The Romance of the Press

It’s been interesting, though a bit odd, for me, watching the hand-wringing over the “death of the press” as some of the major newspapers struggle to figure out how to make their budgets work in a world in which fewer people read “dead tree” editions and advertisers can take advantage of more targeted advertising online and in specialty publications. There is, it seems, a level of reverence which many people seem to attach to “the press”, which does not seem well born out what it actually is.

Looked at historically and economically — newspapers exist as a delivery system for ads. They seek to provide stories that people want to read (whether “news”, human interest, comics, crosswords or recipes) in order to persuade people it’s worth parting with the artificially low newsstand or subscription price.

Based on the number of people who can be persuaded to buy the paper, the newspaper then turns around and charges advertisers for the privilege of advertising to those readers.

Because people will sometimes stop reading a paper if it’s flagrantly biased or routinely prints false information, it is sometimes in the interests of papers to print the truth to the best of their ability. On the other hand, examples throughout the history of our press can be found in which it was found to their advantage to print something other than the truth, or simply allowed themselves to be deceived.

Our constitution protects freedom of the press, but this is not in the sense that the press is some sacred part of the civic order. Rather, this is a matter of simple freedom: our freedom to print what we want (whether or not people are actually interested in reading it is another matter) is protected.

At a practical level, the press can serve as a useful check on political power, in that given our political dispositions and culture stories about how those in power are abusing it sell well. Thus, it is often in the interest of news venues to be critical of power. However, in other cases, the incentives run the other way. Most news outlets also have a necessary bias towards whatever story is most exciting — even if that means supporting political authorities rather than critiquing them. (Any progressives who doubt this should do a little critical thinking about the enthusiastic reporting which almost invariably issues forth when a national move towards war is being considered.) And, of course, since selling news is the true reason for being for news — news venues also have a necessary bias towards whatever they think their readers will want to hear.

Freedom of expression is certainly essential to our republic, but the preservation of specific news organs is not. Nor should we allow the self-serving myths which newspapers built around themselves in the 50s through the Watergate era about how they are the selfless bastions of objectivity and truth to be confused with anything like reality. It was, in the end, just another way to sell papers.

16 Responses to The Romance of the Press

  1. Looked at historically and economically — newspapers exist as a delivery system for ads.

    Historically? No. Modern economics? Yes. And this is probably one of the reasons why there is a problem.

  2. Historically, yes. If you look at the rise of the major newspapers in the 19th century, they were very explicitly a way to sell ads (and subscription bases in order to gain ad revenue.) Much good and bad (the rise of comics as an art form, the rise of ‘yellow journalism’) can be traced to the race for circulation (and thus profit).

  3. M.Z. says:

    Looked at historically and economically — newspapers exist as a delivery system for ads.

    Not really. That was more a product of corporatization of newspapers. Newspapers have historically been low budget affairs sponsered by some ideologue. You can see this in the newspaper names themselves.

    Marketing itself starts in about 1900s. Mass marketing got going in the 1920s.

  4. jonathanjones02 says:

    If you doubt that the big, profitable newspapers of the 19th and early 20th century (they became less profitable with the rise of weekly magazines in the 20s and 30s) were not vehicles for partisanship and advertising (even ahead of news gathering), you simply haven’t spent much, if any, time in an archive. Start with Horace Greeley’s Tribune, which ruled some big roosts for nearly forty years.

    We also see this sort of thing when folks want to claim our current political claimate is oh so heated and dangerous. Not by historical standards it ain’t. Start with….well, any presidential election in the 1800s.

    Darwin’s point that newspapers existed in no small part as a delivery system for ads is pretty easy to verify, particularly if you look at the papers that mattered before 1900, shortly before the LA Times got really into crime reporting (Chicago, New York, Boston, Baltimore).

  5. There is a difference between a discussion of “big, profitable newspapers” and “newspapers.” The second is a larger group.

  6. jonathanjones02 says:

    Newspapers have historically been low budget affairs sponsered by some ideologue.

    You could say that pamplets were low budget affairs sponsored by some ideologue, and that the readings of governor’s declarations and the like were newspapers, but I think the definition of newspaper would have to be stretched too far. (And Franklin, our greatest genius after Washington, had his traveling printing shows…)

    The rise of what we would recognize as a newspaper coincided with advertising and partisanship. Newspapers of importance were by definition big budget and big ads. In the 19th Century, in fact, newspapers not only launched presidential campaigns, they were probably the most necessary form of campaigning.

  7. Not really. That was more a product of corporatization of newspapers. Newspapers have historically been low budget affairs sponsered by some ideologue. You can see this in the newspaper names themselves.

