Seems that newspapers are frantically trying to cling to life, after having done all they can to cause their own death.
I stopped paying for the local paper some years ago, due to the hollow and unprofessional reporting, the left-wing bias, and the fact that the paper boy insisted upon delivering the rag to the deepest puddle on the driveway.
Newspapers, as relevant sources for information, are almost extinct. So are buggy whips. The difference is that buggy whip manufacturers understand this, and newspaper publishers don’t.
Blog comments, anonymous or not, are not much less relevant than the carefully screened letters to the editor. Newspapers with an agenda (are there any without?) will skew the letters to the editor by publishing more that favor the paper’s editorial position, and even deliberately publishing semi-illiterate letters which reflect poorly upon those in opposition to the paper’s editorial board.
Speaking of anonymity, how about the editorial boards which offer up commentaries with no attribution whatever? I’ve argued this with our local paper in the past. I was required to give my full name, street address, and valid local phone number in order to qualify for inclusion. But the editorial to which I was responding never had anyone’s name attached, not even the names of the shadowy editorial board, whatever that was.
My alias here is simply a reflection of my desire to avoid the nut bags like the one who once tracked me down after a letter to the editor was published, and called my house. My wife answered, and he scared her half to death, threatening all sorts of mayhem if I didn’t stop insulting his hero, Teddy Kennedy. That’s the truth. I’m not really a covert CIA operative, or a former member of Tony Soprano’s crew, now in the witness protection program.
My hometown weekly allows people to call in comments, and they’re pirnted on their own page.
Of course, I’m sure they don’t print EVERY comment, but they are still anonymous.
Next to the police log and the obituaries, it’s probably the most popular part of the paper.
-by Julie the Jarhead
Hi, LaShawn. I read your blog at least three times a week, as time allows, and always enjoy your comments. I’m a 52 yoa, white, Christian, married 30 years, living in the inland West…Columbia basin. I’m a retired prosecutor, so I guess you’d call me educated!
My husband and I quit taking our local paper a year ago for the same reasons (except our paperboy was great) as Redbeard. However, after reading your blog entry “Newspapers Agonize Over Allowing Comments” I’m wondering if I shouldn’t rethink my position.
I don’t think it’s in the best interest of America to have our newspapers die out. Admittedly, newspapers fall alarmingly short of the ideal; but so do all human institutions. Newspapers now are not fallen from some previous standard of perfection. Think back to William Randolph Hearst, yellow journalism, etc. Newspapers historically have been variously aligned and proponents of political parties and political positions, and full of bad, biased reporting. It was the very proliferation of their various accounts that provided overall coverage of the facts. As a lawyer, I’m comfortable with the idea that an adversarial system, with each party promoting their own evidence, arrives at truth.
What’s different now? Now there is no national conservative newspaper; no rival for the New York Times “paper of record” designation. Why is this? Are we conservatives unwilling to put our money up? Or is it that the reporting entitities, mainstream media for lack of a better word, has become so overwhelmingly leftist and so bitterly vicious to other points of view that conservative media can’t compete? As much as I enjoy the blogosphere, and its many various forms, I believe there is a need for newspapers and a truly national source for news and comment in the “standard” journalists’ method.
I’m thinking now that I need to find a conservative newspaper and SUBSCRIBE. Pay my money down and support a MSM conservative paper. My father-in-law takes the Conservative Chronicle, and maybe I’ll choose it. Any ideas, LaShawn?
-by Mrs. Former Prosecutor
Comments offer a way for feedback to newspaper reporters. As a conservative and military veteran working as an editor (small e) at a large paper in a Red state, I try every way I can to help my paper be more sensitive and responsive to the perspectives of our potential readers. That’s especially important when most of the newsroom staff is far left of our readership base.
Twenty years ago the late Knight-Ridder chain launched Viewtron, the first online interactive news service. It’s most popular feature was the ability to interact with other readers about story content. Viewtron lasted only a few years. Unfortunately KR missed the point — terminally. The remnants of Knight Ridder and most newspapers still have a high level of disregard for their contrary readers (or ex-readers) but comment pages offer an opportunity for disaffected readers to have their say and collectively make a difference.
Newspapers do offer one of the best hopes for sustaining the open discussion that sustains our liberties, but only if informed citizens engage in the discussion and help newspapers come back from the left.
