Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Riots in Philly, and Why Newspapers are Failing

So much going on, it feels like time is revving up. It's fueled also by the swirling leaves and golden light of autumn, the manic-depressive news about the economy (thankfully it's been more manic lately) and of course the countdown to the election in just a week.

With my husband out of town, and two out of three kids back in college, the extra moments I steal to read the newspaper are probably also spurring my nerves. Reading the paper, one gets the idea that the election is a fait accomplis, that Obama, naturally, will win.

Tonight I heard from my husband, who had difficulty reaching his hotel in downtown Philadelphia, where a riot by celebratory locals at the Philly's World Series victory meant 100 newly-planted trees were torn out, and crowds streaming, screaming through the streets, shouting O-Bam-A! O-Bam-A! The police, in their riot gear, sought control.

I don't know what a baseball triumph has to do with the presidential race, but this suggests to me that next Tuesday night, cities better prepare for mayhem no matter who nabs the White House. And the chaos won't be led by Republicans.

Meanwhile, my ability to even READ the paper seems to be in jeopardy. The New York Times' Business section devoted lots of space today to "Mourning Old Media's Decline," and also featured articles about the end of the Christian Science Monitor's print edition, and layoffs of 600 at Time, Inc. A piece yesterday announcing an Audit Bureau of Circulations report revealed a decline in readership at hundreds of newspapers nationally.

The Los Angeles Times, the paper I grew up reading, has been losing loads of subscribers every year, but this year alone dropped 7% more. Said the NY Times: "On Monday, the paper...informed its newsroom staff that 75 of them would lose their jobs, the second major cut this year. The newsroom had almost 1,300 people at its peak, and with the latest reduction will fall to about half as many."

Newspapers' slump can't be blamed on internet reporting alone. In fact, I think it's related to papers' increasing decisions to wear their political persuasions on their, uh, headlines, choosing to canonize Obama and snicker at McCain-Palin. I put the two running-mates together, because print media can't as easily denigrate a war hero as a beehive-wearing moose hunter from Alaska. However, what do we see to balance all the articles trivializing Sarah Palin (we know her wardrobe's going to charity)? There's plenty criticizing her few years in government, but nothing that similarly reminds us that Obama has even less office-holding background.

The Pew Research center just released a study (Oct. 22) of campaign coverage, in fact, and look what they found:

Between the conventions and the last debate (the time measured for this study), there was lots more negative coverage for McCain. who got only half of the positive stories written about Obama. And the researchers said they were "very conservative" in their judging of content--meaning for a piece to be judged pro or con, it had to be clearly so, not just slightly implying a position.

It's this stomach-churning bias that keeps me from wanting to read the three daily newspapers dropped by our curb (far from our front door, btw). When I pick up the newsprint I dread the disheartening writing I'll be reading. The polls may show the country evenly split on their choices, but in the news sections of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Seattle Times, it's all over.

Even when elections aren't brewing, I really only enjoy the features sections of the paper. As my husband rightly points out, "there's no news business in America--only a bad news business." But when you've got a physical newspaper in your hand, you leaf through the pages and read all the headlines. Their dismal reportage seeps into my consciousness.

Online, however, I don't have to leaf through everything. I can target my reading much more easily. I'll google "World Series riots in Philadelphia," and have a selection of stories and sources to access. I'll pick a site that seems the most credible and least biased, and if I don't like the way it looks, I click back for an alternative. Reading news online is a completely different experience from reading a newspaper--and the depressive nature of newspapers lately drives me away to my computer.

I don't think editors and publishers get that. They think people are immersed in a "want it now" culture and prefer just to get a ticker of headlines at their desks. They think readers now hit the Wall Street Journal online and slurp up that paper's dose of reality quickly and move on. Well, it's not like that. When you don't have that ink darkening your fingers you can pick and choose not just the stories you want to read, but the slant on them you want to experience.

If newspapers weren't so darn biased, and went back to some semblance of real objectivity, they'd be a lot more appealing. And, I believe, they also might have a chance to survive.


  1. I smiled when the Phillies won because I knew of a certain someone to whom you're married, who would be quite pleased. That, and the fact that I have dozens of Philly cousins, some of whom I've attended Phillies games with many years ago at the old Vet, who would be happy as well.

    Years ago, papers proclaimed their bias and did fine. Now, they have a bias but feign neutrality. Why would a hungry populace seek filler?

    I don't believe news organizations will go the way of the buggy whip, but I do think they need to consider the customer when they create their product. Some news peddlers are thriving [USA Today and FoxNews]. I wonder why.

  2. Ruth Anne, Glad you're happy with the Phillies win; my hubby's glad but now he's a Mariner's fan.
    Regarding "some papers thriving," I disagree--USA Today didn't slip but didn't gain, and I suspect it's because it's delivered to every hotel room in the country. When was the last time YOU bought USA Today? And Fox News has an undeserved conservative reputation. It's better than most, though.

  3. I'd be much happier if the Cubbies had won!

    I haven't bought a USA Today for at least 10 years and it was probably in an airport.

    Don't you think breaking even when every other competitor is suffering big losses counts as thriving? They're certainly not losing market share.

    I see Fox as striving to be fair and balanced. I suffer through the liberals to hear the conservatives and moderates. But I can tell you who the honest brokers are on the left: Lanny Davis, Pat Caddell, Juan Williams, Mara Liasson. According to the ratings, FoxNews is lapping the competition, so the consumers, when they have a choice, do choose some balance.

  4. I can't think of anything that is truly objective, so it's not the bias that bothers me. We all look for that which will echo our standards, reflect them back to us in the perfect proportion so we can believe that we are right. And sometimes we are.

    A friend of mine turned down a guy because he was a hardcore Republican. Only during an election year.:)

  5. I got to hear you on your husband's radio show today! That was fun! Of course, I agree with YOU.

    I work in a library and am a lover of the hard copy. But I will not read a newspaper any more because of the bias. My husband used to buy USA Today at the airport to read on the plane- but he's now looking for castoffs on the waiting room seats because I can't stand to use our hard earned money to support their enterprise.

    I, too, will be glad when this election is over. Regardless of the outcome, I will keep listening to your husband because of his positive, rational commentary. He helps keep my outlook hopeful and sane.