trees have to die to maintain that production. The press does not exhaust all media possibilities, and neither does news reporting.

There is much to admire in the news reporter's habit of presenting both sides of an argument, but there are difficulties. For one thing, understanding a point of view requires more than just the ability to gather facts. It means suspending judgment until one has fully understood the position under review. This is even more difficult (though not impossible) if you think the point of view is wrong. Add to this the space or time limitations of all media (not to mention many people's short attention spans), and justice may not be done.

What too often emerges is an oversimplified, truncated, almost child-like version of what someone is saying that effectively trivializes what should be understood as part of a serious debate over public policy.

Fortunately for sports fans, sports sections are often the healthiest in the newspaper, fueled by intense reader interest and largely unambiguous subject matter (somebody wins, somebody loses). But imagine ball games being reported as if they were political. "The Angels defeated the A's today, as umpires permitted more runs by Los Angeles." Or: "The Lakers scored more points than the Rockets last night as the referees maintained the tradition, questioned by some, of restricting the playing time to 48 minutes."

Sure, politics are controversial, but our fundamental political principles and our Constitution provide a standard and impose limits. Sports are also controversial, but true sportsmen would not permit changing the rules to accommodate their desires. In both cases, we must know what is right as well as what is a true fact.

Captives of the media?

(Denver Post, Jan. 18) You, a captive of the media? No way. Nobody mediates for you. You think independently. You gather your own information and decide for yourself. Me too. We don’t need no media mediating for us, no sir. Yeah, right. In our dreams, maybe, but not in America today. The world is so interconnected, changes so fast, and presents each person with so many choices, that reliance on others for much of our knowledge is inescapable. But which media can we trust, and how do we keep them at our service – on tap, not on top? Especially if newspapers as we have known them are on the way out, how can we stay reliably informed as free citizens in a free society? That’s the underlying concern as Coloradans wonder about the fate of the Rocky Mountain News, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and maybe even the Denver Post.

I love newspapers. They’ll always be my preferred window on our civic and cultural life. Online and broadcast media rank a distant second. I hope enough American papers manage to reinvent themselves for the digital era so that print journalism can long continue. Since you’re reading this, you probably agree.

Yet trouble and transformation are stalking the media industry regardless. News providers face brutal pressures to adapt. For us as news users, this is a good time to think about the fundamental question we began with: Who mediates for you? Or as the counter-culture used to say, what do you feed your head?

The media seldom challenge us on this. They have a commercial motive not to. Challenging myself, I find I’m often careless as to both the quality and quantity of what gets fed into my head. New technologies and rebranding by the providers are beside the point. The problem is my passivity about the content they deliver.

A medium is a just a conveyor belt. At one end is a loadmaster, the editor. According to what’s on his clipboard, the belt gets loaded with news from reporters, opinions from pundits, and ads from businesses. It’s all conveniently brought to our homes. That convenience can be a trap, however. We may become too accepting.

“Couldn’t drink coffee without the morning paper,” worried someone at our Vanguard discussion club when the industry’s woes were this month’s topic. “We are Colorado,” says a Denver Post promo campaign. Media companies, this paper included, become part of our lives. They’re still only companies, means to an end. The end is knowing what we need to know to live together responsibly and happily.

Running the conveyor costs money. Persuading us to buy things, either subscriptions or advertised goods and services, is life and death to the company. Print is in trouble because more and more people are buying elsewhere. How concerning is that?

After all, as the Post’s Dean Singleton told fellow publishers in a speech last June, “Newspapers are the cornerstone of democracies everywhere…. If we fail, democracy fails.” Thomas Jefferson said two centuries ago that he’d rather live in a country with newspapers and no government than vice versa. So are bankrupt papers a national crisis?

No. Both men’s points go to freedom of the press via whatever medium works best. They aren’t limited to ink on pulp. In America, thanks to the First Amendment, it’s the marketplace and not government that picks media winners and losers. You and I as consumers, voting with dollars, make that sovereign choice.

Again, as I’ve written before, it’s up to us. Insisting on liberty, WE can make our country’s broadcasting and Internet as free as print has always been. Exercising personal responsibility, WE can choose a healthier information diet, more fiber, less junk. Conveyors inevitably come and go, but independent thinking remains.

If we're all publishers, no one is

(From Realization: I've been posting less here lately, and more on Facebook and Twitter. The quick shots and impulsive replies encouraged by the format on those social networks, especially the 140-character limit for a tweet, have become a line of least resistance when I want to sound off. In the last few days, versus a single post here at Politics West, I've gabbed dozens of times to my readers (such as they are) on those sites about things like Jason Salzman's assertion that Scripps should keep losing money, Ritter's clueless budget posture, Schwarzenegger's White House fantasy, and -- just this morning -- TABOR hater Rollie Heath and Christmas grinch Susan Greene.

Thus the downward spiral of convenience (plus brevity and vacuity) continues from books to magazines to daily papers to hourly newscasts to 24/7 cable to unmediated blogs to unprocessed tweets. Thoughtful written expression is dying in a race to the bottom, and to my dismay I'm one of the racers. I don't even use a pocket device for the Internet; probably if I did the descent would be even faster, driven by an itchy brain and carpal thumbs.

But, ahem, there's one small problem. Who reads any of this stuff -- my stuff that is; no doubt yours has a large, rapt audience -- who knows or cares or has the time? Well, I'm afraid it's clear who generally has the time: that would be folks who don't otherwise have much of a life. Which tentatively yields Andrews' Theorem:

The attention paid by any given reader to my online musings is inverse to that individual's ability to make any damn difference on the subject I'm writing about.

Oops -- present company excepted once again! This philosophical metacommunication is a minefield of offense-giving and self-contradiction.

I'm hardly the first to say it, but Twitter in particular is forcing upon me the discomfiting truth that if we're all publishers, no one is. Which brings me full circle to a love and regard for the old, slower, fussily-edited, tree-killing modes of writing -- the book, the magazine, the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News (pray God they both survive) -- and even their electronic cousins such as this website. May it too survive the election year that gave it birth.

So thanks for reading this, if you are. Anybody out there? Hello?

Merry Christmas and all the best for 2009 anyway, he said into the cyber-silence.

Red Colorado group now on Twitter

I've been learning Facebook and Twitter in recent weeks, finding them worth the investment of time. Twitter is essentially a chatroom where very short comments with links can be blasted to your selected network of friends. Easy to sign up, free, and easy to start using - the sophisticated wrinkles can come later or be ignored. This post is particularly addressed to Colorado Republicans and conservatives who I think would benefit from keeping in closer touch via Twitter. I have created a specialty group called Red Colorado for us to "talk" in. Here's how it works...

1- Create your Twitter account at, start collecting others to "follow" (hear from automatically).

2- When you write an update, if it concerns the goal of making Colorado red again, include the "hashtag" #redco

3- Any time you want to check on what others in Red Colorado are saying, go to, enter #redco, and presto - all the comments are show there, with options for you to reply directly to the individual or to toss in your own comment to the whole group.

A number of sample #redco items are already posted to give the idea. These things can be a time-wasting toy OR a real productivity tool for our political goals. So far I see potential for the latter. Let's experiment and find out.