Mike the Mad Biologist

There has been a lot of commentary about George Will attacking the observed phenomenon of global warming by referring to a poor analysis of research findings–an analysis that has been refuted by the study’s authors. This has been followed by discussions of the future of journalism and other such rending of garments. For me, what L’affair Will highlights is the conflict within the newspaper business about how to remain viable.

There seem to be two models (and these are admittedly caricatures):

  1. Have a diversity of opinion even if some opinions are nothing more than misinformation or propaganda.
  2. Attempt to inform the reader. That is, is the reader better informed about the world for having read the paper? This doesn’t mean that a newspaper can’t have wildly different opinions–they just have to be grounded in fact at some level.

Before you completely disdain the first model, as a business model, it might actually be quite profitable. People don’t want to be challenge all–or most–of the time. I’m sure some conservatives liked Will’s column because it confirmed their own biases. However, if you think that a more profitable model is to inform the reader (and, again, I’m not talking about differences of opinion regarding established facts), then Will needs to be repudiated. Will’s column does damage the paper’s reputation.

Of course, I don’t think reputation has much to do with newspaper purchases–force of habitat does. And the decline of newspaper reading among ‘younger’ readers (who, at this point, aren’t so young anymore) is largely a function of perceived irrelevance (good reporting is important, but setting aside a half hour to read a newspaper is not part of many people’s ‘lifestyles’ anymore).

Comments

  1. #1 D. C. Sessions
    March 15, 2009

    the decline of newspaper reading among ‘younger’ readers (who, at this point, aren’t so young anymore) is largely a function of perceived irrelevance (good reporting is important, but setting aside a half hour to read a newspaper is not part of many people’s ‘lifestyles’ anymore).

    Or maybe some of us [1] just don’t see the point in killing forests to bulk up the trash stream when electrons are totally recyclable. We still spend the time reading the news, we just don’t kill trees to do it.

    [1] I don’t think, at nearer to 60 than 50, I quite count as a “younger reader.” Aging hippies? Maybe.

  2. #2 Troublesome Frog
    March 15, 2009

    The physical paper thing is a major turn-off for me as a “younger reader” as well. It’s like getting your morning news delivered to you printed on manatee skin floating on top of its own barrel of oil. It’s excessive waste, all for what? The nostalgia of getting ink on your hands like you did in the good old days? I see it like the gift wrap industry: Giant factories producing ungodly quantities of paper whose sole purpose is to be torn up and thrown away.

    Give me a morning commute with NPR and a couple of good quality news web sites (which I would happily pay for–even the same amount as a newspaper subscription) and I’m happy. I don’t need you to prove how great you are by burning through unnecessary physical resources.

    But..err…yes. George Will’s global warming column was stupid.

  3. #3 Drake33
    March 15, 2009

    Excellent post. This is what I fan into on my local newspaper, the Minneapolis Star Tribune. They seemed to have a decent model where the “opinion” section contained primarily #1 type stories, and the remainder of the paper, contained primarily #2 type stories.

    At some point, the lines got muddied and crossed between 1 and 2. I’m a sports fan, and I can tell you exactly when I was turned off. When Jim Souhan, wrote a terrible set of stories about the Twins *not* making contract extension offers to Eddie Guardado and LeTroy Hawkins. This was a non-story that suddenly became “news”. And Souhan wrote several articles on why he was so awesome at writing about this controversy. To make matters worse, they promoted Souhan…

    I quit my subscription shortly. I was pissed, and that was just the sports section. …

  4. #4 Mokele
    March 15, 2009

    Does their business model even matter? In almost every city, there’s only one big newspaper, so it’s either that or some much smaller, poorly funded papers. The internet scares these people because it’s the first real competition they’ve ever had.

  5. #5 Comrade PhysioProf
    March 15, 2009

    The NY Times clearly buys into model #1. Just take a look at the rogues gallery of pernicious fuck-ups on their Opinion pages. And their newest hire is Ross Douthat, one of the most absurd right-wing lying dumbfucks around.

  6. #6 Mike Haubrich, FCD
    March 15, 2009

    Hey, Drake33, I had forgotten about Souhan doing that.

