Demise of the Printed Newspaper and Evolution of the New Media Environment for Public Affairs
Reflections of an Old Polinerd
I believe there is great wisdom in reading words from the wise. My good friend Jess Brown is one of those people in whom we find great wisdom.
Dr. Brown was our political consultant and elections’ analyst for the almost 13 years I worked at WAAY-TV in the 1980s and 90s. He was our go-to expert on everything political. Jess was always available to help our journalists understand any political issue, whether it was of local, state, regional or national importance.
I’m very pleased to share this insightful article with you from Jess Brown.
Jess Brown, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of Government and Public Affairs at Athens State University (AL). He retired in 2016 after 35 years in the collegiate classroom, having taught courses about American politics. Beginning in 1981, he has served as an analyst and guest commentator for media in the Huntsville area. His expertise and practical experiences in polling, lobbying and the legislative process resulted in 40 years of substantial interaction with Alabama’s print and electronic media. For almost a decade, he was a weekly guest on The Dale Jackson Show, the most prominent talk radio program of Alabama’s Tennessee Valley region. Currently he is the chief political analyst for WHNT, the CBS affiliate in Huntsville.
Dr. Brown is a native Alabamian who has had a front-row seat for almost four decades of media coverage about public affairs in the state. He is probably the only university professor in the state with practical experiences in the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government. Early in his career, he was elected President of the state’s Political Science Association, the professional association representing those who teach and research about politics in the state’s institutions of higher learning.
Two different governors have given him commendations for outstanding service to the state, and the legislature passed a joint resolution in his honor when he retired. He is known for candid and independent evaluations of issues and candidates.
I am a retired university prof who taught undergraduate courses about elections, public opinion, and state and local governments for 35 years. My Ph.D is in political science and supplemented by some practical experiences in campaigns, lobbying and work in a municipal planning department.
Friends assert that my personal DNA contains an element of Alabama politics since I was introduced to the subject matter by a grandfather who took me to “Big Jim” Folsom rallies in the 1950s. I quickly learned, like Shakespeare, that the most fascinating human drama is associated with political conflict.
My roots are also deep in terms of watching media cover public affairs. For the past 40 years I have interacted with mass media, almost exclusively in Alabama, but was never an employee or under contract. With two exceptions I have served as an election night commentator for Huntsville television stations during every primary and general election since 1982.
My academic training and experiences in polling, primarily exit polling, led to periodic involvement with both print and electronic media across Alabama, especially in the Tennessee Valley region of north Alabama. Over time, my interaction with media extended from reflections about candidates and campaigns near election day to recurring commentary about the state legislature and high profile issues. Eventually I was called upon to assist reporters with story background and to advise news directors occasionally about election night coverage and debates, etc.
Let me emphasize! I was never a member of the community of journalists and have never had to walk in their shoes. But, I am an academic who has perhaps gleaned a few insights about transitions in media after having had a ring-side seat at critical times during the past four decades.
Based on encouragement from Mr. McGee, I want to share a few of those insights. Some may be evident and may only serve to reinforce the existing views of those in the profession. Others may be controversial and will hopefully serve as food for thought. All of them, if true, will have a major impact on the operation of the American democracy.
Demise and Non-Use of the Printed Newspaper
My reflections focus on the demise of the traditional printed newspaper and the cascading effects of this development on coverage of public affairs.
I perceive myself as a realist, not an ideologue. The traditional form of the printed newspaper is largely gone. It isn’t coming back. However, it is important for us to be cognizant of how the new and evolving media environment is not ideal for operation of the American democracy.
The advent of the web and the pervasive access to and use of it have revolutionized mass media. While there are many benefits, one of the casualties of this development has been the economic viability and accessibility of the printed version of the daily and weekly newspaper in the U.S. Citizens today have decided that they will not pay for what they sense is free and more convenient on the web.
To date, there has been no comparable replacement for the printed newspaper. In terms of the quantity and quality of information provided to Americans about public affairs, the printed newspaper, guided by traditional norms of journalism, remains the standard. The lion’s share of contemporary articles accessed via our “clicks” as well as the brief video snippets, which clutter many websites, are weak sources of civic information when compared to the typical article found for many years routinely in our newspapers.
Primary Impact at State and Local Levels
It is especially tragic when one discovers that the primary loss of civic information pertains to state and especially local levels of government. It is those levels of government which deliver most services to Americans. Most elections and campaigns are about state and local offices, not D.C. And, if the citizen seeks personal involvement, their ability to impact the process is much greater at these levels than at the national capitol.
Fifty years ago, many newspapers, whether small town weeklies or large city dailies, were staffed and operated in a manner which covered not merely the governor and legislature, but other state offices and agencies. More importantly, units of local government were covered, including low visibility but important entities, such as planning commissions, school boards, hospital boards, and utility boards. Every meeting of a city council and a county commission received attention.
Electronic media was subsidized and influenced by this coverage. Local radio and television recognized the value of the newspaper. It was treated as the foundation for civic information needed by voters. Newsrooms of local tv and radio stations were filled with news print. Electronic media relied upon the newspaper for stories/story ideas about state and especially local governments.
