November 17, 2005

Whither the Press?

One of my very favorite bloggers, TCR, writes:

A few nights ago, I had dinner with a friend of mine who used to be a reporter at a big city daily and has since moved on to another line of work. He said he recently visited his former colleagues at the paper and that it was like returning to the salt mines: malaise and despair was the mood there, with everyone looking for a way out. On one hand, I say screw 'em---in large measure, they've done it to themselves by putting the reader at the bottom of the totem pole (one reason why, beyond Gretchen Morgenson, I rarely read the New York Times now after doing so daily and obsessively for many years). But I also think the deterioration in both journalistic standards and the industry's financial viability is incredibly dangerous. Now more than ever, we desperately need the type of reporter Bob Woodward was thirty years ago when---instead of becoming venture capitalists or investment bankers---the smartest and most ambitious students wanted to be journalists. We seem to be in a "tweener" period for the news media; the old guard has gone insider and abdicated for the veneer of personal and professional stability provided by corporate ownership, but nothing has quite stepped up to fill the role that is absolutely crucial to any democracy. Are blogs part of the answer?

Interesting question. Color me skeptical, re: blogs, at least at this juncture. The most talented writers (guys like Kaus and Sullivan) can doubtless chase a story and hold people's feet to the fire. And you have interesting speciality blogs here and there adding important voices. But the vast majority of the blogs are just hysteric, polemical noise. And how that noise could credibly fill the dangerous void TCR sketches above I really don't see. You need top-flight reporters, at the end of the day, and they can't be sitting around their flats staring at the monitor. They need to be in the field, the real field, chasing down the story. And the real journalists themselves? For every national treasure like John Burns, you've got many less impressive correspondents (see Judy Miller) who are much more easily hoodwinked. And, yes, there is a corporate coziness one espies among the Woodward's, as TCR explains it. All this aside, I have found the universe of quality reporting to be declining steadily (I try to very rapidly scan the FT, WSJ and NYT daily, and the WaPo several times a week, and generally find the FT leads the pack)--and there's little reason to be particularly optimistic about the situation going forward. Might one hope the combined might of Jayson Blair, Judy Miller and other assorted Plame shenanigans could shame management and editorial boards and ombudsman and so on into better shape.? Dunno...but I doubt it. There's no shame, really, left in American life. Pseudo-penance and faux-contrition, are the order of the day, followed then by a rapacious focus on second, third and fourth acts (profitable ones!). Triste.

Posted by Gregory at November 17, 2005 07:06 AM | TrackBack (2)

"Pseudo-penance and false contrition are the order of the day..."

For this, much of the blame must go to those who whine about every perceived insult and make a fetish of demanding "apologies" as if they had some magical power. The attackers of Larry Summers and of Dick Durbin come to mind, but there are many others.

Posted by: sammler at November 17, 2005 10:19 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"But the vast majority of the blogs are just hysteric, polemical noise"

actually there are plenty of blogs that are a mix of really good journalism and "hysterical, polemical" noise.

Think of Wretchard, for ex. Most of the times hes unreadable, IMHO. But during the second battle of Fallujah he did an excellent job, pulling together maps, items from various sources, etc to present an informative picture available nowhere else.

Similarly Rantburg - about 2/3 of its is hysteria, but theres also some pretty serious scouring of some useful sources, like the Pakistani press, etc. I suppose you could argue that one could read the Pakistani press directly - but I dont have time, and the filtering is valuable.

Posted by: liberalhawk at November 17, 2005 03:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

ive about had it with everybody right and left piling on Judy Miller. Look, she wasnt getting Iraqis telling her the moon was made of green cheese. She was getting Iraqis giving her details on what everybody already "knew" = what Bill Clinton knew, what every western intell agency knew, etc. Maybe the admin should have known better, but Judy Miller wasnt privy to everything the admin knew, any more than all those Dem Senators were.

