Earlier this week I penned a blog post in which I praised the Graham family's decision to sell the venerable Washington Post to Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos in light of the way the Internet has changed the media marketplace.
The Internet having become a primary source for news and information has forced major changes in the print media's business model. Rather than wait for a morning or afternoon newspaper to be delivered, news consumers can go online from anywhere in the world and get the latest updates on breaking news stories in real time – and from a wider selection of content providers than television or radio currently allows for.
Bezos figured out early on how to do what most newspaper publishers and chains have not yet figured out: how to provide a familiar service using the Internet while making a profit. Newspapers are, after all, a business and cannot continue to exist if they empty out their owner's deep pockets. This makes him both a logical and intriguing choice to keep one of America's most influential papers alive into the 21st century – but the rise of the Internet as a media platform is not the only problem print journalism must confront as it moves forward.
What the Internet has done, principally, is to expand the amount of information available to the point where consumers can vote with their feet. If they don't like the content of their local newspaper they can use the Net to find reportage on stories of interest and not be left uninformed. This is where the problem of media bias enters the picture.
Too many newspapers have drifted to the left in all aspects of their coverage, well beyond the editorial page and the political news. Even on the op-ed pages, where the ideological split is better balanced, most of the columns – written by those on the left and those on the right – take as their subject matter what is wrong with the GOP, conservatives and the free-market. For all the talk of diversity in the nation's newsrooms, backed by the professional associations affiliated with the trade, the one area in which the monolith still stands unchanged is ideology, with editors and reporters operating off a fairly standard set of assumptions about the world that influence their selection of stories and the way in which they are covered.
Abortion, for example, is seen as a hard won right with no moral implications. Hence the use of the terms "anti-abortion" instead of "pro-life" to describe abortion opponents while it's the defenders killing babies in the womb are tagged with the more appealing label "supporters of abortion rights." Businesses and businessmen, unless they are clearly and obviously acting against their own self-interest are considered societal malefactors. Reporters do not take kindly to executives and entrepreneurs who proudly and without guilt defend and proclaim the superiority of the free market system.
Lawful gun owners are nuts while criminals are often misunderstood, especially in high profile cases where race, ethnicity, or gender is a factor. Global warming, despite all the evidence casting doubt upon it, is regularly assumed to be occurring at a rate so alarming that the nation's coastlines might soon be underwater. Religion is good, unless you are a committed devotee of orthodox Catholicism or Christianity or believe that Judaism is something more than a social organization committed to good, liberal works. Israel must trade land for peace with the Palestinians, the Soviet Communists were never as bad as Reagan and his kind made them out to be – and Reagan, by the way, didn't win the Cold War; it was all Gorbachev. All right wing dictators are malevolent and take power thru oppression and death squads while being lackeys of imperial American businessmen but all left-wing dictators are land reformers who are just being tough with the people who would reverse what they are trying to do. And all Republicans presidents are, as Ann Coulter once observed, either "stupid or evil" while every Democrat occupying the White House is Washington, Lincoln, and FDR rolled in one.
There's more to be added, clearly, but imagine being the subscriber of a daily newspaper who is on the wrong side of any of these issues. Over time, it must be extremely grating to see yourself described in such a negative light; and, now that there are other options available, ones that are more in sync with your world view, it is only natural that people would embrace them eagerly.
Where contemporary print journalism has fallen down on the job and contributed to its own decline is in its failure to cover evenly both sides of almost any story. This has not been lost on readers who, it is important to note, are consumers. They have choices to make and, in the age of the Internet, have been exercising them. This is why there are so many prominent liberals who believe that journalistic institutions, which they define as a "public trust," should be operated as not-for-profit charities so that the essential connection between financial necessity – the need to show a profit to remain in business – and liberal bias can be, from their point of view, harmlessly severed.
The need to change the media business model is a wonderful opportunity for self-examination. There are other things besides the delivery mechanisms that need to change. Now is the time to look for them if print journalism is to survive against the competitive onslaught being waged by bloggers and new, Internet-only publications.
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