March 30, 2013
You really don’t have to get into politics to explain the decline of newspapers today. People are abandoning print as they turn to the Web and other alternatives. The more people quit the paper, the fewer resources the paper has, so the more it cuts back on coverage, and the more people stop reading because of the decline in quality. Vicious circle.
But considering politics adds another dimension, since polling consistently shows dissatisfaction with the quality of reporting is concentrated among men and Republicans. And when they say the coverage in their paper is incomplete, they don’t necessarily mean they are unhappy that there are fewer stories. It just might be that the stories they do see never consider their side of the issue.
Think about coverage of gay marriage. It’s celebrated throughout the New York Times: the style section, the Vows section, the real estate section. These stories do not contact an opposing side for comment on whether the couple should be allowed to get married; the worldviews is that of course gay marriage is awesome. If you oppose gay marriage, you’ll see a lot of “incomplete” stories about gay marriage that don’t address possible social costs — just as environmentalists reading a story about a factory opening might get annoyed if the story doesn’t discuss environmental criticism of the new site.
But 40 years in, most business stories (written by liberals, let’s be honest), do consider environmental impacts as part of the basic story about a new factory. Most stories about gay couples do not consider the social impacts as part of the “basic story” — unless they explicitly argue that the social impact will be good. So conservatives are likely to find the paper much less congenial than they used to — especially as ongoing consolidation pushes their nearest “local” paper into larger, more urban, and more liberal media markets.
I agree with Gabriel: the future of journalism is more opinionated, less “objective.” I don’t think that this is an entirely bad thing; partisan and ideological media has strengths as well as weaknesses. But it will be a wrenching shift for those of us used to making our living on the old model.
So “the press” will end up where it started in early America, with a diverse number of highly partisan voices, each peddling a slanted version of reality. There will be good and bad in that, and as an opinion page editor I can’t be that disappointed. A couple of points:
1. It will be even more important to fight against all efforts at censorship. The more versions of reality there are, the more we will need to sample to be able to figure out what’s really going on — “from many voices, truth.”
2. At least journalists well be more honest about what they’re doing. There’s really no such thing as objectivity, and claims of impartiality have been especially hard to take seriously in the last few years.