And quite frankly, Saddam HAD tossed out the inspectors. He WAS pursuing long range missile against UN resolutions. He WAS keeping his scientist together for the time that sanctions were dropped and he could restart his programs (according to the Duelfer report) He DID have dual use capabilities.

Maybe some of the blame for the intell failure was Bush's. Most of it, I think was Saddams, and the kind of regime he ran. None of it, AFAICT, was Judy Miller's. I sure hope the next time some refugees come to tell us tales of whats happening in a totalitarian state, where there are few other sources, reporters arent going to be scared off by Millers ordeal.

Posted by: liberalhawk at November 17, 2005 03:24 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The elephant sitting in the corner being ignored by TCR is the market. If there is a need for sound news (read: demand), sound news will be provided (read: supply). That readership of rags like the NYT is on the decline is also a market effect, they don't provide the goods like they used to and competition is coming from new sources. Do TCR and Greg really think there is less overall information available out there? There is not. Lets not glorify the investigative journo here - it was an inefficient model to begin with. News writers are a self selected supply of poorly informed (relative to most of the topics being covered - they are educated in journalism after all, not nuclear physics, military tactics, international relations or the myriad other topics they cover) sources. An open source model has much more promise. Lets not conflate nostalgia with analysis.

Posted by: Roger Rainey at November 17, 2005 03:49 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Great post. You are 100 percent correct. You need reporters with a rolodex, well a p.d.a., and the time/energy to work stories.

Posted by: Chris at November 17, 2005 04:56 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

In my opinion, the current abysmal state of the newspaper industry is a combination of excessive consolidation combined with editorial control above the heads of the editors. The result has been an amalgamation of the news and opinion such that journalistic objectivity hardly exists any more. As an example, I used to avidly read the New York Times every day, a habit that started as I was growing up in New Jersey and continued through college, law school and for many years after I moved to California. The good old NYT in those days reported the news in what I felt was an objective and comprehensive fashion, leaving opinion to the editorial page and in the selection of the letters to the editor.

A newspaper with that segregation of news from opinion will appeal to a broad political spectrum. You could get the news and form your own opinions even if you disagreed with the editorial policies.

Those days have long faded away. I suspect it was gradual, but I don't know. I do know that a time came when as the editorial writers moved ever more to the left, the news coverage followed until the distinction between the two became blurred. I lost interest in the NYT, cancelled my subscription and started reading the WSJ. For the most part, the WSJ remains disciplined at maintaining the separation between news and opinion. Indeed, it is not uncommon to find a story that runs directly against an editorial position in the same edition. Am I getting the same quantity of news? Probably not, but I am staying informed and while I don't have lockstep agreement with the WSJ editorials, I do enjoy the quality of the writing. I note that the WSJ is enjoying an enlarging circulation in contrast to the NYT and WPO.

As for the blogs, as they are largely free and open, there will always be a tendency toward the wild and wooley. One has to choose those that one reads. As for me, I find Belgravia and its participants to be largely disciplined and courteous. I also find the considerable majority of the comments to be well informed and thoughtful - even those with which I disagree. As for other blogs, some are entirely worthless, some have salient characteristics, and some are quite useful. One has to pick and choose and I think most are capable.


Posted by: Michael Pecherer at November 17, 2005 08:32 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Great comments Michael. I also can't help but wonder if its also a reflection of the "dumbing down" of the wider populace, as was aluded to in one of the earlier comments. After all, if the readers and listeners and watchers didn't want snappy sound bites and hysterical type reporting on whatever the evil of the day might be, then papers wouldn't sell and ratings would fall, and well... we'd have decent reporting.

But the media gives us what we wants. Its a bit of a chicken and egg scenario really. Profits drive the tupe of reportiing which is in turn driven by what sells. Its one of those less common cases of where the market is driving lower quality rather than higher quality. Although I by and large beleive in free markets, this is one of the few times where perhaps a free market model is the best option...

