Monday, December 7, 2009

Letter To The Editor

Dear Editor. This just in -- newspapers are dying. Circulation is plummeting, advertising revenues are following suit, staff are being laid off and news bureaus are closing. “It’s that damn internet. . . no, kids don’t read. . . no, it’s a lack of trust created by talk radio. Save us Uncle Obama!” scream a thousand perplexed journalists. Actually, it’s your own fault, and I’m about to tell you why. Oh, and a handout from the Bank of Obama isn’t going to save you.

Let’s begin by checking out the scope of the problem. Advertising revenues are tied directly to circulation rates, and circulation rates have been falling for decades. When I was young, most of the adults I knew read newspapers, usually every day. And it wasn’t like I lived in a high class, newspaper consuming community. We were lower, lower middle class (if that) and yet most of the adults I knew read the paper -- so many in fact, that it just seemed like it was the one thing all Americans did.

Today’s circulation rates tell a very different story. Below are a list of the top ten newspapers by circulation.

Only 21 papers nationwide had circulations that exceeded 250,000 last year. If you add those top twenty-one together, you come up with a total circulation of 11.5 million, with almost half of that held by the top three papers. That means that less than 3.8% of Americans subscribe to newspapers. What happened?

The media usually makes three arguments: (1) the internet, (2) kids don’t read, and (3) people have become too cynical. But these arguments merely blame the consumer, rather than identify the real problems. This is typical of most failing businesses. . . it’s you, it’s not me. The reality is that each of the three reasons above are true, but the blame belongs with the newspapers, not the readers.

The internet certainly presents a problem for newspapers -- though we must remember that the decline in newspaper readership began long before the internet was glint in Algore’s eye, so take whining about the internet with a grain of salt. But presenting a problem is not the same thing as bringing about doom. Doom only comes when people refuse to see the problem and adjust their business model accordingly.

The problem with the newspaper model is that they’ve gotten sloppy and cheap. Year after year, newspapers laid off staff and closed bureaus. In their place, editors relied more and more on wire services, e.g. the AP. Today, there is virtually nothing in the national section (or international section -- assuming the paper even recognizes events beyond our borders) that isn’t simply a cut and paste from a wire service.

But this is precisely what the internet delivers -- wire service news, and it does it much faster and much more efficiently than any newspaper could. That is the problem, dear editor: why should anyone buy a newspaper, only to see tomorrow morning what they already knew the night before? You are fighting on turf where the internet has the advantage, and it’s not going to slow down and you can’t speed up. So what should newspapers do? Simple. They need to invest in new bureaus and better reporters. Go out and do the old school “journalism thing”: cultivate sources, do research, and conduct investigations. Get exclusives. . . lots of them. Give us exposés. Provide readers what they cannot find from a wire service. The only reason I read The Economist, despite their increasingly further left ideological bent, is that they provide news (in-depth news) that I simply can’t find anywhere else. You can do the same, dear Editor.

Sadly, newspapers have gone the other way. They’ve cut the very things they need to compete, all in the name of cost savings. It takes money to make money my dear editor. Stop being cheap.

Secondly, it’s true that younger people no longer read newspapers. But rather than whine about it, ask what you’ve done to change that? Do newspapers create child-friendly versions for students? Do they give student discounts for high schoolers or college kids? When the NFL realized that it was losing younger audiences, it didn’t whine about it, it set about hooking kids earlier. It did two things. First, the NFL sponsored youth leagues, having discovered that kids who play football grow up to watch it. Secondly, it created this new anti-obesity campaign which is ostensibly aimed at getting kids to exercise, but in reality is intended to interest kids in the NFL. Do the same.

Third, we’re not cynical, we just don’t like propaganda. It has become crystal clear over the past decade or two that the media has decided to promote left-wing causes. This includes favoring some stories over others, not reporting stories that run counter to leftist ideology, reporting leftist views uncritically while attacking non-leftist views, and filling every story (even non-ideological stories) with leftist agendas and propaganda. And the American public has noticed. Poll after poll shows American faith in the media as a presenter of truth to be at an all time low.