Newspapers sell ads to survive. If their readership is small, their ad revenue is small. They have not yet figured out how to get readership up so they can get their ad revenue up.
Hint: Try reporting the old fashioned way of covering the who, what, where, when and how. But reporters and their editors are consumed with “why” and “solution” reporting, which is essentially political view commentary masquerading as “just presenting the facts.”
Blogs are opinion experiences. It is very important that the blog princess has a high set of standards which she rigidly enforces. Most important to me are the blogs that include interaction between the commentators. I learn a great deal from the highly articulate and thoughtful individuals I encounter on LBC.
I used my name on another site and I got Googled and harassed by nasty phone calls. I may be dreaming, but it seems that liberal nut-jobs are particularly profane and unpleasant. Of course, I don’t have experience with conservatives harassing me for my views.
I have had many letters to the editor published in the Washington Post over the years, and every one of them was heavily edited. You agree to the editing, but you have no say in the finished product.
Newspapers and news weeklies are going to have to figure out a new plan of presentation if they are to survive. We really do need some enterprise to fund the very expensive business of gathering the news. LBC largely depends on the reporting efforts of others. While the internet has some terrific original reporting, nearly every blog on the net is a low budget operation compared to the large newspapers and news magazines.
Little Green Footballs, Michelle Malkin, Captain’s Quarters, LaShawn Barber’s Corner, Instapundit, Power Line and others have applied pressure to the MSM in ways that are beginning to make the old dinosaur press take notice. The more difference the competent blog sites make, the more howling and smearing you see on Huffington, KOS, and their ilk.
I am amazed at the stuff that commenters make on the WaPo blog site. But I think it serves a good purpose to let the public see the stupid remarks and the nastiness of some people. Mostly, I think the WaPo can grow and learn from a sounding board that is not necessarily populated by members of their comfort group. I think this is particularly important for local newspapers where the weekly give-aways are eating their lunch.
To answer Tom Bosee’s question, the editorials are unsigned because it’s supposed to seen as representing the paper as a whole–so you wouldn’t sign all the names on the masthead, just calling it an editorial is supposed to be enough. This is usually a quick and simple way of learning the paper’s bias.
In regards to LaShawn’s point, the comments are really not where it’s at, the linking is. I hesitate to blame age, because even my grandma has a computer, but it seems like the editors just don’t get the internet. I am only interested in reading the paper online if it’s from out of town/country, and I therefore can’t get it conveniently. If it’s my hometown paper, I want them to differentiate themselves enough from the dead tree version a coworker brings in. That means, don’t characterize the mayor’s speech, link to a streamed version of it so I can hear it for myself. Don’t tell me what the study said, put it in a PDF or something and let me see it. Then you interview whoever did the study and flesh out the details. If they did that, I’d be interested in the comments, but they don’t do that. So if I’m ignoring the dead tree edition, what’s my incentive to read the electronic one when it’s just a digitized version of the one I ignored in the first place?
-by Tyrian Purple
Do you want to know what’s killing newspapers? I’ll tell ya. Journalism School.
I was the only non-J-school staffer on my college newspaper. J schools don’t exactly attract rocket scientists, and post-Watergate, they tended to attract the not-too-bright-but-idealistic.
Grads go to work and are never accountable for anything more consequential than making deadline. They don’t have to meet sales quotas. They don’t have to make payroll. They risk nothing all their lives.
They certainly aren’t going to risk crossing over to the Internet where suddenly they’d be up against lawyers, professors, scientists and other enterprising people, people who have the advantage 1) of real-world experience and 2) not having taken the classes where you learn to write only in shades of gray.
Forty plus years ago, I went to work as a reporter for a Richmond, Virginia newspaper edited by the great James Kilpatrick. I wrote some copy about a cake that was a replica of the Rotunda at the University of Virginia.
My copy made it past the picky ladies in the proof room, but Kilpatrick caught it before it went to press. He called me to his carpeted office (as in being called on the carpet) where he asked me just exactly how the cake qualified as a replica.
I stuttered around until he pointed to the dictionary stand and clearly signaled that I should look up the word. “Replica: an exact reproduction made by the creator of the original.”
That kind of editorial attention would never have permitted what passes for journalism today.
So far as I can ascertain, there are no great newspaper editors remaining. That is a true pity, but it is predictable, since editorial boards are mostly an inner sanctum click of like-minded, pompous J-school doyens.
