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Black and White and Tired All Over

Aug
20
2004

As difficult as it is to believe, there hasn’t been enough written about the death of the American newspaper.
I know, it’s silly to think that a once-loved institution – the comics! the columnists! – would actually sit down and take a hard look at why it’s customers have fled. But they have. In droves. The result is that while everyone’s mourning the death of newspapers, they haven’t bothered to talk about the consequences for readers and former readers.


It’s looking like the recent scandal over newspaper circulation – pretty much ignored by the newspaper business – might be changing all that. Lots of people were telling lots of lies. How many? A lot. Newspapers like Newsday, Hoy, the Chicago Spanish daily, and some Belo-owned properties in Texas lied about their actual readership. They’re having to pay millions in restitution.
Slate media critic Jack Shafer believes, as I do, that that the current spate of circulation fraud isn’t isolated. The allegations are going to keep coming. If the little papers lied, the big ones did too for all the reasons Shaffer spells out and which I won’t bother repeating here.
Why does this matter to folks who like politics? It matters because newspapers have long been the arbitrators in politics; they are – and will remain for a while – the place people turn to find out what’s consider important in their communities. That power is now concentrated in the hands of people who, as businesses, have lied about how well they’re doing. They are misleading their advertisers, their readers and, most importantly, themselves.
There are two reasons for this beside the usual desire to sweep bad news under the rug. One, is that the nation’s most popular newspapers have actually increased in circulation, power and popularity over the years. Even 10 years ago, what The New York Times said and how it reported the news might have been ignored out here in San Francisco. No more. The Times, in fact, is the daily newspaper of preference for many city residents because the Chronicle, crippled by one bad business decision after the next, has very little to show for itself. That Chronicle and Examiner editors have long had to face down nutty families with their own political and social agendas hasn’t helped.
The second reason is that most media people – the people who look hardest at the business and its culture and who understand its ins and outs – live and work in New York. Where there are – and I am not making this up – three newspapers. Really. And I’m not counting the Wall Street Journal. Or the New York Observer. There’s the reason people in New York don’t really and truly (Jim Cramer excepted) believe in on-line journalism. They don’t have to.
Now, make no mistake, the demise of the newspaper business is good for me. It’s good for Politics From Left to Right. And eventually it’ll be good for the few newspapers at the top of the heap. The Wall Street Journal’s on-line efforts are sophisticated and smartly executed. The New York Times is fast catching up. But small papers like The Chron and The Ex have a ways to go to make up for lost ground, territory abandon years ago. They may never get back the power and authority they had and that’s going to be a difficult adjustment to make.
A few months ago when I started writing about stand-alone journalism I talked just a little big about the business atmosphere in which I and others are operating. In this very short time, that climate has warmed. Belief in on-line advertising – or, the converse, a loss of faith in traditional methods of reaching audiences – is taking hold. That’s one reason why – starting just after Labor Day – you’ll see more changes here at Politics From Left to Right. It’s also why writing will continue to be light for the next week or so. We have cooked up a pretty interesting project with some of the Geeky boy geniuses around here and getting that off the ground will take a bit of concentrated effort.

Share  Posted by Chris Nolan at 11:40 AM | Permalink

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