Monday, February 9, 2009

Without Newspapers

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
-- Thomas Jefferson
In this week's Sift:
  • What's Black and White and in the Red? Newspapers -- and not just one or two. The whole industry is in serious trouble, because nobody has a business model that works. It's time to start thinking about what's next.
  • First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then ... The pioneer same-sex marriage is breaking up, and bigots are rejoicing. But news stories read very differently when you know one of the people involved. Plus: an interesting same-sex interstate custody case is happening in Virginia.
  • Short Notes. Did you miss Ice Cream For Breakfast Day again? More on Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Thomas Ricks' new book on Iraq. Torture, rendition, the rule of law, and all my usual hobby horses.

What's Black and White and in the Red?
Industries in trouble can usually muddle along when the economy is good. But recessions are like hard winters; they cull the sick and lame out of the herd. This recession is absolutely destroying the newspaper business as ad revenues collapse. Here's a sample of recent developments:
  • The Tribune Company, which owns the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, and several other major papers, has filed for bankruptcy.
  • So has the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
  • The New York Times is scrambling to pay its debts.
  • The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press are both cutting back their home delivery to three days a week (allowing a 9% reduction in work force).
  • Gannett -- the chain that owns the Free Press -- is requiring the employees of all of its papers (including the USA Today) to take a week off without pay.
  • The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is looking for a buyer. If it doesn't find one by March, it plans to stop publishing its paper edition and become a web-only enterprise.
You can make a case that financiers are at fault rather than the newspaper business itself -- the Trib, for example, is still making money, just not enough to pay the interest on the huge debt it was saddled with when Sam Zell bought it. But such deals were set up for a reason: The stock prices of newspaper companies got ridiculously low, because investors didn't believe in the future of the underlying business. That's what made high-leverage buy-outs look attractive.

Even newspapers whose troubles aren't making headlines are laying off staff. I recently talked to a friend who is finishing his masters in journalism and starting to look for a job. He's staring hard at his resume, trying to find a unique niche where he'll have an advantage over all the unemployed reporters with 15 years of major-paper experience. Magazines are having their own problems. Another friend is an editor of a small magazine, and notes that companies who used to buy big splashy ad spreads now just buy a simple ad promoting their web site -- that's where the big splashy ad is.

The problem is easy to state: Newspapers have embraced (or been forced into) a business model where they give away their content online and try to make all their money from advertising. It's not working. Former Time editor Walter Isaacson makes an interesting point: Even if the free-content model could generate enough revenue, he claims, it would be a mistake, because
good journalism require[s] that a publication's primary duty be to its readers, not to its advertisers. In an advertising-only revenue model, the incentive is perverse.
In other words: Free content isn't really free. When a newspaper survives because you pay for it, the journalists work for you. But when the paper survives by advertising, they work on you and for the advertisers. Instead of trading your money for the news, you're offering advertisers a chance to exploit and manipulate you.

Isaacson doesn't believe that the free-content model is some inevitable side effect of technological progress. Instead, he argues, the technology has been shaped by people with vested interests.
Internet service providers ... get to charge customers $20 to $30 a month for access to the Web's trove of free content and services. As a result, it is not in their interest to facilitate easy ways for media creators to charge for their content. Thus we have a world in which phone companies have accustomed kids to paying up to 20 cents when they send a text message, but it seems technologically and psychologically impossible to get people to pay 10 cents for a magazine, newspaper or newscast.
Isaacson longs for some iTunes-like service that would facilitate money-for-news transactions on the web. On a small scale, Amazon provides such a market for the users of its Kindle book-reader. I have no idea how much business it generates, but there are persistent rumors that Amazon will extend its market to users of more popular devices like the iPhone. With enough potential paying users, newspapers might be able to stop posting their content for free.

The retired editor of a Chicago-area weekly paper disputes Isaacson's point that newspapers need online subscription money, but agrees that newspapers like the Tribune have gotten distant from their readers:
our "local" daily ... lost its true local focus, that is, the town in which it is published. ... People living in its home city were deprived of beat reporters closely covering the city council, county government, and the school districts and other taxing bodies serving the paper’s community. Newspapers exist to provide news coverage, not feature stories or astrology charts or Dear Abby columns; news ought to ALWAYS be first. When Chicago papers were regularly scooping the local daily on local news, from the schools to the business community, alarm bells should have been going off all over the place, but they weren’t.
By contrast:
Our small independent weekly [newspaper] chain is still a money-maker, just like virtually all small weekly chains in areas that are either growing or have at least a stable population base. But over the years, we’ve seen profitable independent chain after chain bought out by the big boys, who come in and, in the name of "efficiency" and "economy" and (my all-time favorite) "better serving our readers," immediately cut out the things people buy local papers for: Local news coverage, particularly how property tax dollars are spent, meaning heavy school and municipal government coverage. After homogenizing the product into some sort of vanilla mess of features and canned columns, they profess surprise when the moneymaker they bought starts bleeding red ink and often has to be closed down.
Yet another retired editor, Tom Stites (I used to write for him at UU World, and we stay in touch), adds one more piece of the puzzle. Decades before the internet was a factor, newspapers had already abandoned a large segment of the population: the working class. Again, the reason has to do with advertising:
In this era of discount retailers like Wal-Mart that advertise very little, newspaper advertising tends to come from upscale retailers. Responding to the wishes of these advertisers, publishers no longer want nonaffluent readers. Over the last three decades, newspapers have increasingly reflected that.
When Stites was starting out in the 60s, local dailies aimed to sell their paper to everyone in the community -- 100% penetration. He worked at Newsday when it achieved 85% penetration. But when Stites was an editor at the Chicago Tribune in the 80s, the target audience was only the most affluent 40%. That's become typical.