Posted by: Aran Brown at November 17, 2005 09:46 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Trackback didn't work. Here's my post: "The vast majority of the blogs are just hysteric, polemical noise"

Posted by: Sissy Willis at November 18, 2005 12:49 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I agree with the main post and comments, especially the tragedy of the Times squandering it's legacy. I recall from my NY days reading the Times was considered a perk of living in the center of the universe. I would not consider it so now.
I think the entire MSM right now are where Sears, JCPenny, Wolworth's, etc. were in 1975, with WalMart (and later Amazon) on the horizon. Rather than address the problems that astute managers could see coming, the inbred nature of the industry kept them competing on terms they defined as important, rather than those their customers wanted.

Posted by: wayne at November 18, 2005 02:12 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Thinking a bit more on this subject, which is much of interest to me, I think that the advent and success of USA Today has much to do with the decline of the fine, big city papers. USA Today is much like a daily combination of Time and People mags. I say that with some trepidation as I don't read either regularly and leaf through them when at the doctor's office. Aron is probably right, I believe, that the dumbing down of the populace is thinning out the market for quality, objective reporting. But after cogitating on this all day, I perhaps have come upon another critical factor.

I have two kids (twins) that are seniors in high school and I am either the eldest or darn close father among their classmates. I have noticed over the years that their teachers have been unabashedly resorting to indoctrination in their teaching and that the kids have many perspectives that are, in my judgment, rather polarized and superficially derived. As an example, they had a history teacher who saw all of history as a maze of interlocking conspiracies. He spent six weeks of a term on American history on the Vietnam war, barely mentioning the European wars or the Civil War. He taught history as if the US came into the world fully formed and had no appreciation of the historical trial and error that followed the Revolution and continues to this day. Such a simplistic and unanalytical perspective leads these kids to have little interest in the depth and complexity of the world's problems or indeed, the problems in our own politics. How could one expect such indoctrinated kids to be interested in thorough, non biased journalism?

I remember as a teenager reading part of the Sunday NYTimes. Not all of it and not thoroughly, but certainly some of the articles and the mag section. My kids never read newspapers. In fact, they have little interest in the news period. They are good students and are busy with their activities, but I can't recall when I have seen them read a newspaper except when I have presented them with an article on something that was within one of their interests. And they are going off to good universities next year!

I fear that it will take some remarkable changes before the traditional quality newspaper comes back, and I doubt whether that will ever occur. Am I an old fogy??


Posted by: Michael Pecherer at November 18, 2005 04:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Today's reporting is a symptom not the disease. To the undiscerning, such screed is not simply tolerated, it remains unnoticed. To pierce the fog, run -- don't walk -- [online (for free) or to Amazon] to read "Less than Words can Say," by Richard Mitchell.

Posted by: sbw at November 18, 2005 01:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

The problems with the news business can be summed up in one word...Greed.

When Knight-Ridder is more than decimating its staffs on its various publications in order to maintain the 20-30% profit margins demanded of its investors, its the equivalent of a company selling off its best long-term assets to keep investors happy. Its a great short term strategy with long term disasterous implications.

The market for good, solid, reliable reporting is not shrinking in numerical terms, although it is shrinking in terms of the total market for "news product." The problem is that Wall Street sees "market share" and "growth" as necessary components of "success".

If journalism (as opposed to newpapers per se) is to survive, it will require ownership that places public service over maximum profits. "Quality journalism" may wind up as a niche market in the infotainment industry, but it can still be profitable.

Posted by: lukasiak at November 18, 2005 02:21 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Sitting around their what?

They're called apartments in this country.

Here's a thought that might be worth exploring more fully at another time. Newspapers and television have always wanted to make money, just as politicians have always wanted to win votes. This doesn't represent a character flaw on the part of anyone -- a paper can't stay in business as a charitable or vanity enterprise, and a politician who can't win votes doesn't stay a politician for very long.

