Technology and the Taste for News

by Nathan Arbor

“The loyalty of the buying public to a newspaper is not stipulated in any bond. In almost every other enterprise the person who expects to be served enters into an agreement that controls his passing whims. At least he pays for what he obtains. In the publishing of periodicals the nearest approach to an agreement for a definite time the paid subscription, and that is not, I believe, a great factor in the economy of a metropolitan daily. The reader is the sole and the daily judge of his loyalty, and there can be no suit against him for breach of promise or nonsupport.”

Walter Lippmann, “The Constant Reader,” in Public Opinion (1922)

Next month the Newseum will celebrate the first anniversary of its grand re-opening, on the Mall in Washington, DC. The 250,000-square-foot building was designed to be an inspiring tribute to the First Amendment, and to the role that journalism, and especially newspapers, has played in preserving and protecting both our freedom and the health of our democracy. With the deterioration and collapse of daily newspapers throughout the country, however, the Newseum may seem more like a memorial than an affirmation, and for many the celebration on April 11 will serve as a painful reminder of all we will have lost if the last of the great general-interest newspapers in the US either go bankrupt or come to operate only as poor imitations of their former selves.

Unfortunately, the current financial crisis is likely to disguise the fact that the economic problems of the general interest dailies have been apparent for many years. Decades ago, newspapers had seemed to compete successfully with television, or at least to have established a division of labor, as a gateway of choice for advertisers wishing to reach large sectors of what Walter Lippmann termed “the buying public.” The appearance and enormous popularity of the Internet, on the other hand, called into question the limits and value of the gateway offered by newspapers, and did so more rapidly than the newspapers could accommodate successfully. Even before the buying public stopped buying, newspapers were having a difficult time convincing advertisers to pay the rates that had made sense before the online world appeared.

The terrible decline of the general interest dailies has something, and perhaps mostly,  to do with the impact of new technologies on the economics of advertising; but this doesn’t explain why a majority of the public seems to have so little interest in the the health of newspapers. Long before the Web became popular, when there were such compelling arguments about the future of  “the information age” and “the knowledge economy,” one might have expected newspapers to figure out a way to flourish alongside cable television and Internet-based news services, as people tried to maximize the efficiency and utility of their information consumption. Why didn’t this happen, or even show signs of happening, before the consequences of its not happening became clear?

The claim that newspapers failed because people didn’t want to pay for them anymore (e.g. because they could  get their news online free-of-charge) doesn’t hold much water. Newspapers that were free or cost very little weren’t doing well either, and it’s not obvious that the recent decision of some general interest newspapers to publish only electronic editions will solve their long-term revenue problems.

Instead, I think the answer lies in the peculiar nature of what Walter Lippmann and his contemporaries called “general news,” and the strange and unbalanced relationship that general interest newspapers have always had with their most attentive readers. In Public Opinion, Lippmann famously estimated that the average citizen spent about 15 minutes each day reading a newspaper, and that the number of readers who pay great attention to the general news is always a small subset of the regular readers. Concerning this subset, Lippmann was clear about the paradoxical nature of an enterprise that is responsible both to the truth and to its most serious customers — an enterprise that  tries to inspire thinking about events but must somehow deal with the resulting doubts and opinions of its readers concerning these events and their coverage. Lippmann described the “plight” of the reader of the general interest newspaper this way:

“If he is to read it at all he must be interested, that is to say, he must enter into the situation and care about the outcome. But if he does that he cannot rest in the negative, and unless independent means of checking the lead given him by his newspaper exists, the very fact that he is interested may make it difficult to arrive at that balance of opinions which may most nearly approximate the truth. The more passionately involved he becomes, the more he will tend to resent not only a different view, but a disturbing bit of news. That is why many a newspaper finds that, having honestly evoked the partisanship of its readers, it cannot easily, supposing the editor believes the facts warranted, change position. If the change is necessary, the transition has to be managed with the utmost skill and delicacy. Usually a newspaper will not attempt so hazardous a performance. It is easier and safer to have the news of that subject taper off and disappear, thus putting out the fire by starving it.”

from “The Nature of News,” in Public Opinion

What allowed newspapers to manage this plight so successfully was that most readers lacked easily accessible “specialized” alternatives to general interest newspapers. But there is no lack of such alternatives today, and whether their quality is assured or not seems less important to readers than the satisfaction of being able to follow-up on their interests — satisfaction  that Lippmann suggested  newspapers could/would not provide.  Similarly, what allowed newspapers successfully to control the tapering off and disappearance of particularly troublesome stories was their readers lack of alternative sources of news that could offer “continuing coverage” of just about any story that interested them. But readers have such alternative sources today, and again it appears that the specialized nature of such alternatives, rather than their being reliable sources of reliable knowledge, is what accounts for their popularity.

If there is a future for newspapers, then, whether in print or available online, it will have to accommodate the strange idea that our taste for “general news” has become as specialized as our taste for the other things we care about. Lippmann’s book from 1922 suggests that the market for “general news” has always been problematic, at least from an editorial standpoint, and that market has only grown more difficult as readers have felt empowered to find alternatives to the principled but limiting decisions of experienced reporters, editors and publishers. What would be worth a grand celebration indeed, in April 2010 perhaps, would be our having several major dailies in the US that showed that the ideas and achievements celebrated at the Newseum were alive and well, and compatible with economic success.

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