Change the target audience and you change how the news is covered. When working-class unemployment rises or hourly wages drop, today's newspapers first consider how this will effect the stock market. You see occasional stories about the 40-odd million Americans who lack health insurance, but hardly any stories addressed to them -- how to get inexpensive coverage, which emergency rooms treat the uninsured fairly, what to do when you have a hospital bill you can't pay, and so on.

So the working class has few journalists working for them, and a lot working on them. That, Stites says, is the right answer to Thomas Franks' question "What's the matter with Kansas?" Joe Sixpack is uninformed and easily exploited because no one is trying to inform him and many people are trying to exploit him. The information he needs and cares about is hard to come by.

Stites believes that working-class people would pay for journalism that served them, if the price were reasonable. Internet technology combined with a new model of the editor/reporter/reader relationship might bring those costs down into the right neighborhood. That's the vision of his Banyan Project, which is still in its formative stages. (I'm listed as an advisor, but so far my advice mostly sounds like: "That's really cool.") (And speaking of me, I have to link to my Confessions of a Blogger somewhere in this article.)

Another effort to connect professional journalists to readers, without advertisers, is You can register at as a reader or a journalist. Readers express their interests, and journalists respond by pitching stories the way they would ordinarily pitch a story to an editor. The pitch comes with a price tag: A study of wealth and poverty in San Francisco, for example, costs $900. Readers can pledge any amount, and as of this morning the story had $342 pledged. If the $900 is reached, the story is commissioned, the pledgers send their money, and the journalist is paid to write his story.

Yet another vision of the future of journalism is Business Week's Business Exchange web site. Most of the content comes from readers, as on a group blog. BW's staff of business reporters shifts to a curating role: They frame issues and manage the discussion rather than report the story.

First Comes Love, Then Comes Marriage, Then ...
Tuesday it was reported that Hillary and Julie Goodridge, the lead plaintiffs in the Massachusetts same-sex marriage case of 2003, had filed for divorce.

Ordinarily I might not cover this story, but by pure coincidence I met Hillary Goodridge this week. We serve together on a committee unrelated to gay rights. I had talked to her on the phone several times, but Thursday our committee got together for an all-day meeting in Boston, so we finally spent time in the same room. I like her. She has an engaging sense of humor and is fun to hang around with.

So anyway, thinking of Hillary as a real person rather than a national symbol, I read the news stories with a different eye. I grumbled at the predictable snarkiness of the Catholic News Agency, which always had to put scare quotes around the Goodridges' "marriage".

But Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute really took the cake. Mineau describes his organizaton as "the leading voice for traditional family values in Massachusetts." I'm guessing that two of those family values are vindictiveness and self-centeredness. More than five years after the Goodridges won their case, Mineau still carries a grudge. News of the divorce causes him to reflect on "the pain this couple has caused the commonwealth and the nation." He concludes: "Obviously, they don't hold the institution [of marriage] in very high regard."

Think about that: Somebody else's divorce causes Mineau to think about the pain they have caused him. (What pain? I'm a month away from my 25th anniversary and I can't guess.) And regard for marriage? The Goodridges spent years of their lives fighting for their right to marry. If it was all just a stunt, something they weren't taking seriously, they wouldn't have to bother with the mess of a divorce. They could just laugh it off and move on.

No, it was a real marriage and it's ending in a real divorce, as many marriages do. If you're a person with any compassion in your soul, it's a time for sadness and sympathy.

Both the CNA and the Christian Post segued from the Goodridge divorce to a child custody case in Virginia: Two women (who I suspect are also real people and not just names in a newspaper) had a civil union in Vermont. A child was born. Later, the biological mother converted to an evangelical Christian sect, declared herself an "ex-lesbian", and took the child to Virginia. Vermont ruled that the other partner had visitation rights. The biological mother is suing in Virginia, claiming that Virginia state law nullifies any rights that come from same-sex relationships recognized by other states.

As you would expect, the CP story is one-sided, repeating the claims of the evangelical woman without any response from her former partner. (Picture reporting a contentious heterosexual custody case that way.) Clearly, the article is intended to evoke a "that's just wrong" response from its readers.