Newspapers have fouled up in two ways. “Bias” exists, but it’s a secondary effect that makes the foulups worse.
The lesser of the two errors is that they have essentially abandoned “who, what, when, and where” in favor of “why”. That comes partly from hubris, yes, but even more so from economic considerations. Opinion is cheap compared to keeping a decent reporter–someone who can and does dig for the first four “W”s–in the field. Unfortunately for them, opinion is also a buyer’s market, and that’s what really hurts about the Internet. Paying a Krugman six figures is just a loss when you can get umpteen similar opinions for free.
But the worst error, the one that’s really killing them, is “if it bleeds it leads.” They note that when something startling or amazing comes up, they get more readers. From this they conclude that the only way to do “news” is to continually startle and amaze the readers. Part of the problem with that is habituation — it turns into a loser’s game of “top this if you can!” — but more importantly, it turns the sophisticated readers off. If the movers and shakers read your paper other people will go along in the hope that some of the status will rub off. If nobody’s reading except the mouth-breathers who get all excited about J-Lo’s boyfriends, the sophisticated are run off twice, once by the content and once by the association.
Bias makes it worse by cutting the remaining audience in half, but the other two effects are primary. If they fixed those the bias would repair itself.
-by Ric Locke
Heliotrope’s anecdote reminded me of the legendary one about some editor being quick enough to catch an error in the E=mc^2 equation from some reporter.
If I were in charge of reforming journalism, I would do away with the j-school degree. It’s a ridiculous idea. I took the classes, and learned nothing there that I would not have learned in the newsroom or in the field.
Instead I think to work a “beat,” the reporter should be able to demonstrate subject-matter expertise. Or at least have a working knowledge of the area they’re covering–and prove themselves willing to become more knowledgeable.
For example, no reporter who doesn’t know the scientific method should be permitted to cover science stories. That reporter won’t know what questions to ask, or could get taken in by a “cold fusion” type scam, or might get the facts but garble them in the transmission to the reader (confuse fission vs. fusion or theory vs. hypothesis for instance).
I had thought my idea was how it worked in practice, so I figured out what beats interested me and decided to take classes towards understanding the fundamentals: criminal justice classes in case I had to write about crime and cops, foreign language classes, tech classes to write about computers and so on. Well rounded liberal arts with an emphasis on certain subjects that would help me cover preferred beats.
It turned out that reporters could go report on a country without being expected to know the language or the culture.
A military man complained to the Washington Times recently about their reporter confusing ranks and their abbreviations–a few years ago it never would have occurred to me that a reporter who didn’t know those details could get assigned stories about the military. Don’t I feel naive!
This looks like a top down problem: if the editor doesn’t know anything, they can’t pull a James Kilpatrick (in one class we would read reprints of his columns; very educational). If they can’t emulate him, I don’t foresee a bright future for them.
-by Tyrian Purple
Benjamin Franklin had a lot of competitors when he owned and ran his newspaper in Philadelphia, but was still very successful doing so. His paper of the day, was not biased in anyway, he knew he could not alienate any readers by taking either side on any issues. As a result, everyone read his paper over others.
Pinch and the other MSM boys just don’t understand this very simple point. It appears they would rather die trying to influence our thinking….then applying the Benjamin Franklin business model.
-by Matt Smith
Several commenters and LaShawn Barber brought up the idea that commenters add nothing to the story and while potentially interesting are not really very useful. Miss Barber acurately points out that many major blogs do not have a comment section at all. The thing is, if you read the comments on this story you will get an inkling why comments are more useful than people give them credit. Several former newspapermen reported on their experiences and the flaws with modern reporting. Historians pointed out information from the past that was not in the initial story or
LaShawn Barber's commentary. Several people gave personal testimony of how they have changed regarding newspapers and why they don't read them any more.
This is the thing that comments brings to an online site, it gives feedback to the story "this sucked, this was great etc" but more importantly it brings a greater range of information and analysis to the story that the reporter missed, got edited out, or didn't consider. No one person can do exhaustive work on a subject, at least not in a reasonable time frame. But comments can expand that usefully and materially for readers.
