As a public service, we staggered through The New Republic‘s 8,900-word opus about the perilous state of the newspaper industry so you wouldn’t have to. We suppose this ponderous, professorial epic is supposed to put  TNR‘s weighty stamp of legitimacy on the crisis. If you buy legendary Chicago Tribune editor Colonel Robert McCormick’s view that the greater newspaper is the one that weighs more, then this is the greatest analysis ever published.

Unfortunately, it isn’t. Lacking much insight that wasn’t stated better in Eric Alterman’s briefer and more readable New Yorker analysis of nearly a year ago, Princeton professor Paul Starr proposes that the demise of major metro dailies is a threat to democracy itself.

This is not a new opinion, although Starr does cite research that supports the idea that communities without active news organization tend to suffer from more government corruption and less accountability.

Two teams of researchers found “a very strong association: the lower the free circulation of newspapers in a country, the higher it stands on the corruption index. Using different measures, they also find a similar relationship across states within the United States: the lower the news circulation, the greater the corruption,” he writes.

This isn’t startling news, but the 2003 and 2006 studies cited lend some factual support to an emotional issue. It’s one of the few bits of new information in the whole sprawling opus.

Polarizing Forces

Starr’s sole original insight is that growing polarity between populations that  are “in the know” and those that choose to ignore the news leads to partisanship, which is in turn reflected back by the media.

“The viewers who gave up news for entertainment tended to have little or no attachment to party, while the news junkies tended to be strong partisans–and so the audience for news has become more partisan than it used to be. Cable news programs with a sharp ideological slant have responded to this shift, and perhaps contributed to it,” the author states.

It’s a good point, but we wonder why it takes so long to make it.

Starr concludes that a public funding model is the only likely solution to the news industry’s crisis, an idea that has been pretty thoroughly eviscerated by people with spreadsheets. He observes, correctly, that the critical public service that newspapers have traditionally delivered as a loss leader thanks  to their enormous profitability is probably lost forever. He’s right that the efficiency of the Internet is not always a good thing, but he gives only scant attention to the new models that are succeeding while casually discarding wonders like Wikipedia as a mere rehash of information reported by journalists. How myopic.

TNR also thumbs its nose at emerging media outlets by failing to provide a single hyperlink in its nine-screen report. Perhaps this was merely oversight or a shortcoming of technology, but the omission appears to say, “Screw you, Internet. Here’s the self-contained first and last word on the topic, which is how God intended journalism to work.” Hyperlinking is an essential value of online communications and the failure to give readers the means to educate themselves about anything that wasn’t touched by New Republic editors appears clueless at best and arrogant at worst.

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This entry was posted on Monday, March 2nd, 2009 at 1:18 pm and is filed under BusinessModel, Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Journalism, NewMedia, Newspapers, Solutions. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

1 Comment

  1. March 2, 2009 @ 2:25 pm



    Amazingly enough, Starr is quite right in his conclusion, while missing the point entirely.

    The media are converging quite rapidly on a lowest cost distribution method which will enable many things.

    Newspapers as he, and we, came to know them are quite dead.

    And its not only the news.

    CDs are obsolete, DVDs are obsolete, books are obsolete

    The industries that depended on their creation and delivery are also obsolete.

    All that obsolete means is that the competition for the very much fewer surviving spots will be intense.

    The obsolesced techniques will go from mass production for mass consumption to niche, boutique, some might quaint and delightfully retro techniques.

    Print had already seen this happen with the desktop printing revolution that happened in the mid eighties. But they were never able to see that the files that they created were the things that they were actually selling, not the output from the printing press.

    They might have been able to make a business model out of that.

    You have the US Military (who created the internet), CERN (who created the web,) and a small band of visionaries to thank for the mother of all unintended consequences.

    The creation of media convergence into a digital world.

    There is no difference in structure or content delivery mechanism between a newspaper and a blog. The differences, the added value come from something else.

    The use of my R-09 recorder makes the use of a notepad quite obsolete. (That’s what made me laugh at the video of the closing of the Rocky Mountain News. These people were flipping open their notepads as if that touchstone of ritual could stave off the inevitable, when it was a demonstration of why they were dying.)

    The use of a wiki with update security makes the use of a printed, un-networked encyclopedia obsolete.

    The use of a blog makes the use of a printed, un-networked newspaper obsolete.

    The use of an .m4a formatted file makes the use of a record or a CD or un-networked recording media obsolete.

    The use of all of these media does not make the content obsolete.

    The problem is that people came to see the medium as the content when it was just making the content scarcer, more expensive and harder to obtain.

    The value proposition was all backwards.

    McCluhan would probably see the convergence as one thing that would unify the messages, nothing more.

    Posted by msbpodcast