What may have changed isn't the media or the politicians, but their level of knowledge as to what is necessary to maximize their net revenues and their electoral margins, respectively. They know their customers -- readers (or rather paid subscribers), viewers, constituents -- in much more detail than was true, say, 30 years ago. One can say, perhaps even correctly, that a particular paper's news coverage or the amount of time a Congressman spends on legislating as opposed to campaigning and fundraising is wrong, excessive, bad for the country, but what one cannot often say is that it represents a bad business decision for the paper or Congressman in question. They will already know whether it does or not

Posted by: JEB at November 18, 2005 03:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

a decent amount of my readers are in UK, the blog is named after a neighborhood in london i lived in for 2 years, and this isn't meant to be a blog read solely by americans. thus, my use of the word "flat." i think the fact that this has you up and commenting, JEB, is a testament to a certain georgia-esque agrarian isolationist tendency i espy in much of your commentary. :) to wit: iraq is no biggie, let's get out...not an infrequent theme in your comments.

p.s. "triste" is french for "sad"!

Posted by: greg at November 18, 2005 03:51 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I have to disagree with you JEB, I think the media would rather go down with all flags flying rather than make the changes any intelligent manager can see need making. Charles Krauthammer is credited with the quip that Rupert Murdoch saw a niche not filled by the big three networks -- 50% of the market. I would argue the unserved moderate to conservative portion of the market was greater than 50%, but the nabobs on 6th Avenue would rather die than lower themselves to Fox's standards or perspective. I think it's the same with the monopoly dailies in this country. Exhibit A is how the NYT is throwing away its birthright of being the paper of record in this country to do some political vogueing.

Posted by: wayne at November 18, 2005 07:39 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

greg, that was the best reply to a comment ive seen in a long time. Amidst a lot of bad news, it gave me a smile. Thanks.

Posted by: liberalhawk at November 18, 2005 09:35 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well, I see no reason why journalists need to work for newspapers and can't end up doing the same legwork but publishing the results in a blog or a more blog-like medium. Of course, blogs definitely need to get past some technical details. for one, Editors do serve a purpose -- somebody needs to fix all of Matt Yglesias's typos, after all. Also, aggregation needs to be much more user-friendly.

The real hurdle is to figure out the money thing, but the MSM is increasingly facing that same problem anyway.

Posted by: fling93 at November 19, 2005 02:41 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

And I think most Americans have seen enough movies with British people to know what a flat is. The foreign flavor is one of the appeals of this blog anyway.

Posted by: fling93 at November 19, 2005 02:42 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I'm relieved and amazed. I'm really upset about the relentless decline of newspaper circulation in this country, (and i am completely uninvolved in the industry and unrelated to anyone involved), and I'm not convinced that the blogosphere can replace it in an appropriate fashion.

I don't think the newspaper decline can be stopped entirely, and it has nothing to do with the blurring of the line between news and opinion at the NYTimes. That argument is thoroughly untested by simple logic. The blurring of the line between news and opinion is an order of magnitude worse on cable channels and blogs - for both the left and right. If anything, newspapers are being punished for their objectivity - which is very bad.

No the reason that newspapers are in decline is the gravity of the market, and the internet. You no longer need a printing press to have the chance of being read by millions - and advertising on blogs is cheaper by a factor of ten. Those are the reasons, nothing else.

But here is the problem - at least as of now, blogs can not replace newspapers.

Specifically, the blog model shows no signs of generating the revenue neccesary to put actual boots of reporters on the ground. Kos or instapundit is in no position to actually send reporters anywhere to investigate things that cannot be found on the internet. I don't see their cost model as being able to support this in the near future.

The wrenching reduction on a 10 scale of the cost model for successful publication of information has the potential to destroy this thing which is vital to an informed public.

Boy, I'd love to hear a good suggestion about what to do about it.

Posted by: glasnost at November 19, 2005 06:36 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

glasnost: the reason that newspapers are in decline is the gravity of the market, and the internet.

Right observation, but look deeper. For the last 125 years advertising has shielded readers from understanding that they were spared 75% of the cost of the news. When news seems free, people grow distant from the true cost and value of life's resources. It's no different than the shallow expectation for supermarket shelves always to be stocked with cold milk and fresh bread.

