The Newspaper Slump: Blaming the Bloggers

If you're wondering who's to blame for the slump in newspaper revenue over the past few years, Kathleen Parker has what she believes to be the answer: the "drive-by punditry":

Drive-by pundits, to spin off of Rush Limbaugh's "drive-by media," are non-journalists who have been demonizing the media for the past 20 years or so and who blame the current news crisis on bias.

There is surely room for media criticism, and a few bad actors in recent years have badly frayed public trust. And, yes, some newspapers are more liberal than their readership and do a lousy job of concealing it.

But the greater truth is that newspaper reporters, editors, and institutions are responsible for the boots-on-the-ground grub work that produces the news stories and performs the government watchdog role so crucial to a democratic republic.

Unfortunately, the chorus of media bashing from certain quarters has succeeded in convincing many Americans that they don't need newspapers. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press recently found that fewer than half of Americans -- 43 percent -- say that losing their local newspaper would hurt civic life in their community "a lot." Only 33 percent say they would miss the local paper if it were no longer available.

A Zogby poll in 2008 showed that, overall, 48% of respondents primarily get their news from the Internet, 29% from television, 11% from radio, and 10% from newspapers. Breaking it down into age groups, more people 18-29 get their news primarily online than from any other source.

This isn't really surprising, considering how many younger people are comfortable with computers and rely heavily on other technology such as cell phones with Internet access and iPods that can be used to download everything from music to movies. Also, having grown up in a society that has morphed from "work hard and eventually you get what you want" to "gotta have it now," rightly or wrongly, Internet news fits right in with their view of how things work.

The old "anticipation" ad campaign for Heinz ketchup probably wouldn't have caught on today.

A more interesting poll might be how many Americans follow news regularly, no matter what the source. Some people have no idea what's going on in the world and some, including a relative of mine, seem to be proud of that fact. I frankly find that more disturbing than whether people have a higher opinion of Internet news than newsprint news.

Looking at the "overall" results above, seeing as television beats out newspapers, would Parker be willing to blame television for the downturn in newspaper revenue as well? Somehow I doubt it, especially seeing as since she turned thumbs down on Sarah Palin during the campaign last year, she's been a sought-after "conservative voice" on the talking heads programs. Plus, she's had it in for bloggers for some time now. Let's travel back to 2005:

There's something frankly creepy about the explosion we now call the blogosphere -- the big-bang "electroniverse" where recently wired squatters set up new camps each day. As I write, the number of "blogs" (web logs) and "bloggers" (those who blog) is estimated in the tens of millions worldwide. ...

Bloggers persist no matter their contributions or quality, though most would have little to occupy their time were the mainstream media to disappear tomorrow. Some bloggers do their own reporting, but most rely on mainstream reporters to do the heavy lifting. Some bloggers also offer superb commentary, but most babble, buzz, and blurt like caffeinated adolescents competing for the Ritalin generation's inevitable senior superlative: Most Obsessive-Compulsive. ...

Each time I wander into blogdom, I'm reminded of the savage children stranded on an island in William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Without adult supervision, they organize themselves into rival tribes, learn to hunt and kill, and eventually become murderous barbarians in the absence of a civilizing structure.

But, really, she's "been a blog fan from the beginning." She says so, right after talking about how "creepy" the whole thing is.

Some blogs are obviously better than others at offering criticism and analysis, and savvy web consumers should be trusted to separate the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps, though, that's the problem in Parker's eyes: there's no guiding force behind blogs to lead the consumer correctly down the primrose path. She claims in her 2005 opinion piece that "people tend to abuse power when it's unearned," meaning bloggers. But what about the power of the traditional press? How did they earn their power? By being the only game in town, with self-selected editors to decide what's news and what's not and from which angle to report it?

Don't forget that many newspapers and other news outlets -- CNN, Fox, etc. -- have websites. Where does their complicity lie in all of this?

Reasonable people would not say they want newspapers to fold -- that means lost jobs and less focus on local news. We understand, as Parker constantly reminds us, that reporters in the field do most of the grunt work when it comes to collecting the news of the day. Yet do we not have a right to complain when, for example, photos are doctored? It was a blog that discovered that little gem from Reuters. When a company like Microsoft offers a faulty product and people stop buying it, Microsoft does what it can to improve the product and thus improve the bottom line. Yet the mainstream media continue on their merry way, preferring to blame the consumer rather than look at their business practices and ask, "What can we do to fix this?" And I'm not referring to layoffs.

Most of us would like newspapers -- and television, for that matter -- to present the news in a manner free from bias. And if they still prefer to put their spin on things, how about listing which political party -- if any -- the staffers belong to? That way we can connect the dots and "read between the lines." Don't tell me media folks are unbiased (right or left). Everyone has an opinion. It's when you let that opinion seep into your reporting without being honest about it that it becomes a problem. I'm not talking about commentators either -- they by their nature are expected to display bias one way or another. It's part of their job description.

I wonder if Parker ever ponders the irony that as she bemoans the "creepy explosion" of the blogosphere, the existence of said blogosphere has given her work much more exposure than back in the day when her column only existed in newspapers that were tossed onto people's doorsteps. People all over the nation and all over the world can read her columns and either agree with her -- or not.

You're welcome, Kathleen.