by Fred Reed
Whither the competition between the mainstream media and the Internet? It sharpens. The big papers still rule the roost, but they hemorrhage readers and credibility, perhaps more than they know or understand. People move to the web, spend more time online, hold the usual media in decreasing regard. The bright and the young switch effortlessly.
Until recently the paper press, in a display of self-satisfied unalert lordliness, pretty much ignored the web. Imagination has never been newspapering's strong suit. Ah, but we now have competing snobberies: The established press still looks uneasily down on the Web as mere bloggery. Meanwhile the web, brash and assertive and seeing the brass ring within reach, ignores the media, or perhaps more precisely fails to take them seriously while outmaneuvering them. The trend line does not favor newspapers.
Why are print publications in trouble?
To start with, you can't delete a newspaper. Suppose that in a fit of madness I bought the Washington Post — the daily or, worse yet, the Sunday edition. I would begin (and frequently did begin) by throwing out the bundles of advertising flyers. Then the sports pages. Then, probably, the business section, not because business bores me but because it is so badly done in the Post. Next, the Style pages would hit the trash, being cutesy, saccharine, badly written political correctness. Then the classifieds. Then the Metro section, since I don't care about car crashes in Montgomery County or heartwarming but pointless things done by hopelessly correct welfare mothers.
I would end with the A section, in which I would read perhaps two stories and none of the columnists, who are tiresome, predictable, and correct. That's a buck-fifty (I think) for two stories, and then I have to carry the refuse to the dumpster. How much sense does that make?
And newspapers wonder why they lose circulation.
Now, it is important to distinguish between the paper-and-ink version and the online version. The Washington City Paper recently reported that the Post was losing 4,000 subscribers a month — subscribers, not readers: they were switching to the online version. The young, accustomed to the web, decreasingly subscribe at all. What are the economics of a readership tipping more and more to the web? We are about to find out.
Crucially, newspapers have lost control of the means of distribution. Before the web, you pretty much had to use the classified ads in the paper to sell your broken lawnmower, the personal ads to find someone to divorce, and the real-estate section to look for a burdensome mortgage. Now eBay is the national classifieds. Online dating services offer unlimited space for photos, text; online reality sites can carry far more information than a paper. These are important revenue streams. No revenue, no newspaper.
Nowadays papers face a new kind of competition. Before, you read your local paper or, at best, one of a very few. You had no choice. Today people bookmark papers across the globe. What does this do to ad revenue? I'm not going to buy lettuce on special as advertised in The Jerusalem Post.
But the greatest weakness of the American press is moral. Our media are relentlessly, grindingly, hermetically controlled or, as we say, politically correct. Everyone with the brains of an aspirin tablet is aware of it. Newspapers do not so much report the news as avoid it. The taboos are endless and rigid. What reporters know, they do not write; what they write, they do not believe. We all understand exactly what the media can say, can't say, and will say. Sheer dishonesty rubs shoulders with poor content. For example, the coverage of the war in Iraq amounts to crafted acquiescence in lying. Why bother?
The media can't change. They are too close to being part of the government they purport to cover, too steeped in the artificial egalitarianism of the newsroom, too afraid of each other, of advertisers, of being racist or sexist, too big and smug and ossified. They cannot report anything that might disturb blacks, women, homosexuals, Jews, Latinos, or mental defectives. Although the rosy-fingered dawn may now be penetrating the hitherto intractable darkness, too many journalists live in the past. Like IBM when it thought that the personal computer was a funny little typewriter, they stare into the tiger's maw and think that it's a closet. They would probably invest in slide rules.
How are these hobbled organs going to compete with the wild west of the web, with its limitless well-argued sites espousing or denouncing every imaginable point of view? Compete with people who document things that the majors can't even talk about? A conceit of the usual media is that the web consists of inaccurate vanity sites run by teenage bloggers in garages. These exist. So do very researched sites by people who know their fields and are not afraid to talk about them. The difference is stark. The intelligent know it.
Moreover, newspapers cannot specialize. The web can. This isn't critical, but it is another of the countless nibbles of the web at the sagging flesh of newspapers. If you care about planetary exploration, for example, why read a newspaper when you can go to the sites of NASA, the European Space Agency, and Astrobiology magazine? Newspapers by deliberate policy provide dimwitted coverage. A reader invariably finds that he knows more than the reporter about anything that interests him. (Well, sometimes. Often reporters know a lot, but they have to write for the eighth grade. The effect is the same.)
It isn't just information. Newspapers have to pander to the dull political center. Web sites don't. If you want a libertarian view of things, there is LewRockwell.com; left-wing, Counterpunch.org; against the war, Antiwar.com. Many of these sites link to the established media, but only to stories that suit them. Thus the majors do the work, and the blog reaps the benefits.
Finally, websites are not the only competitors facing papers. There are list-serves. For example, I am interested in what is sometimes called human biodiversity, taboo in the media. Invariably the papers peddle the notion, obviously wrong as a matter of daily observation, that people and races are equally intelligent, the sexes identical in their capacities.
The field is fascinating, important, virtually illegal, and studied by exceedingly bright people. Their work is available on the net in the form of list-serves, often by invitation only. These amount to global discussions, by researchers across the whole earth, of what is actually known. Many such lists exist, dealing with everything from weird lapdogs to cryptography.
December 14, 2004
Fred Reed is author of Nekkid in Austin: Drop Your Inner Child Down a Well.
Copyright © 2004 Fred Reed