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Thinking about the news

The first thing you have to realize about the news is that a lot of people just don't care, unless something is going on that affects them personally, and then all they want to know is who to beat on/call to make it stop. That having been said, here's a few thoughts about the news business, keying off this Jay Rosen essay.

Rosen basically says that daily newspapers are dying, slowly being strip-mined of their assets by the corporations that own them. This is hard to argue with, and I'm not even going to try, though I think the reasons this is happening are more complex than Rosen (or Geneva Overholser, who he references) make them out to be. Since most people don't care about news per se, they get the news they want from other sources: TV, radio, and to an increasing extent, the Internet. These three media have the additional advantage of presenting the news people do want at fairly regular times and with no up-front cost. I think it's significant that even as circulation of the daily newspapers continues to plummet, their cover prices have been steadily increasing. In the twenty-plus years that I've lived in Minneapolis, the Star Tribune has gone from $0.25 to $0.35 and is now $0.50; the paper has also stopped offering an evening edition and is now available only in the morning. Demand being what it is for newspapers, the circulation has continued to drop despite the Strib's expansion into St. Paul and its retitling itself as "The Newspaper of the Twin Cities". Meanwhile, the St. Paul Pioneer Press has remained steady at $0.25, though its page count is noticeably less than its Minneapolis competitor.

It hasn't been helping matters that the local papers have been trying to emulate TV and radio in offering paper-thin coverage of national and world events instead of playing to their strengths and emphasizing local news along with local analysis of national and world issues. Far too often, you can open up the Star Tribune and find articles and columns reprinted from the New York Times, Boston Globe, or Washington Post. Worse yet, the newspapers abandoned their professional ethic of neutral, nonpartisan reporting in favor of advocacy journalism in the wake of Watergate, and by the time of the Reagan Administration barely even bothered to disguise their political biases. This further alienated an audience that was finding them increasingly replaceable with the advent of CNN, ESPN, and other cable news outlets. It is also worth noting that the early 1980s saw the rise of Rush Limbaugh, whose polemics against the Mainstream Media made him a hero to millions of conservative Americans while almost single-handedly reviving the moribund AM radio medium. Limbuagh's success led to other imitators on a local and national level, and eventually to the founding of the Fox News Network as a counterweight to the perceived leftist slant at the three major TV networks and CNN.

It was perhaps inevitable that, as weblogs became more popular and the software to create them easier to use, they would become another means to criticize and further weaken the grip of the daily newspaper monopolies. Blogs took on all comers, be they national news talking heads trying to palm off false documents on the public or local editorial boards trying to blow smoke up the public's butt, and when the final tallies were in, it was CBS and the Star Tribune that stood exposed as the ones who didn't know what they were talking about.

I wouldn't be surprised to see the major daily newspapers die or morph into some web-based format, perhaps something similar to what's happening in Greensboro, NC. Perhaps the daily editions will disappear, leaving only the Sunday paper behind. There are a lot of different possibilities out there, but somehow I think the monopolization of the local news by one newspaper and a handful of TV stations isn't going to last. We might see a lot more freelance reporters and a lot fewer "professional journalists" around, and who knows? Maybe a reporter who "knows stuff" will actually become more than an object of ridicule. I'm betting that reporter won't be Nick Coleman, though.