October 2, 2009
Read All About ItBy Lloyd Brown
When I started in the newspaper business, Elvis Presley was a rising star, and newspapers were alive and thriving. Today, Elvis is dead and newspapers are in the hospice.
Then, there were 1,750 newspapers and three out of four people read them. More importantly, most readers believed what they read.
Newspapers had little competition until the 1960s, when television became a competitor.
In the 1970s, trust in newspapers, and the media in general, began to decline and newspaper readership, which peaked in 1970, soon followed. As the Internet developed in the late 1990s, newspapers scoffed at first, then tried frantically to catch up, but never developed a formula for garnering revenue from the new delivery system. In effect, they were giving away their product.
By the time I retired in 2004, newspapers clearly were on the road to irrelevance. What happened? Suicide.
For whatever reason, newspapers became glaringly partisan. People no longer trust them to present facts objectively. Recently Pew Research Center found trust at a two-decade low.
By itself, that might not have been fatal. In their early days, newspapers were partisan. It was impossible to tell the difference between news and opinion in their columns.
The major difference is that most towns of any size in early America had more than one newspaper and usually they were of a different political persuasion. People would read the Federalist paper and then look to see what the Anti-Federalist paper had to say in rebuttal, for example, thus getting both sides.
After yellow journalism at the turn of the century, newspapers began striving for objectivity and separating fact from opinion. It built readership, but the trend in the late 20th century was for most papers to become liberal, reflecting the makeup in their newsrooms, which itself reflected the state of public education and academia.
Thus, they separated themselves from their readers, who always have been more conservative.
The attitude I often encountered in newsrooms was (paraphrased): "People are stupid. We will tell them what to think."
But talk radio and the Internet increased competition in the marketplace of ideas and today, a president cannot lie and mislead and have a media shield to protect him.
Newspapers no longer can get away with selectively covering the news for partisan reasons, as the once-profitable New York Times has been doing with stories such as the ACORN scandal.
Newspapers once were a necessity. So were blacksmith shops. Today information is widely available -- and so is analysis of that information from every perspective.
From 50 years of perspective, I find this preferable, and refreshing. But I think newspapers would have a larger niche today if they just had been fair with their customers.
Lloyd Brown is a retired editorial page editor and occasional blogger.