Friday, March 20, 2009

whither newspapers?

Concerns about the demise of newspapers continue to occupy the minds of thoughtful bloggers. This, you might say, is more than a bit ironic, since the blog platform is potent symbol of all that's brought this on. What's to be done? Tim Spalding[1] asks whether the print news is worth saving (yes, it is) and links to Shirky's conclusion that if there is to be a solution, it's not now foreseen or foreseeable. His post evokes a couple of interesting responses giving links to other sources.

One of these is the Pew study to which other bloggers have been linking. Another is a depressing Twitter feed recording newspapers' downward spiral. The one that captured my attention, however, carps about the newspaper publishers who have failed to adjust to the times: Newspaper Publishers Are Idiots. The author is cranky John C. Dvorak and the venue is PCMag whose parent company went bankrupt last year and which was forced out of the glossy-mag business and is now trying to stay afloat as a web-only operation. It's given a good chance of succeeding since its ad revenues are robust.

Dvorak says lack of originality is the main reason the newspapers' operating model is failing. He's not wrong to point out that there's a huge amount of redundancy in news coverage. Still, having made that point he doesn't notice that the web is full of this redundancy as well and that the site for which he writes doesn't have an especially noteworthy proportion of original content. Nor does he note that complaining about newspapers is as old as journalism itself. You'd say 'why should he?' but he does ask us to compare the content of newspapers before 1850 with what we have today. He says "early newspapers consisted of local stories, summaries of events, and listings of items such as ship departures and other notices. There were no recipes, feature stories about dogs, or full-page advertisements for movies" and complains that "somewhere along the way, newspapers became more entertaining than informative."

He's not all that wrong about papers before 1850. The period of mass-circulation dailies began later in the 19th century and with them came competition for readers and advertising dollars and the rise of yellow journalism. Papers in the first half of the century were still more or less aimed at relatively well to do men in business and the professions. Nonetheless, that didn't keep them from being criticized as biased, politically-manipulated, and aggressively competitive. Dickens famously observed in his American Notes that "the foul growth of America ... strikes its fibres deep in its licentious Press."[2] And it didn't keep people of the late 19th century from feeling that the newspapers of their day were superior to those that came before.[3]

I suspect it's pretty safe to say there never has been a time when newspapers were not subject to criticism for their triviality, pandering, immorality, untruthfulness, and the like. Publishers, editors, and reporters have always had to judge how high they could set their journalistic standards and still hang on to profitability. And newspapers have always suffered the consequence of misjudgments.[4]

They've also had to judge what sorts of competition they'd get from other media[5] and how best to balance revenues from sales and from various sorts of advertising[6]. Their problems today are worse than they have been before, but as a matter of degree, not of kind. The web platform is simply -- as Shirky says -- superior to print on paper for delivery of news. And, equally unfortunately, the newspaper model for generating revenue, doesn't work on the web as well as it did in print.

Which is not to say that PCMag has come up with a satisfying solution. Its pages are over-busy with static ads and its popup ads interfere with reading and are annoying in the extreme.

In fact, having spent the morning pulling all this together, I'm coming to the conclusion that the web is in danger of evolving into a nasty melange of rabid commercial opportunism, self-serving exhibitionism, and unprincipled single-issue crankism.


[1] Tim founded and runs LibraryThing, an excellent web-based bibliographic system which I highly recommend.

[2] From the conclusion:
The foul growth of America ... strikes its fibres deep in its licentious Press.

Schools may be erected, East, West, North, and South; pupils be taught, and masters reared, by scores upon scores of thousands; colleges may thrive, churches may be crammed, temperance may be diffused, and advancing knowledge in all other forms walk through the land with giant strides; but while the newspaper press of America is in, or near, its present-abject state, high moral improvement in that country is hopeless. Year by year it must and will go back; year by year the tone of public feeling must sink lower down; year by year the Congress and the Senate must become of less account before all decent men; and year by year the memory of the Great Fathers of the Revolution must be outraged more and more in the bad life of their degenerate child.

Among the herd of journals which are published in the States there are some, the reader scarcely need be told, of character and credit. From personal intercourse with accomplished gentlemen connected with publications of this class, I have derived both pleasure and profit. But the name of these is Few, and of the others Legion; and the influence of the good is powerless to counteract the mortal poison of the bad. . . .

When any man, of any grade of desert in intellect or character, can climb to any public distinction, no matter what, in America, without first grovelling down upon the earth, and bending the knee before this monster of depravity; when any private excellence is safe from its attacks; when any social confidence is left unbroken by it, or any tie of social decency and honor is held in the least regard; when any man in that Free Country has freedom of opinion, and presumes to think for himself, and speak for himself, without humble reference to a censorship which, for its rampant ignorance and base dishonesty, he utterly loathes and despises in his heart; when those who most acutely feel its infamy and the reproach it casts upon the nation, and who most denounce it to each other, dare to set their heels upon, and crush it openly, in the sight of all men; then I will believe that its influence is lessening, and men are returning to their manly senses. But while that Press has its evil eye in every house, and its black hand in every appointment in the state, from a president to a postman; while, with ribald slander for its only stock in trade, it is the standard literature of an enormous class, who must find their reading in a newspaper, or they will not read at all; so long must its odium be upon the country's head, and so long must the evil it works be plainly visible in the Republic.

