Magazine article New Criterion

The Future of the Press

Magazine article New Criterion

The Future of the Press

Article excerpt

The future of the press is critical to all liberal democratic societies because it is still our most important source of political and social news. By the press, I mean the morning, mostly broadsheet, dailies in the large capital cities of virtually all Western countries. Of course, the morning newspapers no longer have anything near the largest audiences of the news media, dwarfed especially by television, but by and large they still set the news agenda that most of the others follow. Their editors decide what are the main stories that people will read that day, and they provide the editorial framework within which the other older and newer media operate. Most of the lineup for the evening television news still comes from the contents of that morning's broadsheets. Talk show hosts, shock jocks, bloggers, and the rest of the media commentariat mostly take their cues from stories that have been defined as important by the daily press. The reason for this is that the morning newspapers still employ the greatest concentration of journalists who do the research that makes the news: these journalists go out each day and see what people do, hear what people say, and write it up. Their research gives their editors a far greater pool of story material than anyone else from which to select the daily news. The journalism of reporters and editors in the morning newspapers still remains the first draft of history.

That is why the current financial crisis in the capital city press is also a cultural crisis. If the great volume of news research produced by these papers can no longer be afforded, then the principal source of information about the workings of our societies and governments will be seriously eroded. So it is important to understand why they are in financial trouble.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, there was a long-term decline in newspaper circulation and advertising revenue in many Western countries. By the end of the 1980s, competition from television news, in terms of both audiences and advertising, killed off the afternoon newspapers in almost all capital cities. Morning newspaper circulation also fell--in fact, in an era of substantial population growth, newspaper sales fell not just relative to population but also in absolute terms. What saved the day was that most morning newspapers retreated to a smaller but better educated and more highly paid readership, the AB demographic group (or Occupational Group I) to whom they could charge higher advertising rates. This option was not open to the afternoon tabloid newspapers, which generally attracted a more down-market audience profile. I'm talking here mainly about the newspapers in the United States and Australia, especially those that serve the major capital cities. In Britain, where the London newspapers are also national newspapers, the situation is different.

In the last two decades, circulation of the surviving newspapers has depended on how well they have adjusted to their more educated and more affluent readerships. The advent of the Interact saw those newspapers that were dependent on classified advertising, especially employment and real estate advertising, lose much of their revenue to online competitors. But at the same time, they enjoyed expanded advertising for lifestyle products and services and luxury goods for their more well-heeled buyers.

The real problem has not been competition from the Internet but the quality of newspaper journalism, or, more accurately, the politics of their journalism. Some of the most prominent of these newspapers have been turned into radical versions of their former selves, openly promoting leftist political parties and causes and, in the process, shedding their conservative readership to such an extent that the future of the organization has been put at risk.

In the United States, the best analysis of this problem is William McGowan's book published in 2010, Gray Lady Down: What the Decline and Fall of The New York Times Means for America. …

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