Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Douglas: Politics Killing Newspapers Too

If you ask people in the newspaper business, they will give you any number of reasons for the newspaper crisis. They will tell you that the business model is outdated. They will tell you about the downturn in the economy. They will tell you about the fragmenting of the advertising market. And so on. And so on.

However, if you ask someone who is not in the business, there’s a reasonable chance they will tell you that newspapers lost readers because of an inability to stay politically objective. Check out any story about a dying newspaper, and you are guaranteed to find many reader comments about how newspapers are no longer fair and no longer speak to all their readers.

Here is a reader, Douglas, making the point.

* * *

My dad and I grew up reading the sports section. That is really the only section of a newspaper I care about. I would subscribe to a newspaper just for that section alone. I think a lot of people would.

But over the last year in particular, newspapers have shown they care less about their readers and more about advancing political ideals. My journalism teacher turned me onto the New York Times sports section, and said it had well-written features. And it did. I enjoyed reading what their sports writers had to say. Mind you, I was just reading this online, giving ad revenue to those sponsors via a hit on their Web page.

However, this past summer, when they failed to publish John McCain’s editorial without a “process” or whatever they called it, that was the last straw. I knew about their political leanings before, but this was it. I sent them a note, telling them why I would never visit their site again, and I have not gone back since. They can do with out my Web page hit.

This is my personal story, but nationwide, when a newspaper has an obvious political bias, it “writes their own death.” It isolates half the people in America along party lines. No one wants to pay for something they can get for free if it’s spewing propaganda. Instead, they’ll flock to ESPN.com or SI.com, or the blogosphere.

But if newspapers would drop the political act, and produce actual journalism, people may again pay for print services.

Like I said, I am into newspapers for their take on the local sports teams. I love sports. I also love politics. But I do not love when the two of them mix. When I am listening to Rush Limbaugh, I don’t want to hear what he thought about Sunday’s Steelers game. And when I am watching sports, I don’t want to hear about Barack Obama.

However, I fear that the “new media” is trending down the same path that newspapers went down. Now, when I get SI the magazine, I have to see a cover story with Obama titles “The Audacity of Hoops”. I threw that issue out without ever glancing inside the cover. And today on ESPN.com, I had to see a front page story about Obama’s bracket. I am not visiting them again today, and will try and use them less in the future.

Politics is a divisive issue, and the more newspapers, or sports outlets, try to be political, they are going to divide their readers/viewers. Journalism is dead. And that’s why newspapers are dying as well.


  1. Newspapers have always been political beasts, and if anything, are far less political than they used to be. Read some things about Hearst and Pulitzer and Winchell and the rest and you'll have a whole new perspective on this. The biggest difference now is that, with fewer papers, there is less balancing within one market (e.g. in my town there is not a left-leaning paper to counterbalance the editorial slant of the right-leaning Columbus Dispatch, and the vice-versa is likely the same elsewhere). But whatever the case, expecting a newspaper's editorial page to be objective is kind of weak. They exist for opinions.

    The problem is in balanced reporting. But if anything, there is too much balance in reporting, not too little. Balance to an ignorant fault, actually, to the point where reporters bend over backwards, making false equivalencies in the name of balance. Example:

    Candidate A says "According to a unanimous report of 10,000 economists and defense strategy experts, my opponents plan to privatize the military will bankrupt the country and weaken our national defense."

    Candidate B says "no, space travelers from the future have told me that privatizing the military will enable the quicker return of the Great and Mighty Gorzo, ushering in one million years of near utopia and low humidity."

    With that record, you can almost bet the mortgage on the fact that the paper will run a headline saying "Candidates disagre on military policy," with the body of the story saying "Candidate B and his supporters disagree, however, and say that their proposal will make America safer in the long run."

    I suppose that's balance of a type, but wouldn't you feel better served by the media if, once in a while, they didn't give the imprimatuer of reasonableness to zany ideas? Sure, one person's zaniness is another's reasonable statement, but there have been many times in recent history where even the clearest cases were given far too much deference in the name of "balance."

  2. Part of the problem, I think, is that newspapers assume readers understand how they operate -- when readers clearly don't. The biggest place this comes up is the editorial page, which newspaper reporters know is separate from the rest of the paper, but readers probably don't.

    The John McCain editorial mentioned here is a perfect example. Running that piece was solely up to the editorial page editor, and has nothing to do with the news section. In fact, New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller -- who oversees the newsroom -- has absolutely no influence over who and what gets published on the op-ed pages. Readers, though, clearly don't universally understand this, which makes the entire paper look bad.

    Chuck Klosterman also brought up something like this is one of his books. Readers often think reporters have a bias or agenda in their stories when, really, a story is often shaped by who calls a reporter back first (and, sometimes, who doesn't call him back).