What to do about it? We teach knowledge in school, but not the wisdom necessary for living. True, those in charge do the best they can within the scope of what they know. It's left to those who see what's missing to craft an inescapably compelling exposition of what needs to be taught and why. It starts with this:

Individuals, journalists, and societies share the same core humility -- we plan our future based on what we understand, but we can't see when sometimes our mental map of reality is wrong. That's why our best future depends on continuously reviewing what we understand and ought to know, and why, in part, we use surrogates like newspapers to help us.

On this rock we can build more.

Posted by: sbw at November 19, 2005 04:14 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Glad to see someone calling attention to FT, a proper newspaper unlike the navel gazing majority of rags.

Posted by: lounsbury at November 19, 2005 10:42 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Greg, I'd be surprised if most of the readers you do have in the UK did not actually believe that "Iraq is no biggie, let's get out" already.

Wayne: this is my point. The Times does absolutely cater to a politically liberal readership, one of several things that makes it a lesser newspaper than it could be. But for The Times, this is not a bad business decision. Being the nation's newspaper of record is a neat thing, but is it the best or easiest way to be profitable in the New York-based newspaper business? It is not. 30 years ago the people who run The Times might have suspected that; now they know.

Posted by: JEB at November 20, 2005 05:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

It seems inescapable that the decline of the daily newspaper is due to the existence of new, attention grabbing competition-- the internet and cable news. These alternatives came to maturity (sort of) in the 90's, and they are not going away any time soon. Therefore, the continuing decline of newspapers seems inevitable and relentless. They are the blacksmiths of our time. Some dailies, like the NYTimes, have decided to grab a market segment (ie. older, urban liberals). So be it. There is no longer a "paper of record," and there never will be again.

Sadly, the Internet and cable TV have neither the same methods nor standards of the papers of yore. Cable news has lots of potential, but it would have to break out of the "20 second story" paradigm that keeps it so superficial. The Internet is just a distribution method. Detailed, newspaper-like products could be tried; don't know if they would be successful. Blogs are no competition whatsoever to newspapers or cable TV. Most blogs are parasites, and derive all of their source material from other news sources. There is no contemporary blog that shows any potential for (or interest in) becoming a news agency. Blogs are too wedded to a single blogger's identity and opinions.

Posted by: god fodder at November 20, 2005 05:33 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

This is a public service announcement to present and future commenters to help save them any wasted time. Serving up OSM, or some of its affiliated sites mentioned in the thread above, as 'examples' of why the blogosphere has major upside potential along the lines TCR was expressing concern about--well, such contentions doesn't even pass the giggle test--at least in the view of the humble proprieter of this blog. Many thanks for taking the time to read this public service announcement, and that's all I'll have to say on this matter (at least for now).

Posted by: greg at November 20, 2005 08:37 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What sane person ever want to support the Industrial Culture-Indoctrination Complex? Isn't is bad enough being forced to pay hard-earned tax dollars supporting National Public (Big Brother) Radio, why would I ever consider lavishing my hard-earned dollars on a useful idiot newspapers like the NY Times?

Journalists continue to ignore the fact that the individual has greater access to information than the access allowed under the monolithic ICIC.

In 1991, I got my first taste of indoctrination journalism in action. It was during Yeltsin's coup, I was living in Athens, Greece while my ex-husband was living in Moscow, Russia. For five days, CNN relayed messages and showed images of complete breakdown of Russian society. When I was able to finally reach my ex I found out that only the Red Square was in turmoil, the rest of Moscow went about business a normal. CNN pulled the exact same hype during the hurricane in New Orleans, LA. The number of corrections the press has had to issue over the last several months regarding pathetic hurricane reporting has been absurd.

The decline of Mainstream Media is a result of incredulous, over-hyped "we want to change the world" reporting. Journalism no longer reports information, it indoctrinates the unwashed masses through useful idiocy.

If jouranlists what to 'change the world' then they should go into politics and leave reporting to objective sanity.

Posted by: susan at November 26, 2005 03:04 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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