Wednesday, May 01, 2013

No, the market does not make newspapers liberal


Matt Welch schools Garance Franke-Ruta.

Are Big City Newspapers Inevitably Liberal Due to Market Forces?
He hits on several key points about the evolution of newspapers and the economics of their decline.

The elephant in the room

Ask yourself this: Of all the one-newspaper cities in America, how many are served by a daily that's more conservative than its readership? Pretty hard to come up with one, right?* Now do the same exercises for newspapers that are more liberal than their cities, and see how quickly you run out of fingers and toes.
GF-R argues that newspapers are liberal because they are located in liberal cities. As Welch points out, newspapers lean left no matter what the political climate in their home town. A point also made here:

I’ve lived in a bunch of different places over the years. Some were liberal communities (Madison, Wisconsin) while others were conservative (Carlisle, Charlotte). In every city and town, however, the local paper was and is more liberal than the community it serves.
Consolidation and liberal privilege

Like so many American dailies, including the Los Angeles Times (my former employer, and the plum property in the Tribune roster), the [Houston] Chronicle was a strongly conservative newspaper as recently as the 1950s, before more a more progressive breed of journalist began gaining a foothold in the 1960s. Crucially, the transformation from right to left, from crassly political to high-mindedly "fair," went hand in hand with the paper benefiting from and engaging in newspaper consolidation. It was the classic deal between mostly liberal newsrooms and mostly conservative boardrooms: Close down the competition and use the profits to professionalize the news divisions, instilling a more liberal ethos even while embracing the advertising-friendly pose of objectivity. Then sit back and enjoy the 20 percent profit margins for four decades.
See also here:

Carroll’s golden age coincides with the rise of the one newspaper town. Why was that a good thing? How could New York be better off when the Times did not have to compete with the Herald-Tribune? Why is journalism the rare business where monopolies serve the customer better than competition?

I doubt that the reading public was or is better off. The owners were because monopolies provide a nice stream of predictable earnings. The newsroom liked that the owners were fat and happy because as long as the income statement looked good the owners did not interfere with content. Editors and reporters were free to chases awards, collect bigger paychecks, and indulge their ideological obsessions. Local monopolies also gave journalists bigger megaphones and a de facto victory in “explanation space”.

The golden age, in short, rested on a temporary set of conditions in which economics and technology favored news monopolies. The readers never wanted it. That much became clear when technology began to offer more choices.
The agency problem

Journalists from newspapers all over the country want to work for The New York Times, even if their byline never gets within 100 miles of Gotham. Regional newspapers everywhere pattern their writing, their subject matter, their mores, on the Paper of Record.
Journalists usually justify their career-polishing antics with hoary clich├ęs about telling the public what they need to know, not what they want to here. It is worth noting that such castor oil journalism has no place at the New York Times.

In 2003, Brooks got a call from New York Times editorial-page editor Gail Collins inviting him to lunch. Collins was looking for a conservative to replace outgoing columnist William Safire, but one who understood how liberals think. “I was looking for the kind of conservative writer that wouldn’t make our readers shriek and throw the paper out the window,” says Collins. “He was perfect.”
William Jacobson weighs in here:
Writer aboard Titanic worried about who’s buying other ocean liners
Related:
Clueless in the bubble

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