Failing newspapers, damaged democracy

This is the script of a “class lecture” I presented October 4, 2017, as part of the ALP (Adult Learning Program) class series in the Hartford area, sponsored by the University of Connecticut.

I’m going to start from a point almost six decades ago, with a goal of helping you understand the economics of why newspapers and television news, as we have known them, are failing.

I was hired by the Hartford Times in 1958, starting with a rare three-month “internship”: Before I began in the newsroom, I spent a week to as much as three weeks in every department of the newspaper.  Great program, pity they dropped it; when I became editor I knew more about how to collaborate with other departments than any of my predecessors.

The advertising that supports journalism:

My first three weeks were in advertising, where I learned that The Hartford Times spent a lot of effort trying to show how many people read or looked at each copy of the paper: husband, wife and kids at home; secretaries and colleagues at the office. We claimed readership that came close to tripling the actual number of copies we printed each day, in an effort to persuade advertisers to buy ads. This was so imaginative that I wondered, if we saw someone grab a page of The Times flying down the sidewalk in the wind, and put it in a trash can, we might count another reader.

We sold ads for a fixed price per column inch, on the explicit understanding that every ad would adjoin, even if only for an inch or two, a “news” story.  No one paid for “placement,” but the big advertisers – the biggest being G Fox & Co – told us what pages they wanted, and got them.  No one paid more per column inch in high shopping seasons, nor less in off-seasons. Advertising took up, on average, 70% of each day’s paper; what we called the “news hole” (which included comics pages, obits, TV listings, etc etc) was 30%.

(BTW, then as now, right-hand pages were preferred placement for ads, because most of us hold the paper & turn pages so we see the right-hand pages first. G. Fox always dominated page three)

When advertisers wanted to advertise more, we just added pages, making the paper bigger – but still being sure that every ad adjoined some “news.”  On Thanksgiving, we printed what we called the “Holly Edition,” to kick off Christmas shopping, that ran about 300 pages – and had a LOT of pre-written junk – soft features that only an ad man would describe as news.

One more note from my through-the-departments internship: In the circulation department, I learned that if we ran raw newsprint through empty presses with no type – that is, no news or advertising – folding and delivering blank paper to subscribers, what readers paid for the paper would NOT cover the costs.  Advertising was essential to journalism. True then, true now – which, as I’ll get to in a moment, is a strong point for online digital newspapers, whose delivery cost is minimal.

Some years later, when I was editor of what was by then a failing Hartford Times, I had a painful reminder that ads were not just a necessary evil: subscribers wanted them. Example: Sage-Allen, a new tenant of the new Westfarms mall, had an opening sale: the Courant had ten pages; we had two. Readers called me to complain, and some threatened to cancel.

And it wasn’t only what we called “display ads” that sustained the newspaper; classified ads were a service readers wanted, too, and we ran eight or so pages a day.

Obituaries were at the time a free service – later they would become more like classified ads – and thanks to the insistence of florist advertisers, obits were not allowed to say “in lieu of flowers, give to [some charity]”.

I mention that because it showed the power of advertisers. The expression of that power varies from one era to another, but it’s there. In the Hartford Times of the 60s, the bereaved, through the funeral directors who phoned in obituaries, might get away with saying “gifts to such-and-such charity are encouraged,” but NOT “in lieu of flowers.”

I’ll get back to classified ads in a moment. First, though, a side note on the death of afternoon papers.

Ours was accelerated by an anachronistic approach to advertising by Gannett, which owned The Hartford Times. Our slogan in 1958 was “news where it counts” – by which we meant where G.Fox delivered. The morning Courant was smarter: Its publisher realized that a growing number of postwar advertisers – cigarettes, liquor, cars, pharmaceuticals, etc., etc. – didn’t care where people lived or where they bought products — that were by and large not delivered anyway.

The Courant expanded out into far suburbs and small cities that we didn’t bother with. The Times had been dominant in the early years after World War II; by the time I arrived, we were neck-and-neck, and they soon outstripped us in circulation.

The Courant, like all morning newspapers, had two advantages in its expansion into exurbs: delivering in the middle of the night with no traffic – and having on doorsteps, at dawn, news that most people hadn’t yet heard.

By contrast, ALL American evening newspapers suffered the opposite: By the time we got the paper to readers’ doorsteps – a paper printed early in the afternoon because we had to fight daytime traffic – much of the page one news seemed stale to people who’d heard it on their car radios on the way home from work.

On radio—and soon on TV. The growing attractiveness of the six o’clock TV news exacerbated our problem of stale news. People not only heard our page-one news on the car radio; they sat in their living rooms and watched it in color – and so, on the big stories of the day, our newspaper seemed out of date.

