Entry from May 21, 2009

Newspapers are in trouble. Maybe you’ve noticed. In fact, if you read a newspaper, you’re almost bound to have noticed, since they themselves go on and on about their plight and what a disaster for the country it will be when there are no dead-tree media. Oddly, though TV news has had a comparably catastrophic decline in viewership, the producers of the TV news shows don’t spend nearly so much time in self-pity. Richard Pérez-Pena noticed this in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago, reporting on a study out of the University of Pennsylvania:

In the newspapers, they found 900 articles about the drop in newspaper circulation and 95 about the shrinking audience for the broadcast networks’ newscasts. The TV news shows had 38 reports on falling newspaper readership and only 6 about the falling audience for national news broadcasts. (The broadcast networks’ evening news shows have lost audience more rapidly than printed newspapers, to about 23 million people each night now from 32 million in 2000. At the same time, the audience for prime-time cable news has roughly tripled, to about four million. Newspaper sales have dropped to about 47 million a day from 56 million in 2000. And all media have new — but not very lucrative — audiences online.)

Hm, I wonder if the tedium of opening one’s morning paper to see the umpteenth story about the plight of the morning paper could have anything to do with that fall-off in readership? If you haven’t already cancelled your subscription, you might well find reason to do so in the lamest yet of the newspapers-in-peril stories, also from the Times (who else?) this morning, in which Tim Arango, in the role of Chicken Little, writes:

Opponents of the death penalty looking to exonerate wrongly accused prisoners say their efforts have been hobbled by the dwindling size of America’s newsrooms, and particularly the disappearance of investigative reporting at many regional papers. . .The decline in newsroom resources has also hampered efforts by death-penalty opponents to search for irrefutable DNA evidence that an innocent person has been executed in America.

In other words, the partisan effectiveness of the newspapers in working for the abolition of capital punishment is diminished by their loss of profitability as news sources, as if this were self-evidently a bad thing. Mr Arango admits that “Some news organizations are reluctant to join the effort out of fear of blurring the line between advocate and objective collector of the news,” but he makes this sound like a quaint scruple from a vanished age to the vast majority of our ever more enthusiastic media advocates. He quotes Maurice Possley, formerly of the Chicago Tribune, as saying that “I think the more you link up” — that is journalists and advocacy groups like the Innocence Project, a group of lawyers against the death penalty — “people will think you have a bias or an agenda,”

Golly! Is it possible? You get from passages like this a sense that it never occurs to these writers and activists that someone who doesn’t agree with them could possibly be reading their words. Mr Arango also writes that “There are only a handful of cases where there is enough evidence of innocence for lawyers to pursue after a defendant is executed.” I wonder if he wonders why that might be — or if it might briefly flash across his mind to think it is because they are guilty? So, too, Frank Rich in his Times column the week before last wrote that, “If you wanted to pick the moment when the American news business went on suicide watch, it was almost exactly three years ago. That’s when Stephen Colbert, appearing at the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, delivered a monologue accusing his hosts of being stenographers who had, in essence, let the Bush White House get away with murder (or at least the war in Iraq).”

In other words, all those people who don’t bother with the Times and the rest of the print media anymore are abandoning them because they believe them to have been such suck-ups to the late Bush administration! What world are these people living in? The irony is of course that it is precisely this kind of unapologetic and unthinking partisan advocacy disguised as sober analysis which is doing so much to accelerate a decline that would be happening anyway for technological and social reasons. Melik Kaylan in Forbes picked up the Rich column and made a similar point, adding that

The decline of old media is as much about “flyover” America finding its voice — against the insularity of New York and environs — as it is about the Internet. . .As with the banks, so with the news: The country has learned to distrust the professionals. How can entire industries unite in a self-destructive Gadarene delusion? Well, we”ve seen it before in Detroit. Geography seems to be the unifying factor. In this case — let”s not mince words — we”re talking about New York. If, as is happening, the power centers of traditionally New York-based industries, indeed the very notion of a center, devolve away entirely to the regions, it will be our fault, not the Internet’s.

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