My fear is that many of those important pieces of government covered by traditional newspapers have gone from low visibility to largely invisible. And, as any student who made even a “C” in civics can attest, this is a very unhealthy development for the functioning of a republic. However, it is welcomed by those special interest stakeholders who benefit from less visible and, thereby, less unaccountable government.
Ineffective Replacement for the Print Newspaper
The assumption that today’s tv stations, online newspapers, or social media outlets are effective replacements for the traditional print newspaper is flawed. There are many reasons.
TV stations need video; remember, it is teleVISION! They ultimately sell a moving picture. Board meetings of local governments or the line-item contents of an annual state budget often make a boring visual when compared to many other social happenings. The greater the emotional content of the video, the more the tv station attracts and maintains viewers. As a seasoned news director told me at one point, “Jess, I must make them (viewers) glad, mad, or sad with every story.” This orientation means that decisions at the planning commission, even those with multi-million dollar implications, will be ignored in favor of a nighttime house fire on Elm Street.
The online newspapers (and a few are quite good in light of the available resources) and social media outlets oriented to public affairs compete with an ocean of other offerings on the huge web. There is an unlimited number of free outlets, growing exponentially each day, and easily accessed by a voter.
This atomization of the largely free mass media via the web permits a large segment of the electorate to either avoid information about public affairs altogether or to select a specialized source produced by an interest group or blogger. These latter sources often cover a narrow spectrum of news or exist only to reinforce a particular viewpoint. They are sometimes commentary camouflaged as news, and a growing number of citizens tragically cannot distinguish the two.
The traditional print newspaper of record in a community was something a relatively large number of educated citizen-voters paid for. It was a physical object to be held and touched. A voter was incentivized to use it because he/she paid for it. The voter was likely to at least scan several elements of the publication, especially those on the front page. It was not expected to be free! It was an object of value! It was trusted!
Admittedly, the voter was somewhat captured by this traditional print source. It enjoyed a near monopoly. Many publishers, editors, and reporters understood their monopoly and the newspaper’s special social role; most cherished and protected it. Media leaders were high profile and respected in their communities.
News, Infotainment and Profit
Over time, locally owned newspapers with journalists at the helm were absorbed by corporate chains; a business school model started to dominate the newspaper. The orientation of the MBA replaced that of a reporter. Within the major chains local editorial discretion was replaced by a cookie-cutter model for news. These developments gradually produced a series of undesirable results for operation of the American democracy.
Increasingly, civic enlightenment and aggressive journalism were relegated to a secondary status. Profits were to be maximized and labor costs minimized. The sharp teeth of an aggressive media watchdog over government were smoothed. Newspaper owners and their publishers/editors wanted to make sure they were loved at the country club and not accused of bias. They avoided alienating advertisers and subscribers at all costs. Courage in the culture of journalism apparently waned.
News at the newspaper, as reflected on the all-important front page, was substantially redefined with a larger and larger dose of creative pandering and emotional appeals, not traditional news. There was less and less information in print and more and more visuals! The rapid rise of USA Today in its printed version was perhaps a forewarning of future media.
Historically journalists had been socialized by education and experience to conceptualize news in a manner that was not in the heads of those with business degrees. True journalists understood that traditional news stories, and even the reason for a First Amendment, ultimately must focus on two central questions, both of which are linked to the operation of a democratic republic. What does a citizen need to know to be an informed and rational voter in the next election? How is the government using the taxpayer’s money?
The more media deviate from these two questions, the more it is some form of entertainment or, at best, socially useful information, such as the weather forecast or traffic report.
One should never assert that the traditional newspapers were pure journalism operating without any regard for the financial bottom line. American media has always been primarily a private sector operation in a capitalist economy. For economic reasons, there has always been, of necessity, a balancing act between so-called “hard” or traditional news and infotainment. But, the balance has been seriously altered in the last forty years to the detriment of civic enlightenment. The demise of the traditional print newspaper as the bastion or bone marrow for civic information is a major if not the major reason for this growing imbalance.
News Coverage and the Web
The definition of news and coverage of contemporary public affairs via the online format are often not determined based on an editorial judgment by a seasoned journalist. On the positive side, online presentations allow the posting of a large number of stories and information. However, whether the item remains highlighted or highly profiled for the user of the website in the Internet ocean is determined by a computer program which rewards the number of “clicks” by website users. I am told that reporters in some media operations are now conditioned to ask one question: how many “clicks” will the article get?
The estimated or actual number of “clicks” partially controls what information is deemed newsworthy. Consumer interest, reflecting a business model, seems to have more and more impact on the stream of information to voters. Stories about snakes in toilets, a debate about whether the official state bread should be biscuits or cornbread, and almost anything about UA football genius, Coach Nick Saban, is effectively prioritized in the definition of Alabama news.
From a strictly business perspective, this is great! Little time or specialized labor is needed to generate the story, but the “clicks” are numerous. There is virtually no social conflict associated with the topic. The cost-benefit ratio of this approach is music to the ears of those seeking business efficiency or return-on-investment rather than civic enlightenment.