Faced with the new competition from TV, which was by then in color, we and every other newspaper began printing color photos on page one. A colleague remarked that the Hartford Times’ first page-one color photo looked as though printed on cornbread. It took us a while to get the hang of printing color on a few pages, and years longer until color could appear anywhere in the paper.

We, like almost all news operations, were part of the Associated Press, so were obliged to share our news; there was actually an AP telegrapher in the Times newsroom who got carbon copies that he keyboarded out by telegraph. If we wanted to be sure we got credit for a story, we copyrighted it, so others would have to say “in a copyrighted story, the Hartford Times reported that . . . .”

What was on television in those days was largely drawn from The Times and The Courant. Direct evidence of that: One of my predecessors as editor had begun a late, street-sale-only edition called the Green Stripe – printed right after the stock markets closed, so that we had closing prices – and also the results of most of the New England horse races that afternoon. We sold 10,000 copies daily, sending them as far as Rhode Island, despite commuter traffic.

Besides late stocks and horse races, we always found a late-breaking news story – often a wire story whose importance we exaggerated – that we bannered in huge (two-inch) headline type across the top of page one.  Channel Three sent a kid down the street every day to wait for the Green Stripe to appear, buy two copies, and run them back to the television news studio. Usually, that story was read by an anchor on the six o’clock news. They probably had it on the AP wire anyway, but our two-inch headline persuaded them that it was worth using.

When I became editor, the effects of that journalistic larceny came home to me vividly. Several days a week, I’d get phone calls from subscribers, asking why a story they’d heard on Channel Three hadn’t been in their Hartford Times. I found it painful to explain that we’d printed their paper in early or mid-afternoon in order to get it to them — and that Channel Three had gotten that news item from our late, street–sale-only edition.

Sometimes callers would ask to be transferred to the circulation department so they could cancel their subscriptions. Not the kind of call a new editor wants to hear.

All those factors, plus our lack of a Sunday paper — which we finally started, far too late — meant the Courant grew increasingly profitable while The Times slid into the red, and died in 1976 – followed, in the next few years, by a parade of evening newspapers gone belly-up.

Just a bit of personal biography: Gannett sold the paper in 1973 to the very conservative New Haven Register, and against all odds, a year later, I became editor-in-chief. But the new owners wanted my prize-winning liberal editorial page to sound like theirs. A.J. Liebling wrote that freedom of the press is reserved to those who own one. They owned it; I didn’t. I would have preferred to go down with the ship — The Times closed a year later — but after a half-year of skirmishes with my new publisher, I resigned.. After three months considering offers from newspapers in other cities, my wife and I decided that we had a lot invested in Hartford, and

I moved to WFSB-TV Channel 3 in 1975, and began learning new kinds of journalism . . . and advertising.

The first thing I discovered was that every reporter – there were ten of us when I arrived – found rolled into the platen of his or her typewriter every morning one or two missives from the assignment editor –almost invariably a clipping from the Hartford Times or Courant, or from another Connecticut newspaper. The assignment: Go out and tell this story in pictures. Improve it if you can, but come back with at least a video version of what the newspapers had reported.

I’d been hired in part to help Channel Three develop more independent reporting capacity, and we did – but when I left after ten years there were still newspaper clippings on everyone’s typewriter every morning.

Let me go back to the economics of journalism:

I soon learned that advertising was sold differently at television stations. Whereas newspapers had to guess how many people glanced at their product every day, TV relied on independent analysis – Nielsen, Roper – that determined with some precision the size of our audience at any given moment, and even the age and gender of those tuned in.

Unlike The Hartford Times, which could and did print 300 pages of Christmas ads on Thanksgiving Day, television stations couldn’t add more hours in a day, so time slots were, in effect, auctioned off. The most important thing the station manager did was establish, each week, the bid price for each slot in each hour of the broadcast day.

His goal was to SELL – get income from – every one of the ten minutes or so of ad time in each daytime and evening hour – so he did not have to fill any primetime minutes with free PSAs, public service announcements. TV stations have to renew their licenses periodically, and show the FCC that they operate in the public interest. Public service announcements are submitted as evidence of serving the public interest – but are best relegated to the middle of the night when few are listening, and even fewer want to buy ads.

(Did you catch that, as I recall it, in those days we ran, at most times of the day, ten minutes of ads each hour?    I don’t need to tell you the ratio is higher nowadays.)