But resist your gut impulses for a moment and think about the underlying principle: What if anybody who didn't like their custody arrangement could just move the child to a state with more favorable rules and get the case re-opened? Chaos would break out. If there are any legitimate issues about the welfare of the child here, Vermont can handle them. The only reason to involve Virginia is to take advantage of its bigotry against homosexuals.

The evangelical woman's belief that she's protecting her daughter from an evil lifestyle complicates matters. But the my-ex-is-evil argument shows up in heterosexual custody cases all the time. Maybe one parent converts to a pacifist religion and the other is a soldier, or one is raising the child vegan (or kosher) and the other serves bacon-and-egg breakfasts. Yeah, it's messy, but that's how custody cases are.

Short Notes
Now you know it's gotten bad: Rhode Island is thinking of bailing out a casino.

Here's some data to support what I was saying last week about Rush Limbaugh: He's unpopular among anybody but the far right. According to Gallup, Limbaugh has a 28% favorable rating with a 45% unfavorable rating. If Democrats make him the face of the Republican Party, Republicans are in trouble.

I usually try to ignore Glenn Beck, but he really went off his meds this time.

You missed Ice Cream For Breakfast Day again, didn't you? It's the first Saturday in February, every year. I celebrated at Jake's in Amherst, NH. I didn't wear my pajamas, but I did try the bacon ice cream. It was too weird for my taste buds to sort out. First I'd taste the bacon, then the ice cream, then the bacon again. I couldn't pull it together.

An Egyptian author comments on President Obama's outreach to the Muslim world:
Mr. Obama has been silent [on Israel's recent invasion of Gaza]. So his brilliantly written Inaugural Speech did not leave a big impression on Egyptians. We had already begun to tune out. We were beginning to recognize how far the distance is between the great American values that Mr. Obama embodies, and what can actually be accomplished in a country where support for Israel seems to transcend human rights and international law. ... [N]o matter how many envoys, speeches or interviews Mr. Obama offers to us, he will not win the hearts and minds of Egyptians until he takes up the injustice in the Middle East.

Unindicted war criminal John Yoo thinks Obama's approach to terrorism (i.e. obey the law) is "rash" and "naive", and that he "may have opened the door to further terrorist acts on U.S. soil by shattering some of the nation's most critical defenses." Vyan on DailyKos takes Yoo's article apart line by line.

Glenn Greenwald wonders why the media's he-kept-us-safe excuse for Bush's policies is never applied to Spain. After the 2004 Madrid bombing, Spain pulled its troops out of Iraq and tried the bombers in ordinary courts under the rule of law (convicting 21). No bombings since.

UN torture expert Manfred Nowak reminds Obama that it's his treaty obligation to prosecute the people who ordered torture. WaPo's Richard Cohen, on the other hand, warns us "not to punish those who did what we wanted done." Glenn Greenwald disagrees:
this "ignore-the-past-and-forget-retribution" rationale is invoked by our media elites only for a tiny, special class of people -- our political leaders -- while the exact opposite rationale ("ignore their lame excuses, lock them up and throw away the key") is applied to everyone else. That, by definition, is what a "two-tiered system of
justice" means and that, more than anything else, is what characterizes (and sustains) deeply corrupt political systems.
One guy is going to trial: The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush. Numerous reports say he has been beaten while in custody. He faces a maximum possible sentence (for "assaulting a foreign leader") of 15 years.
Hilzoy explains rendition and Obama's new policy on it.
One of the crazier aspects of the stimulus debate was listening to Republican senators -- people with government jobs -- deny the existence of government jobs. Driftglass ridicules RNC Chair Michael Steele's claim that "a job is something that a business owner creates." Soldier, firefighter, teacher, police -- I always thought those were jobs, not some kind of welfare.

Is this worse than other recent recessions? Yes.

DailyKos has spun off the blog Congress Matters. If you find yourself wondering about some arcane detail of the legislative process, this is the place to go. For example: Why did the stimulus bill need 60 votes in the Senate? It turns out the reason has nothing to do with filibusters.

And I'm sure all regular Sifters will want to use Cathoogle, "the best way for good Catholics to surf the web."

I'm of two minds about what Thomas Ricks is saying as he promotes his new Iraq-war book, The Gamble. I'm glad somebody is saying this:
A lot of people back here incorrectly think the war is over. ... None of the basic problems that the Surge was meant to solve have been solved. ... The Surge succeeded militarily, failed politically. ... Iraqis used the breathing space the Surge provided to step backwards, to become more divided.
But at the same time Ricks takes for granted that we must continue to spend American blood and treasure until Iraq is stable. That's McCain's why-not-100-years view. I stand by what I wrote in 2005, when we had lost less than half the soldiers we have lost now:
Not even America is so rich and so powerful that we can indulge such expensive fantasies indefinitely. We can leave Iraq now, or we can leave after our losses have grown. That is the only choice we have.

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