In this sense, I do understand why commenting might be good for newspapers, but I wonder if that's what they are considering. Typically, online stuff is dismissed as inferior nonsense by major news organizations. Bloggers are mocked for being in their pj's in mom's basement typing their little Unabomber-type screeds by the legacy media. And there certainly are these types, some have gotten rather large online.
The thing is, newspapers are facing a crisis
. Their circulation is almost uniformly dropping (a few, like the New York Post
are doing better), their advertising revenues plunging, and their impact and significance are waning. Television news is doing no better, ratings, other than for the Fox News Channel, are dropping. So newspapers are trying to attract new readers. The comments and online site idea, I suppose, is an attempt to generate reader loyalty, or at least familiarity, so if people want the full story, they buy the Yourtown Gazette and Profiteer.
The problem is, there's not much reason to buy a newspaper for the full story. True, it makes a handy birdcage liner, and I use the pages to light the wood stove and the barbecue (with this handy chimney-like
device). But by the time a newspaper comes out, the news is old. Not only has radio and TV covered the news (television to a dreary excess) but the Internet has had the story in 17 languages, with a dozen different opinion columns and hundreds of blogs giving even greater details - and at many of those blogs, commenters who add to the information and throw you links for more and related details. Newspapers are slow. They offer the same information you can get for dirt cheap on the internet (pennies a day) with moving pictures, sound, analysis, and within moments of the event's occurrence.
One of the biggest advantages that the Internet has over a newspaper is linking, a point brought up by LaShawn Barber and several commenters. Online, a related story or more information about a given person or place is one mouseclick away. Dump it in a browser tab and check it later. Newspapers cannot offer that, the closest they'll have is continuing a story on page C5. This ready and expanded information is very attractive, it generates increased interest, and stories can end up linking step by step to something totally different but just as interesting or entertaining.
The fact is, in the past, network news and newspapers/magazines had no competition. They were the only way to get the information for almost everyone. The fact that they almost all reported each story in almost always the same way, with the same tilt was frustrating but unavoidable - and even sometimes undetectable. Bias is only visible if you have the other side of the issue, and if you never see
the other side, it just looks like fact. Leaving off troubling information, another viewpoint, or a quote from someone else who disagrees can give the impression that there is
no troubling information, different viewpoint, or disagreement. Now there's the competition to show this off - the other viewpoints are everywhere, the dissent is unstoppable, the additional information you'd rather not cover is readily available. The Internet gives a voice to things the legacy media used to be able to simply stifle or ignroe.
Newspapers suffer in this comparison. And the suffering just gets worse. Even people who don't have an Internet connection are moving away from the legacy media. There are several reasons, but the main one is problematic reporting. As commenters noted above, reporters are often baldly ignorant about topics and report them in shoddy ways (the Virginia Tech reporting recently is a classic example). The haste to get the story out first makes mistakes more common, rumors more relied on, and the story suffers. Add to that the tendency of reporting - which has always been tilted one way or another - to have become more advocacy than informative and the problem is compounded.
It's one thing to read about a tax cut, its another to read about how that tax cut is hurting the poor and minorities, and how rich are laughing at you in what is supposed to be an ordinary newspaper report, not opinion piece
. The use of selective quotes and the proper "man on the street" interview - and especially
polls - to drive an agenda or opinion on the front page is wearying for everyone. It can still be effective, just look at general opinion on how well Iraq is doing because they don't read Iraqis and reporters like Michael Totten, but it still leaves a bad taste in the mouth of readers.
The generation who came home and fired up the evening news first thing every night is moving on, the ones that came after them either don't care about the news or get it from other sources. Newspapers are in trouble because of these and other reasons, and online versions aren't helping them much. All they do is allow people to get a piece of the story without paying.
Even required registration is easy to bypass
and charging for registration is a guaranteed way to have people simply avoid your site entirely. The information is out there, somewhere, and if it's not it will be soon. Putting comments on a news site does face a problem of trolls
. Paying someone to spend their day moderating and editing the comments makes your paper more
expensive, when advertising revenues are down and staff is being cut already.
There are places that can be cut in the newspapers (opinion writers, for example are easy to find and don't need pay, columnists are pointless when you can pick between hundreds of columns written every day on blogs - and use them for free in most cases). The problem is, cutting costs won't address the primary problems that newspapers face. The future of print news is definitely in question, but I see a day coming when the big papers and national print will vanish and internet sites take their place.