Yet, journalists have responded cynically. You attack your critics, you blackball non-leftists, you play down the opposition and you deny your bias -- indeed, ridiculously, many journalists fret publicly of a right-wing bias in the media. And then you use toothless ombudsmen who report after Democrats are safely elected that maybe. . . possibly. . . you weren’t 100% fair to the Republican. Or you attack Democrats once they leave office over some minor sin, and then you trumpet this as evidence of your fair and balanced treatment. You are only fooling yourselves.

If you want to regain your readers, you need to strip out the ideology from your reporting. Facts are facts and should be presented as such. Stop blurring news and analysis. Stop shading your coverage and favoring leftists. Slaughter all your sacred cows and investigate all sides equally. People want to know that they are getting the whole truth, not just the part you are willing to print. Moreover, when you present analysis, present both sides fairly. Stop repeating leftist talking points uncritically, no matter how illogical. We’re not that stupid that we don’t notice. And don’t try to slide an editorial from John McCain or some other token RINO by us as “the conservative position.” We know who is a conservative and who isn’t.

Finally, learn to respect your audience. For years, newspapers hid behind the idea that “this is what the customers want.” Stupid, shorter stories? We, journalists, aren’t being lazy, this is what the customer wants. Drop the international news? We’re not being cheap, this is what the customer wants. Lead with sensationalism -- if it bleeds it leads. . . sex sells! It’s not us, this is what the customer wants. No, this isn’t what the customer wants. This is lazy, easy reporting that can be done with little effort or ability and you are merely hiding behind your caricature of the customer to cover up your own sloth. And if that weren’t true, your circulations would be going up.

Also, let me suggest something else. Selling sex and violence exploits addictive behavior. This is a horrible idea, not because I think it’s immoral, but because addictive behavior (be it drugs, alcohol, sex, etc.) requires ever increasing stimulation to achieve the same high. Once people get used to seeing a bloody shirt on their front page or a naked chest, they will need more to get the same stimulation, i.e. incentive to buy. Soon you need full frontal nudity and dismembered corpses. How do you ratchet up the intensity after that? And how many other readers do you turn off in the process? Newspapers need to learn to trust their audience. We are people who want to be informed, not people who want to be excited. Leave that to Larry Flynt.

This is why I dropped my subscription.

The American Reader


Joel Farnham said...


Great points, all of them.

One you didn't mention is Craigslist and other free listing services from the Internet. A good portion of the revenue of a newspaper was the classified ads. This cut destroyed most newspapers outright.

LawHawkSF said...

The New York Times actually had a fairly decent ombudsman until 2005. Daniel Okrent was hired in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal. Then, off with his head. Okrent was a little soft on Democrats, but he was far too clear about his opinion that the news pages actually acted as a pro-Democrat editorial page. So--bye-bye, Danny.

The current ombudsman, properly called "the public editor" (as in "protect the public from editorial bias on the news pages) has been searching for pro-Democrat and pro-Obama bias, and darn, is really having a hard time finding it. It has also been reported that he has trouble finding his behind while sitting on both hands.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Thanks. The classified ad revenue is one part of their advertising revenues, and while it has certainly hurt (especially the smallest papers) the real killer for the larger papers has been the dramatic drop in the advertising budget of national and local businesses. And those are falling in part because of the recession, but in larger part because the readership numbers are drying up so dramatically.

That's their number one problem, and it's a problem they seem unwilling to fix.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Even when the ombudsman is capable, they have little effect. Note the Washington Post, for example, which discovered after the election that they weren't entirely fair in their treatment of the Republicans. Net result? Nothing changed.

All they do is pat themselves on the back for having the courage to have an internal review. It's all public relations, that's it.

LawHawkSF said...

Andrew: Should call that ex post facto editorial correction? LOL

The beauty of it all is that while they are trotting out the fake fairness, they still don't understand why they're going under. I would be very sad to see a venerable institution such as print journalism go under, but if you can't do the job, get out of the way.

StanH said...

My Dad, and I were talking about failing newspapers this evening. We had dinner this evening, and he wanted to pick up a newspaper while we were out, to see the BCS Bowls. He wanted to know if I would like to read the paper when he finished, I said without hesitation, no sir. As the conversation ensued we both had canceled our subscriptions to the Atlanta-Journal Constitution around 1986 to 87, their treatment to Reagan. In following years, I cancelled my subscriptions Wall Street Journal at the office, US News & World Report, Time, etc. all gone by around ’92. The point is this has been falling apart for me long before the internet. I refuse to support something that holds me in disdain, and like you, I’m a big boy, just tell us the facts, report the news, and your circulation will return.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, I think that's exactly the point -- the idea that the internet is killing newspapers is just an excuse for a group that doesn't want to face the fact that they've been misbehaving. They've been lazy, nonresponsive and insulting to their consumers.