    I get that there were newspapers of a sort prior to the rise of the large circulation, advertising-driven newspapers, but I don’t think they adhere very much to what those worried about the death of The Press are worried about.

    After all, the small and plentiful micro newspapers of the 1700s and early 1800s are arguably much more akin to today’s blogs than today’s newspapers. If that sort of small, often one-man press with a lot of opinion and local color, and a little bit of news gleaned from travelers or (later) the telegraph news services, were considered an acceptable manifestation of The Press, people wouldn’t be ringing their hands about the prospect of the big city dailies going out of business.

    Actually, I’d argue that in many ways we’re going back to a more distributed, reader-driven form of “press” such as what we had from the 1700s through the early 1800s, with less (though certainly not an extinction) of the respectable, big city paper ethic while is familiar to us from the 50s through the present.

  8. M.Z. says:

    I’m not quite sure where we are going. With bifurcation in this country, I think it is going to increasingly be difficult to fund popular venues through advertising. The products the poor buy increasingly don’t have enough margin in them to try and influence market behavior through advertising. Real news information is increasingly going to be subscriber funded, like international news is with Jane’s and Stratfor.

  9. Blackadder says:

    I think this recent post by Matt Yglesias is a propos:

    “[J]ournalistic objectivity” as traditionally practiced by reporters at American newspapers and television stations is a business strategy as well as an ethos. The way it works is that when a market has only a small number of competitors (one or two daily newspapers in a given city, three television networks) the economic incentive is to try to be generic and inoffensive. Attracting passionate fans doesn’t really help you—even if you love the Indianapolis Star you’re not going to buy two copies a day.

    In a more competitive marketplace like the one highbrow magazines and UK newspapers have always operated in things look different. You need to differentiate your product, and it pays to develop an audience of passionate fans.

  10. Art Deco says:

    Marketing itself starts in about 1900s. Mass marketing got going in the 1920s.

    The earliest newspaper in my home town was founded in 1818, I believe. The second was founded in 1826. It was called, in the first instance, the Rochester Daily Advertiser. Every iteration of the title from 1826 to 1918 had the word ‘advertiser’ in it. I have examined in microtext issues from the 1860s. If I recall correctly, the front pages were filled not with articles or editorials (though there were plenty throughout the paper, in tiny print), but with ads.

  11. Having ads is different from existing for the sake of delivering ads.

  12. T. Shaw says:

    Anyway, when the progressive, humanist propaganda organs go bankrupt . . . Either, the Obaminstration regime will prop them up like it did GM and Chrysler . . .

    Or, you won’t read errata and fabrications supporting abortion, idiot supreme court nominees, gay marriage, hatred for tea party people, hatred for pro-lifers, America is evil, it’s Bush’s fault, etc.

    How will Big Brother brainwash the masses?

    Public schools!


  13. Having ads is different from existing for the sake of delivering ads.

    This is a fair point, and perhaps this is where a difference in approach is putting as at odds more than a disagreement over the facts.

    Newspapers have generally achieved their income from two sources: subscription fees and ads. In their modern incarnation, daily papers have derived most of their income from ads — thus allowing them to maintain numbers or reporters and lengths of physical product which would not otherwise be affordable to most people.

    So when I say they exist as an ad delivery medium, I mean that were it not for advertising revenue, newspapers would find it very difficult to operate as they do while putting their product at a price that people could afford. Take the advertising away, and the newspaper medium becomes totally unsustainable in its current form. Readers may not buy it for the ads, and writers may not be interested in the ads, but the desires of the readers and writers wouldn’t be fullfillable if newspapers did not deliver ads.

  14. That strikes me as pretty dead-on, BA.

  15. RL says:

    Funny DC and BA. Chesterton made a similar observation about the character of journalism between the US and UK. He was surprised that all the competing papers in the US wanted to interview him and they all reported on the same stories. In the UK, exclusivity reigned supreme and if one paper landed an interview with someone, nobody else wanted anything to do with person.

  16. Elaine Krewer says:

    A lot of newspapers have, or used to have, the words “Democrat”, “Republican”, “Independent”, and “Whig” in their names for a reason. When they were founded in the 19th century their political party affiliations were obvious and they made no pretense of objectivity. These affiliations or leanings often changed over time mainly due to the views of the publisher or family which owned the paper.

    Also, up until the last 20 or 30 years many newspapers were family owned (Hearst and Pulitzer were probably the most famous “press dynasties”). A newspaper’s character often depended on the character of the family or individual who published it. If he or she was conscientious and community-minded, you got a quality paper; if he or she was a rabid political partisan or only interested in sucking up to the powers that be in town, you got a rag. Now most papers belong to giant corporate conglomerates interested only in maximizing profits by (usually) cutting staff as much as possible.

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