Monday, 13 July 2009

The Press

The demise of “objective media”

...and why the Wall Street Journal has the largest circulation in the U.S.

I linked this column by Carl Cannon in the Noonan post below, but I want to do so again to highlight this important bit of what’s-wrong-with-the-media wisdom contained therein:[1]
Concerns about “liberal bias” arose [even during the]... supposed Golden Age [of newspapers], but we had an answer for that: Sure, reporters are liberal, we told our sources, but the publisher is conservative.  The ideal being peddled was that, yes, a Depression-era reporter making $8 a week will likely pen pieces extolling the New Deal, but meanwhile the owner/publisher is commissioning editorials lamenting Franklin Roosevelt's assault on capitalism.  It sounds esoteric now, but when newspapers were king it worked...[2]
So what changed?
If being “liberal” now meant sympathy for the Democratic Party, and being conservative implied sympathy for Republicans, all those liberal newsrooms across the country were gradually going to alienate themselves from about half their readers.

That this might pose a problem never dawned on the men and women who controlled the media – even as it drove their right-of-center readers and viewers away in droves.  When I tell my friends working in places like The New York Times that they created Rush Limbaugh, they respond with shock and disbelief.
Cannon’s thesis makes an interesting contrast with that of Kenneth Anderson.  In Cannon’s world, newsrooms were always “liberal;” the shift in institutional balance (and the resulting loss of reader acceptance) was (mostly) a result of external factors (e.g., the replacement of newspapers by radio and television as a hard-news source; the realignment - and ideological purification - of the political parties).  Anderson, on the other hand, acknowledges the “two audiences” model while positing a conscious business decision (at least in the case of the New York Times) to taylor its product to its perceived market:
The Wall Street Journal, by contrast, always had to remain anchored in the core presentation of semi-specialized facts and data to satisfy a hard nosed business audience, but it wrapped that staid, fact-oriented newspaper around a conservative, polemical editorial page, while keeping them emphatically separate, and so got two national audiences for one paper.  The Times could not do that.  It correctly understood that its new, national target audience was what David Brooks famously called the Bobos, the market oriented yet professional, bourgeois yet bohemian, affluent and self-regarding, self-involved elites of the major cities.  [This audience] didn’t seek facts as such from the New York Times.  They already had the ones that really mattered from other, more specialized sources.[3]...What the Bobos sought instead... was a cultural attitude, confirmation of who they were.  The Times, for them, was less about sense than sensibility...
One shortcoming of the two-audiences theory is that it fails to account for the success of the “reliably liberal” papers; those which had always combined a “liberal” (perhaps a better “golden age” characteriztion would be “populist”) editorial page with similar coverage point-of-view. But it does seem a possible starting point for building a successful paper,[4] and the theory could certainly lead to an interesting argument the next time you hear a bunch of old newsies bitching about the troglodytes on the editorial page.[5]

Another of Cannon’s points - the cluelessness of “the men and women who controlled the media” - ties exactly to Mark Steyn’s condemnation of the industry’s use of The Times as Market Model:
The net result of the industry’s craven abasement before the Times is that American newspapering is dead as dead can be — and certainly far deader than its cousins in Britain, Australia, India, or even Canada.
...although perhaps not so much in Steyn’s cited aspect of agenda-setting as in the failure of managers and owners to recognize that adopting the Times’ “Bobo” customer model would be doomed to failure anywhere except in the Times’ specialized market.

Cannon’s piece is also important because (to the best of my memory) this is one of the few times someone who qualifies as part of the media establishment[6] has openly acknowledged this dynamic. It’s unfortunate that it probably comes too late to qualify as anything but post-mortem analysis.

Still, if the decline of newspapers interests or concerns you, you’ll find much food for thought in both Cannon (start with paragraph 6, if you want to avoid the Sarah stuff) and Anderson.   Read ’em both.

Thanks again to Roberta X for the pointer.

John Robson: Stop the presses?


[1]  This for the benefit of those who might have skipped the article, thinking it was simply Yet Another Sarah Piece.

[2]  Thus, papers had appeal for both “liberals” and “conservatives.”  In citing this “two audiences” factor as one reason for newspapers’ past success, Cannon also notes:
The lone news outlet in North America that still operates under this model is The Wall Street Journal.  Its editorial pages have been conservative for decades; a recent study found its news pages to be the most liberal in the mainstream media.  Guess what: The Journal is the largest circulation paper in this country.

[3]  The Snark in me says: This audience is one that already has its mind made up, (especially) doesn’t want to be confronted with contrary information, and uses its news media mostly for validation and reenforcement.

[4]  Although not, by itself, sufficient. 

[5]  Had planned on linking a thread or two at Ruth’s Blog, but discovered that when she changed software a couple of months back she didn’t migrate the comments, so all I could find were a couple of rants about Gary Varvel.  Sigh!

[6]  I don’t include Bernard Goldberg.

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