As you put it, no one wants to buy a newspaper that holds them in disdain. Start treating the customer right and the customers will return. Blame the internet and go under.

patti said...

you've pretty much said everything i have thought. i write a running blog for the local newspaper, but would never consider writing for the paper edition. matter of fact, two years ago i had a very similar discussion with the editor about many of the points you addresses. i got raised eyebrows of "what do you know" in response. i often wonder if he recalls the conversation. what do i know? plenty, it turns out...

AndrewPrice said...

Patti, Great minds right?!

I'm not surprised you got the response you did. I have yet to see an editor or a journalist who wants to confront any of these realities. They would rather believe that the readers are wrong and put their heads in the sand than wake up to the things they've done wrong. It's easier to blame others. And with everyone telling the same story, these editors can get away with pretending that there's nothing they can do to stave off the end.

Pittsburgh Enigma said...

Great article Andrew. I feel like forwarding it to the editors of our local paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which incidentally has recently been surpassed in circulation by the more conservative Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. But as you point out, the "we know better" editors would just ignore it anyway.

This subject also reminds me of the whole GM thing. I don't get the hand wringing about not wanting these "important" institutions to fail. I'm thinking about some in Congress (John Kerry?) who have made comments about the need to bail out journalism. Let them fail (both GM and the newspapers.) Then something better will come along to take their place. Don't liberals claim to want change? Then they turn around and cling to all their pet dinosaurs.

CrispyRice said...

Great article, Andrew! I remember enjoying reading the paper as a kid - mostly funnies and Dear Abby and doing the crosswords. But as I graduated toward real news, it wasn't long before I became really aware of the biases and got turned off.

Then, yes, the internet put the fork in them for me, because I was able to seek out information that I want. However, my problem still with the internet is that I don't get as in-depth information as I like, and I don't have time to hunt around to 15 different sites to gather tidbits. It's one of the things I really enjoy about your site - you sum up so much information and present in a very reader-friendly format.

Good analogy, PittsburghEnigma. By letting the "dinosaurs" fail, there is room for new, better business models to succeed, leading to growth and improvement. Something better WILL fill a void.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Pitts. I suspect the Democrats cling to these "institutions" because they are heavily unionized and they want to keep their union friends employed.

And I think you're right that they won't change, so there isn't much point in sending this article to any editors. But you never know, it might be worth a shot.

AndrewPrice said...

CrispyRice, Thanks, we do try to keep you informed of as much as we can!

You put your finger on one big advantage newspapers do have -- they can easily gather all sorts of information that people may not want to hunt for across a dozen different websites. But to be effective, they need regain people's trust, and to do that, they need to drop the left wing bias. Good comment!

USArtguy said...

To add to a couple points already made, while in my second go-round as a college student I took a Newspaper Layout and Editing class taught by a City Desk Editor from our local paper. Because by this time I was a "non-traditional" student (older, part-time at night because I already had a full time job) I wasn't afraid to challenge the teacher. Especially when the subject dealt more with opinion rather than the mechanics of the subject. Anyway, her attitude was journalists are the "gatekeepers" of news and the arbiters of language, the defenders of words to keep the great unwashed masses from poisoning the lexicon. To even disagree was akin to blasphemy in her mind.

AndrewPrice said...

USArtguy, That's exactly the problem -- they have disdain for their audience. They have politicized themselves and they think that they are a superior group who need to keep us in check and tell us what's good for us. That's why they are blind to reality.

Rather than understanding that people don't like their product and changing their ways, they blame the people for not being sufficiently enlightened. That's why they have no qualms about shading the truth or lying or presenting the most bizarre illogic as logic -- they don't respect their audience and feel no need to be up front with them.

And if you want to see their view of us, look at the crappy, over-sexed, over-violent, under-thought articles that they put out under the banner: "this is what our stupid, unwashed audience demands." That tells you all you need to know about how they view their readers.

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