To those who are accustomed to the leading English journals, or to the respectable journals of the Continent of Europe, — to those who are accustomed to anything else in print and paper, — it would be impossible, without an amount of extract for which I have neither space nor inclination, to convey an adequate idea of this frightful engine in America. But if any man desire confirmation of my statement on this head, let him repair to any place in this city of London where scattered numbers of these publications are to be found, and there let him form his own opinion.

It would be well, there can be no doubt, for the American people as a whole, if they loved the Real less, and the Ideal somewhat more. It would be well if there were greater encouragement to lightness of heart and gayety, and a wider cultivation of what is beautiful without being eminently and directly useful. But here, I think, the general remonstrance, "We are a new country," which is so often advanced as an excuse for defects which are quite unjustifiable as being of right only the slow growth of an old one, may be very reasonably urged; and I yet hope to hear of there being some other national amusement in the United States besides newspaper politics.

-- American Notes for General Circulation
By Charles Dickens (Ticknor and Fields, 1867)
[3] As for example: "Charge what you will, prove what you will against the Press of New York today, nevertheless it is better in 1872 than it was in 1871; it was better in 1871 than it had ever been since Manhattan Island was discovered; and, please God, it will be better in 1873 and the years to come than it ever was before!" (American and English Studies, by Whitelaw Reid (C. Scribner's Sons, 1913)

Why, people ask, is the modem newspaper so inaccurate — to put it mildly — so given to romancing, so frivolous, so sensational, so heedless of serious things? Why are so many of its accounts incorrect in details? Why will it exploit the story of a lost puppy, and give only brief mention to a lecture on the Cretan excavations? Why will it print details of crimes, and ignore the many fine and noble movements that always are in progress? . . . The truth is that every decent newspaper publisher prints as good a newspaper as his readers will let him. He aims to give them a little better paper than they really want.

-- "The Public, The Newspaper's Problem" by H. J. Haskell (The Outlook, v. 91, Jan-Apr 1909)
Regarding failed papers, see this excellent table showing mergers of the big NYC dailies, given by the New York Public Library: Timeline: NYC Newspapers of General Circulation, 1900–1967.

[5] As for example:
The chief competition to the national newspapers of the future will not be from other newspapers, but from other methods of disseminating news.

At the people's recreation halls, with the cinematograph and the gramophone, or some more agreeable instrument of mechanical speech, all the news of the day will be given hot from its source. People may become too lazy to read, and news will be laid on to the house or office just as gas and water is now. The occupiers will listen to an account of the news of the day read to them by much improved phonographs while sitting in their garden, or a householder will have his dally newspaper printed in column form by a printing machine in his hall, just as we have tape machines in offices now.

-- The Living Age, by Eliakim Littell (Littell, Son and Co., 1913)
We alluded, a week or two since, to Colonel Hoe's suggested plan of printing newspapers by photography. The gallant officer now says that 360,000 copies of a journal could be easily produced by his method in an hour. The only drawback to the realization of hie plan is the high price of the sensitive paper'which would be requisite. But doubtless if we wait a little, the Colonel will surmount this difficulty. The newspapers of the future, in fact, will probably be flashed to a wondering world without the use of paper at all.

-- The photographic news vol. 28, 1884
[6] See for example: American and English Studies, by Whitelaw Reid (Smith, Elder & Co., 1913)



I turned up these things while thinking over this post.

The book, My Impressions of America, by Margot Asquith (George H. Doran company, 1922). This down-to-earth aristocrat and Prime Minister's spouse was thoroughly unimpressed with the fawning, uninformed, and sensationalist attitudes of the journalists who interviewed her.

Some quotes from (or attribued to) the New Yorker's press critic, A. J. Liebling:
News is like the tilefish which appears in great schools off the Atlantic Coast some years and then vanishes, no one knows whither or for how long. Newspapers might employ these periods searching for the breeding grounds of news, but they prefer to fill up with stories about Kurdled Kurds or Calvin Coolidge, until the banks close or a Hitler marches, when they are as surprised as their readers.

The function of the press in society is to inform, but its role in society is to make money.

Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

Some entries in a bibliography of works about newspapers.
Brooks, Noah. Newspapers of the future. Forum, July 1890, v. 9, p. 569-578.
Crit1cizes newspapers of the day for their untruthfulness and political partisanship and describes the ideal newspaper which will come in time.

Colton, A. F. Telephone newspaper—a new marvel. Technical World, Feb. 1912, v. 16, p. 666-669. Printed in condensed form in Literary Digest, March 16, 1912, v. 44, p. 528-529.
Explains manner of working; and gives daily program.

Murray, W. H. H. Endowed press. Arena, Oct. 1890, v. 2, p. 553-559.
Criticizes newspapers of the time and offers an endowed press as a solution of the question.

-- Daily Newspapers in the United States, by Callie Wieder (H.W. Wilson, 1916)

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