Web, not bias, offing papers

by Dave Kopel

December 13, 2008

'Final Edition." The words that could appear on the Rocky Mountain News in a few weeks. After nearly 150 years, what has brought the oldest business in Denver to the brink of destruction?

Some words I've never written before, but they are apt now: Mike Littwin is right. The notion that media bias is the main cause of the newspapers' troubles is ludicrous.

Media bias is a severe, pervasive problem. Mark Halperin, the editor of Time magazine's political Web site The Page, is the embodiment of the media establishment. At a November conference at the University of Southern California, he decried the media's "disgusting failure" in 2008 because of its "extreme bias, extreme pro-Obama coverage."

For the sake of argument, hypothesize that Halperin's point could accurately be generalized to lots of other news topics. Even so, bias is not what's killing the Rocky.

The combined subscriptions for the Rocky and The Denver Post are down by about half since 2000, and maybe some readers quit because of bias. But there's another explanation: Before the joint operating agreement, both papers fought circulation wars by selling very low-cost subscriptions. After the JOA, subscription prices rose significantly, so subscription numbers fell. They fell further as the spread of broadband made it easy to read papers for free.

Moreover, media bias is nothing new. In 1814 Thomas Jefferson wrote, "I deplore . . . the putrid state into which our newspapers have passed and the malignity, the vulgarity and mendacious spirit of those who write for them . . . This has, in a great degree, been produced by the violence and malignity of party spirit."

After Jefferson came the Age of Jackson and then the antebellum years - periods when much of the press was as venomously partisan and indifferent to the truth as in 1814. Yet newspapers prospered. Then, as now, many readers preferred a newspaper that would validate their prejudices.

The Rocky Mountain News of the early 20th century was vastly more biased than anyone could claim it is today. The Rocky was the crusading voice of its owner, Democratic politician Thomas Patterson, a vituperative enemy of the Denver political establishment. The Denver Post hired goons who beat up Patterson, but his paper remained a viable business.

While the Denver metro and national populations grow, the number of readers shrinks. A 2007 study by the National Endowment for the Arts, To Read or Not to Read, and a 2004 study by the National Education Association document the sharp decline in reading over the last two decades, especially among young people.

More and more people are so intellectually lazy that reading one romance novel per year is too much effort. It's a stretch to imagine that the reason such cretins don't subscribe to the Rocky is that, for example, they noticed its science coverage is too credulous about environmental panic-mongering.

To ascribe to bias the cash-flow disaster at the Rocky - and at American newspapers in general - is like wagging your finger at a guy who's 150 pounds overweight and who smokes four packs of cigarettes, and telling him, "Your lifestyle is very unhealthy." Your advice may be right, but it's trivial when there is a more immediate threat to his survival - like he's being run over by a Mack truck.

Subscription declines are very bad long-term news for newspapers, but the more immediate, and perhaps fatal problem is the decline in advertising revenues. The current recession aggravates the problem, but the Rocky and the Post both survived the Hoover-FDR Great Depression.

It's true that new digital media have drawn away some of the retail store advertising dollars that would have gone to the newspapers. But radio and then television did the same thing, and newspapers still survived.

The newspaper killer is Craigslist. In 1995, a furniture store had the choice of advertising in newspapers, television or the radio. But if you wanted to sell your own dining-room set, the newspaper classified advertisement was the only realistic way to reach a large audience of buyers. Classified ad rates were, inevitably, set at the revenue-maximizing levels befitting a near-monopoly. (Or, in Denver, a duopoly.)

At the charter school where I volunteer, when we needed to hire a new teacher five years ago, we spent hundreds of dollars on ads in the Post, Rocky and Boulder Daily Camera. We couldn't afford the extra money to say "Please send a writing sample."

Today, on Craigslist, we can supply all the job details. Along with ads on other Web sites (e.g., the French teachers' association), we get more, better applicants for free than when had to pay for classified ads. Good news for microcommerce, but catastrophic for newspapers.

Many conservatives fantasize that a reader revolt against bias is killing the Rocky and its brethren. They are like the rooster who thinks he made the sun rise.

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