Some of the newer online news outlets with no tradition in print media are especially problematic. They often seem to manifest patently obvious conflicts of interest in the definition and coverage of news. A noticeable number of their editors have had recent affiliations with interest groups, elected officials, political parties, etc. On occasion, they openly characterize themselves as cheerleaders for a particular ideology, such as libertarianism. Some of the outlet’s primary advertisers are associations with large and active lobbying efforts in legislative bodies. Interviews are disproportionately with those who reinforce the story’s narrative.
These new web-only media outlets seemingly target citizens with intensely partisan or single-issue views. This environment seems to be a “far cry” from the internal operating cultures of the vast majority of traditional print newspapers. Increasingly, these relatively new media entities seem to be controlled by political operatives who want to operate with the aura of journalism. This is true of the political left and right. Perhaps the great case study of this development is Roger Ailes of the very successful Fox News venture.
Encroachment of political operatives into the front offices of online newspapers cannot be viewed as a positive development. Their underlying motivation is promotion of a party, issue or ideology. They seem to have a mission more associated with indoctrination or winning the next election than enlightenment. They operate as a megaphone for a cause. Ironically, they then shout the word “BIAS” loudly and routinely at others in the media.
I would love to be more hopeful, but the landscape of media coverage about public affairs looks bleak to this old polinerd. The capacity or potential for a more enlightened citizenry should have been greatly enhanced by the advent and use of the web. But, to date, I do not see this potential becoming a reality.
The demise of the traditional print newspaper governed largely by well-developed standards of journalism is probably a fait accompli. The new media environment consisting of tv stations and online sites is not a comparable replacement.
Most voters, especially those with an intense interest in politics, are not better informed by this cacophony of new voices on the web. The amount of web-based information is huge; quality control, political detachment, and, for some, courage are sorely missing.
Today’s environment facilitates many voters going down an emotionally appealing rat hole of institutionalized bias or superficial information. Many voter groups instinctively gravitate to and utilize only those sources which reinforce the voter’s existing political views and values. They become rabid partisans or single issue crusaders who view themselves as well-informed patriots!
In a socially diverse and demographically-shifting society like the U.S., that is a prescription for a political climate where compromise needed to address key social ills will be consistently lacking. Many voters have a perception of political reality that is based on getting information that only hardens their existing views, day after day.
With a highly fragmented voter population, attempts to “reset” the direction of government after bitter election disputes will only fail. The capacity of elections to legitimize the government for a wide swath of the citizenry will become less and less.
As we are already seeing in Congress and some states, legislative bodies will become nothing more than hyper-partisan noisemakers. Compromise after debate and deliberation will be a rare occurrence.
Over time, these conditions will lead to serious systemic instability. Cynicism and rage are and will be prevalent among the electorate.
The media’s coverage of public affairs in the American democracy is woefully lacking and contributes to this malady. This condition, if continued, is the seed corn for making us an ungovernable people and a declining world power.
Jess Brown, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, Athens State University (AL)
Thank you, Dr. Brown! I appreciate you sharing your wisdom and insight with our readers.
I was a State Correspondent for the Atlanta Journal and Constitution newspapers in the 1980s. It was during that time, after spending years in broadcast journalism, that I learned the immense power of the printed page. There is something quite special and unique (especially today) about getting your news from large, thick newspapers to take a deeper dive into the news of the day.
What did I learn? How much more information you got from newspapers. I was writing for two wire services, several radio networks, and a television station at the same time. Here’s an example of the expected word count from each story I covered for them —
Wire Services (AP, UPI) — 30 words
Radio — 40 words (including one actuality)
Television — 40 words for anchor read — 100 words for reporter package (including soundbites)
Newspaper — 750 words
I remember the challenge of covering multiple stories every day and managing the word count for the different news outlets. I quickly learned from working for the Atlanta newspapers that I had to take copious notes and quote a lot of people to write at least 750 words per story. Writing an article for the Sunday edition of the papers was even more challenging. It had to be twice as long as a weekday article. There’s a reason newspapers wielded such great power in their day. It was also an excellent experience as a journalist.
The printed page may not be coming back, but I see no reason why real journalism can’t make a comeback. I quite agree with Dr. Brown’s analysis and can only hope that journalists in our country find the strength to do the job they signed up to do.
My next newsletter will begin looking at three important things journalists should follow as they gather, confirm, and report the news. I can promise you that if journalists would focus on these three things, and do a very good job at it, the news media could literally impact a country’s future for the better.
I hope these thoughts are helpful to you as a journalist or news consumer. Please share your comments and I’ll respond as quickly as I can. If you like what we’re doing in this newsletter, please let your friends know about it so they can subscribe.
The purpose of this newsletter is to help journalists understand how to do real journalism and the public know how they can find news they can trust on a daily basis. It’s a simple purpose, but complicated to accomplish. We’ll do our best to make it as clear as we can in future newsletters.
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