TCS Daily


'Blame The Readers'

By Jay Currie - January 18, 2005 12:00 AM

As U.S. newspaper circulation tanks, Evan Cornog, publisher of The Columbia Journalism Review, has written a long and deeply nuanced piece in the current edition on the root causes of the decline of newspaper circulation in America. Cornog cites television addiction, the loss of community, gated communities, suburbanization and a host of other reasons, but his primary culprit is - readers:

        "But perhaps the problem, and therefore the solution, has broader and deeper 
        roots. Perhaps we should, to an extent, blame the readers. Perhaps 
        the old notions of an engaged and virtuous citizenry, upon which the 
        founding fathers' hopes for the republic were based, are archaic concepts.

        "Gourmet's editor, Ruth Reichl, when she was still the restaurant critic of 
        The New York Times, once launched a review of Thomas Keller's Napa Valley 
        restaurant, the French Laundry, with the observation, "The secret of the 
        French Laundry is that Mr. Keller is the first American chef to understand 
        that it takes more than great food and a great location to make a great 
        restaurant: it also takes great customers." The greatest danger to American 
        journalism in the coming decades is not commercial pressures or government 
        regulation but the decline of public interest in public life, a serious 
        disengagement of citizens from one of the primary duties of citizenship 
        -- to know what is happening in their government and society."

The one thing Cornog doesn't mention in his listing of causes is the elephant in the middle of the room.

In America the news media's politics have remained mired in the '60's fixations of their boomer cohort. The public, meanwhile, has moved on -- not necessarily to a more conservative position; rather to one which is far less tolerant of the official cant which passes for analysis and news coverage in MSM.

The revolt against political correctness, the nanny state, taxes paid so that unionized public employees can make ever more money for ever less work, has been gaining momentum while legacy media sleeps.

Worse, the media itself exercises a startling degree of group think as to what constitutes acceptable opinion. When did you last read a new idea in a MSM publication? Or even an old idea written in an original voice?

Plus, legacy media seems to believe that luring readers means dumbing down the product. In the CJR article there is considerable discussion of just how far it is possible to go with celebrity journalism before some invisible line is crossed. The editors quoted, more in sorrow than anger, suggest that celebrity journalism is one of the few things that brings in new readers.

Here's a hint -- hire some writers. You know, people who don't give a damn about Paris Hilton's underwear malfunctions, but really are willing to call Maureen Dowd on dumb ideas and make fun of The Rush's pretensions; people who will fisk Tom Friedman and mock George Will.

Mourning a long lost era, Cornog cites The Federalist Papers, forgetting these were published as one debate among many as America was born. Far more popular than the Papers were Tom Paine's incendiary pamphlets excoriating the monarchy, aristocracy of every sort - including Virginian - and God. Paine had a readership which, in today's' terms, would mean 100 million Americans would have read his work.

Cornog also forgets that the delights of gotcha journalism have paled. Watergate was a generation ago and, as a model, has lead to the travesties of the Clinton impeachment and, ironically, Rathergate. Reading a volume of Drew Pearson's Diaries from the late forties and early fifties it is pretty clear where he drew the line - a politician's personal life was his own affair unless and until it spilled over into his job performance. Pearson knew who was a drunk and who was a womanizer, but starting at FDR and running through JFK, that information was not considered news.

The advent of the journalism of celebrity has meant that argument, analysis, witty writing, foreign assignments, foreign bureaus, intelligent arts coverage, book reviewing and a host of other "features" have been lost or cut back in many newspapers. They've been replaced with astrology, service (read "support the advertisers") pieces, pandering movie reviews and star interviews, wire copy lightly edited and two hundred word editorials in favor of motherhood.

The editors cited by Cornog claim this is what the readers want. And there is no reason to believe, if you are running a mass circulation newspaper, that this will change anytime soon.

So what may have happened to newspapers' readers is that the people who wanted quality newspapers gave up in disgust and began to migrate to the Internet as more and more news resources came online. Essentially, the "great customers" faced with mediocre fare, voted with their feet the instant an alternative appeared.

For the well-wired elite that used to take newspapers seriously, the internet has become a more focused, better written, alternative to legacy media. Which, in turn, means that real debate, policy analysis, and political journalism are migrating online.

What's a newspaper to do? One alternative is to continue to pander to the lowest common denominator. In the race to the bottom there can never be enough Laci Peterson murders, Michael Jackson trials and celebrity engagements. Entertaining the masses can be very profitable, as The National Enquirer and Larry King prove every year. It isn't journalism, but so what? If the readers want junk, give 'em junk seems to be the attitude of the many editors Cornog speaks to.

The other, riskier, alternative is to make the newspapers themselves interesting instead of relying on Hollywood. Have real arguments and, hey, go nuts and run reviews which are not puff pieces. Lose high priced lamer columnists whose readership declines year after year. Look for real writers with real opinions.

Realize the Internet can leverage a newspaper's brand. Rather than erecting subscriber walls, build great sites and update 24/7.

And hire bloggers.

Jay Currie is a Galiano, Canada, writer whose writing and blog is at www.reviewing.blogspot.com.

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