  3. Moreover, when McCain had to go through "a process," it may have been a fact-checking or editing for space process, which a paper like the New York Times is obliged to do. It seems to me that people say papers are biased when the bias is against their political beliefs. Whenever the MSM publication I work for does a cover on a politician we get outraged mail from one side saying it was a puff piece and they're cancelling their subscription and outraged mail from the other side saying it was pernicious attack and they're cancelling their subscription. I happen to think Barack Obama's bracket is a legitimate story for ESPN. I also think George W. Bush's choice for who would win the Boston marathon would have been a valid story, since he was a runner. I wonder if the reader above felt the same way about the fishing show that had Bush on?

  4. When a newspaper has an article about the President throwing out the first pitch of a baseball game, is he going to throw out that newspaper too?

    I understand what Douglas is getting at, but newspapers have always been a political beast. If he has problems with editorial decisions and ethics, like the NY Times letting William Kristol write column after column littered with errors, that's one thing, but to demand that all newspapers be non-political? That's a fantasy world. It really has nothing to do with the decline of newspapers.

    Quite frankly, Obama picking brackets has nothing to do with the editorial/political philosophy of a newspaper. It hurts his own argument to cite it as such.

  5. I'm very skeptical of critiques of the newspaper business that focus on editorial decisions.

    The fact is that for most major dailies, more people are reading their content than ever. Editorial decisions are actually being validated by the readership.

    If the public is turned off by opinionated reporting you'd be hard-pressed to prove it with television ratings. The highest-rated cable news network by far is Fox. The fastest growing is MSNBC. The one that's languishing is the one that's most married to down-the-middle objectivity, CNN.

  6. Even mentioning Obama is a sign of a bias now? Grow up, Douglas.

  7. While I think Douglas is far off base -- mentioning Obama and talking about his bracket is far from being political. He IS the President after all. With that being said, more and more readers are looking for information that affirms what they believe in. Douglas admits to listening to Rush Limbaugh -- Rush is a propaganda machine for the conservative right. Why do people listen to him when he provides just one side? Because he provides THEIR side. He confirms what they believe in. He makes them feel like they are right.

    Fox News became popular because they didn't hide the bias. People watched knowing they would get news with a conservative slant.

    Is this a model for newspapers? Should papers come out and just be machines of political parties? I hope not. It may be time to end the practice of endorsements on editorial pages. It may be time to eliminate the Our View and just run straight columns -- that way people can say BLANK is a Liberal and not the New York Times.

    The myth of the liberal media has gotten out of hand. People are seeing what they want to see.

  8. I have to disagree with Douglas, here. While there is certainly bias in the editorial sections of virtually every newspaper I've come across, the way most papers, in most stories, make a visible effort to get both sides of a story makes US journalism unique in the world. The newspapers from every other country (or, at least, every country whose newspapers I've had the pleasure to read), are openly biased. In nearly every story, an agenda is pushed, and the reader accepts this, because it isn't held under some kind excuse. The Economist definitely has a libertarian streak in it--which works for me, but YMMV--and they do not attempt to disguise it. Here are the facts, and here are the opinions, and that makes the story.

    Balance is, I think, a sham, and, certainly, an unnecessary one.

  9. http://blog.nj.com/njv_paul_mulshine/2009/03/no_news_would_be_good_news_on.html

    His writing is often wacky but the comments by Eric Schmidt are dead on.

  10. Politics isn't killing newspapers. The idiocy of the business model is.

    Most (but not all) newspapers are still turning a profit. They just are turning 5 percent instead of 15 percent. Since those papers are now owned by a corporation answering to shareholders, instead of a local individual who sees the paper as a part of the community, that 5 percent profit isn't good enough.

  11. I'm somewhat discouraged by Douglas's unwillingness to read anything that disagrees with his political viewpoint. If we all only read, listen and talk with those we agree with we all will become more radicalized. We'll be less and less able to understand and communicate with those who have other points of view. Not a great prospect for living in and maintaining a democracy.

  12. Douglas is letting his hatred of Obama affect him way too easily. He won't go to ESPN because they did a story about the President's bracket?

    I hated Bush's politics, but I didn't change the channel when he was in the ESPN booth for Opening Day last year. In fact, I found him to be entertaining.

  13. @4:05 AM

    Where are you pulling data that says most newspapers are making a 5% profit?

  14. I'm sorry, but Douglas is just dead wrong. As someone mentioned above, more people than ever are reading the content provided by major daily newspapers. They just don't have to pay for it. The business model is broken, but the content is, at least for the moment, still good enough to attract a larger audience than ever. What Douglas is saying is just nonsense.

  15. Douglas is absolutely right. When the business has so many things going against it, why go out of your way to alienate half your potential readers?

    Obama gets shoved down our throats 24/7 now. The media was nothing more than an adjunct of his campaign in 2008. Enough already. Not everybody voted for the guy, though I'm guessing 90% of reporters did. Newspapers and their pet projects like Poynter talk about diversity, but they define diversity as having people who look different but who all think alike.

    The worst part is the intellectual dishonesty of the whole thing. The press claims to be objective when they are not. At least the European model is honest.