Not Necessarily News

A newspaperman muses on the death of obituaries and digs up some old news:

I had assumed that, given their history and their loss of top talent, newspapers were now simply too dumb to endure. But in that, I was wrong. I should have known better: even here in Silicon Valley, obsolete companies — Sun Microsystems, being a good example — linger on thanks to inertia, committed customers and valuable patents.

Newspapers, too, seem to have figured out a way to limp along at least for another couple decades (at which point there will be no one left in the country who has actually read a newspaper) by slashing overhead, building marginally profitable Web sites and morphing their product to fit their remaining audiences.

What I mean by the last is that newspapers (and even more obviously, troubled national newsmagazines like Newsweek) have essentially abandoned the news business and gone into the comfort business. In other words, they have a pretty good idea now just who constitutes the heart of their loyal readership, and they write for that group, with the intent of either delivering news that fits their world view or sanitizing bad news that does not.

And, because there is no way that they can deliver that information in a timely way, they assume that their readers have already learned from the Web about important events . . . and that now it is the paper’s job to reduce any discomfort or cognitive dissonance by contextualizing the story into the tribe’s existing prejudices and self-image.

Maybe this seems like something new if you’re in the business and used to looking for the best examples of the best practices. However, it isn’t really new to anyone who is already disenchanted with the “news” media in the US.

Also, it is a model that was described long ago as the “development model,” since it is common in the developing world, where (before the Internet) current news was always more readily available through word of mouth and the news media were treated overtly as public relations tools for politics and business.

Malone goes on to give a specific example of his epiphany with regard to the retrogression of the US news media:

This goes a long ways toward explaining what, to an old newsie like me, has been some strange behavior recently by some of our most venerable and biggest national newspapers. Whatever your politics, as a reporter there are just some stories that you would be all over. And, yet, in the past couple years we’ve seen one hot story after another all but ignored by the traditional media.

For example, White House scandals are always big news, yet readers of the New York Times have largely been presented with a series of departures from this administration without ever having heard about the scandals (covered to exhaustion in the blogosphere) that lead to those departures.

An even bigger example is the so-called ClimateGate scandal of the past few weeks, where leaked e-mails suggested that some global warming experts were misrepresenting and fudging data, all while punishing apostasy in their ranks to make their case. Given that we are about to turn the world economy upside down to prevent perceived man-made global warming, this is about the biggest story imaginable. And, yet, days went by before most newspapers even deigned to report the story, in many cases using the occasion to defend the scientists.

Appalling, sure, but why do it? I’ve puzzled over this for a long time. I don’t entirely buy the argument that it is politics, pure and simple. I think it is more than that — that newspapers and their editors want to give their declining pools of readers what they want to read and when the news, no matter how juicy, is not just going to be upsetting (that’s usually OK) but challenges their sense of the way the world works, the story has to be spiked, dribbled out carefully or swathed in more comforting “analysis.”

Again, I have to respond by saying, “ho hum.” This is actually a very old strategy, despite the continued use of “top of the fold” sensationalist headlines.

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2 thoughts on “Not Necessarily News

  1. I had heard the newspapers of a century ago where frequently quite partisan, it is just they were honest about it. Not that I have read them to confirm what I have heard.

    What I don’t like is how many news sources are clearly slanted but they present themselves as objective and unbiased.

  2. Partisanship in journalism was common in some places in the US as recently as the 1950s, according to one old journalist I knew. He had been a reporter then at a newspaper in a small industrial city in Indiana. He said that the newspaper had an overt political slant even in its “hard news” reporting, and that it was not considered unusual. Everyone knew where it stood and accepted it on those terms.

    Of course, he said, in some cities this approach meant that there was no “objective” reporting at all. On the other hand, in many cases it led to the establishment of rival newspapers giving the opposite view, and both thrived because of the rivalry.

Instigate some pointless rambling

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