    I stopped purchasing the print version because I found that I was sending more and more unread copies to the recycling bin than I was reading. It was for a long time my weekly routine on Sunday mornings to run to the stoop after starting the coffee a-brewin’ to sit and read the paper before the kids woke up. The internet changed all of that.

    I live in an apartment complex and at least 6 people in my building take home delivery of the Sunday edition if not the daily. By the end of the day Monday there are still 3 unread copies in the foyer and the maintenance person just picks them up and takes them out to the recycling bin.

  7. #7 guthrie
    March 15, 2009

    I was under the distinct impression that newspapers business models were:
    1) sell lots of advertising space
    2) write stuff to fill the other spaces, because people won’t pay to buy adverts, at least not outside specialist advertising papers.

    Hence why the dumbing down of newspapers has been so poorly opposed, because shock and sensation sells, and thus advertisers are assured of eyeballs passing over their adverts.

    Nowadays the business model is closer to:
    1) sell advertising space.
    2) pay someone a pittance to re-write something that you stole off the wire services or another paper.

    Yes, this is a somewhat jaundice post, and quite a lot of newspapers did start up originally with the idea of public service, or at least informing the part of the public that the owners and editors thought was worth informing. But the evidence is clear that modern newspapers have cut costs to the bone, and from what I have read, the cuts started BEFORE the internet etc took over. The arrival of the internet hastened the downward spiral.
    See “Flat earth news” by Nick Davies for more information.

  8. #8 Bob
    March 15, 2009

    I’ll join the chorus – I don’t like newspapers primarily because of their bulk. They’re just logistically difficult, but at least the dailies (usually) only show up when asked for – I’m tired of the shoppers and all the other bulk delivery crap that I can’t stop that fob off their disposal costs on me.

    So little writing is local, the opinion pieces reflect an increasingly obsolescent political divide, and rarely is there any depth to the coverage. And frankly, I don’t care about 80% of the headline news, not so much that I can’t get what I need from scanning news.google.com in 30 seconds.

    However Mokele is wrong – the newspapers have suffered real competition in the past – consider radio and TV. The papers’ solution? Buy or build a local radio or TV station. There once was a real worry that papers would create local media monopolies and were required to divest of their broadcast holdings. Unfortunately for the papers, the broadcast revenues were underwriting the print media. The divestiture worked against its intended purpose by putting a bunch of papers out of business by the time the law was changed back. And with less competitors and less regulatory oversight media consolidation was natural.

    The problem now of course is that the papers cannot corner the internet news market the way they could with broadcast media simply because there’s no scarcity of broadcast licenses online, no artificial barrier to entry in the form of the FCC. And since the papers have steadily been consolidating, laying off local writers, and relying on wire services, they have no original product to sell, nothing to differentiate them from any other jackass with a Reuters feed.

    Possibly the only bit of interest are the editorials, but as you say, there is no balance of opinion when one side is material reality and the other side is the village idiot. I suppose the advertisers prefer the latter than the former; if I want to listen to the opinions of idiots and useless blowhard pundits, I can do that for free reading blogs. And conversely, I can get in-depth long-term political and economic reporting, deep science reporting, local affairs, and anything else I want to read about on the blogs too.

    Two other issues to note: I can get a subscription to the Chicago Tribune on my Kindle and I considered it except that I don’t take enough mass transit each day to get the time to read it, bulk or not. Also, I do like magazines; you really can’t beat the Economist for interesting detail and wry humor.

  9. #9 chris y
    March 16, 2009

    As another “younger reader” who would have been planning to retire this year if it wasn’t for all these bonus-winning financial heroes, please excuse me if I have no sympathy for the newspapers’ dilemma. The internet went large 15 years ago. The papers had the staff and the skills. They could have positioned themselves as the leading on-line opinion formers using petty cash.

    They chose to guess wrong. The right to fail, they call it.

  10. #10 Dunc
    March 18, 2009

    I have to agree with Guthrie – the revenue-generating content in a newspaper is the advertising. The “journalism” is just filler, and is often “written” to please the management, not the readers.

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