Friday, December 11, 2009

It All Makes Sense Once You Realize The Business Isn't To Deliver News, But Comfort

A Michael Malone insight:

Newspapers too, seem to have figured out a way to limp along at least for another couple decades (at which point there will be no one left in the country who has actually read a newspaper) by slashing overhead, building marginally profitable web sites, and morphing their product to fit their remaining audiences.

What I mean by the last is that newspapers (and even more obviously, troubled national newsmagazines like Newsweek) have essentially abandoned the news business and gone into the comfort business. In other words, they have a pretty good idea now just who constitutes the heart of their loyal readership, and they write for that group, with the intent of either delivering news that fits their world view or sanitizing bad news that does not. And, since there is no way that they can deliver that information in a timely way – they assume that their readers have already learned from the Web about important events – now it is the paper’s job to reduce any discomfort or cognitive dissonance by contextualize the story into the tribe’s existing prejudices and self-image.

This goes a long ways towards explaining what, to an old newsie like me, has been some strange behavior recently by some of our most venerable and biggest national newspapers. Whatever your politics, as a reporter there are just some stories that you would be all over – and yet, in the last couple years we’ve seen one hot story after another all-but ignored by the traditional media. For example, White House scandals are always big news, yet readers of the New York Times have largely been presented with a series of departures from this Administration without ever having heard about the scandals (covered to exhaustion in the blogosphere) that lead to those departures.

An even bigger example is the so-called ClimateGate scandal of the last few weeks, where leaked emails suggested that some global warming experts were misrepresenting and fudging data, all while punishing apostasy in their ranks, to make their case. Given that we are about to turn the world economy upside-down to prevent perceived man-made global warming, this is about the biggest story imaginable. And yet, days went by before most newspapers even deigned to report the story, in many cases using the occasion to defend the scientists.

Appalling, sure, but why do it? I’ve puzzled over this for a long time. I don’t entirely buy the argument that it is politics, pure and simple. I think it is more than that: that newspapers and their editors want to give their declining pools of readers what they want to read – and when the news, no matter how juicy, is not just going to be upsetting (that’s usually okay), but challenges their sense of the way the world works, the story has to be spiked, dribbled out carefully, or swathed in more comforting ‘analysis’.

Will this new editorial model work to save newspapers? Well, it seems to be hanging on to that residual group of loyal, but aging, readers. It doesn’t seem to be capturing any new young readers.

So perhaps the real business model is simple codependancy.

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