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The Weakened Immune System of Newspapers

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Looks like the Boston Globe will live to fight another day. Excellent news. I love newspapers. Really, I do. The Globe was meat and grog to me through my years in Boston, and the combo of Ray Fitzgerald and Peter Gammons may have been the best one-two punch in all of sports journalism in those years. The paper still has some excellent reporters and columnists, among them the estimable Jeff Jacoby.

But Jacoby goes a little Jon Lovitz this AM in arguing that liberal bias in the newspaper world has nothing to do with the ongoing collapse of the business. Key graphs:

But if liberal media bias is the explanation, why are undeniably left-of-center papers like the Globe, The New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle attracting more readers than ever when visitors to their websites are taken into account? How does liberal bias explain the shutdown of Denver’s more conservative Rocky Mountain News, but not the more liberal Denver Post? How does it explain the collapse of newspapers in lefty enclaves like Seattle and San Francisco? How does it explain why the great majority of Americans – 60 percent, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll – get most of their news from TV?

Newspapers are in extremis not because of their political agenda, but because the world around them has been transformed. The growth of the Internet has left the traditional newspaper business model, with its vast physical plant and expensive armies of writers, editors, photographers, pressmen, mailers, truck drivers, and salesmen, in a shambles. Craigslist and its ilk have vaporized what used to be most papers’ greatest profit center: classified advertising. A decades-long trend of falling readership, brought on by the rise of television, has been accelerated to warp speed by the explosion of websites and blogs offering news and opinion on every conceivable subject, 24 hours a day – and usually for free.

The culture has changed. Only 15 percent of Americans younger than 40 now read a printed newspaper every day. It isn’t political bias that keeps them away. Conservatives who insist otherwise do themselves no favors.

Read the whole thing, but really, who is Jeff trying to kid? I have never argued that newspapers are collapsing solely or even primarily because of liberal bias. I have argued and will always argue that just as a patient with a compromised immune system is susceptible to dying when illness strikes, so too have newspapers spent decades shedding hard core readers from the center to the right on the political spectrum, readers who, had they stuck around, would have helped buy papers more time to transition to the new world. That tens of thousands of newspaper readers have canceled because of left-wing bias is undeniably true because Jeff and I both receive the hundreds and thousands of e-mails each year blasting media bias that at times is so absurd as to be ridiculous. Those people have left the field and won’t be coming back. Jeff bemoans young people not reading newspapers? He’s right, but of the fewer and fewer that do, no sane young conservative would spend his few nickels a day on the Globe. He or she would pay for an online subscription to the Wall Street Journal. The number of eyeballs may be up as Jeff says, but the paying customers are way down, and advertisers know this and leave the sinking ship. The Rocky Mountain News is a counter-example? It was just a bit to the right of the Post, not a full throated center-right alternative, and its demise signifies nothing about ideological diversity helping or hurting papers.

Three decades of monolithic newsrooms full of lefties agreeing with each other and a token conservative columnist does not a compelling product make. The changes in information technology and the rise of the web would surely have taken out any number of papers even if all of them had been objective, lively, ideologically diverse offerings where quality reporting appeared alongside informed and entertaining polemic.

But far fewer will survive because very few even tied to be fair. Even now they aren’t trying. The most popular conservative writer today in America is Mark Steyn, bar none. He lives in New Hampshire. When was the last time the Globe carried Steyn?

Really, it isn’t that hard to make a paper entertaining and attract center-right readers. But even as the ships take on water, the captains refuse to do anything to save the fleet.

Journalists who insist otherwise do themselves no favors.


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