One result of the way TV ads were sold was that just before Christmas, the station manager set a very high rate for prime-time and even off-peak hours, and the station made a lot of money. Right after Christmas, demand fell, so even in prime time the price per minute was set low, and one saw ads for Ginsu knives, home remedies and other inexpensive stuff that couldn’t afford TV advertising in high season.

Those of you who watch the news on TV: Notice that as Christmas approaches, ads are for expensive things – and right after Christmas, cheap stuff floods the airwaves.

AND . . Another look at advertising: This was about the time I began marketing a Jamaican vacation rental property, so I became an advertiser myself, placing my ads in Saturday Review (remember that one?), Atlantic, Harper’s and others, looking for an upscale audience. Like the Hartford Times, those magazines tried to persuade me that each copy of the magazine passed through the hands    and past the eyes . . .of lots of people, and that I was reaching the demographic most likely to vacation in the Caribbean.

Within that decade I encountered a brand-new way to gauge my audience – on the Internet, on Google, an approach then called “pay per click.”

I chose a few key words, like Jamaica vacation rental/hideaway, and said how much I’d pay for each response, another auction approach. I won’t bore you with details; the key was that if someone Googled those words, they might see my ad in a side column – and if they clicked to read more about the place, I paid. If no one clicked, I paid nothing.

For all of us here, of course, that’s so routine that it seems hardly worth comment. But it represented a radically different approach from The Times or WFSB or the Saturday Review – I got exactly the SIZE audience I paid for — or to put it another way, I paid only for the audience that responded to my ads.

Since then internet advertising has become ubiquitous, and even more sophisticated: If I were still advertising that vacation villa – I sold it last year — I could specify demographics: Tell Google (or Bing, or Amazon, or Facebook, or Yahoo) — to show my ad only in certain geographic areas, to people of a certain age and income who were more likely to be able to afford a Caribbean vacation.

Unless we Internet users take cumbersome steps to prevent it, all those websites keep track of what we look up or ask about, and sell the information to each other. Our lives and tastes and prejudices and even approximate incomes are . . . an open book.

An example: I last year wrote a short story about a retired man who found his old high school trombone in the attic, and bought something to lubricate the slide. I’d been a trombone player; we kept the slide limber with Pond’s cold cream, spritzed with water, but trombone oil came on the market just as I gave it up. I couldn’t remember the name of that oil, so I Googled, found the brand I remembered, put that into the story, and forgot about it.

But I couldn’t forget: For weeks I was barraged with ads not only for trombone oil, but also for trombones, trumpets, valve oil, other brass instruments, and sheet music for bands.

You’ve probably experienced this. If you haven’t, or haven’t recognized what was going on, try Googling something like “sports car” . . . click on a few of the offerings . . . then watch how many ads you suddenly see for Jaguars or Porsches or Miatas.

I want to come back to this point in a few minutes, so please remember: It is now possible to specify, in extraordinary detail, who is exposed to your Internet advertising – OR . .  to your tweets or comments in social media. . . or the news hoaxes you plant here and there. Keep that in mind.

Before I get to that, let me hammer home the point that in this brave new world, newspapers have a hard time selling ad space.

Classified, once a major part of ad revenue, is a shadow of its former self; you can sell stuff less expensively (or buyers can find it more easily) on Craigs List or eBay or other web sites.

That’s why newspapers lobby like crazy – successfully, so far – to keep a lock on a special kind of classified ad – “legal notices”. State law requires that notice of impending government action — agendas of your town plan commission or council or board of education, probate court notices and much more — be published in a “newspaper of record.” It’s probably easier to find that information on, say, the Town of Bloomfield website, but state legislators want to be nice to newspapers, so the law lingers. Most days, the Hartford Courant – which once had a dozen pages of classified ads daily – usually has one page . . . a quarter of which is legal notices.

The point of my emphasis on advertising is that journalism – newsgathering – costs money.  All newspapers are being forced to reduce their journalistic effort – reporters, photographers and editors – as they try to remain profitable. The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, even the Hartford Courant – have laid off not merely dozens, but hundreds, of news employees.

A 2015 survey by the American Society of News Editors found that since the year 2000, the number of full-time daily journalists nationwide had been cut in half, to about 30,000. That number would be smaller today.

With fewer reporters, the view from your daily newspaper will be narrower – and participation in the democratic process. . . won’t be as well-informed as it once was.

Again, let me make the numbers personal: When I left the failing Hartford Times, our newsroom employed 100 reporters, editors, and photographers. The newsroom of today’s Hartford Courant, its editor told me recently, numbers 90. . . fewer than we had as we stood on the brink of collapse.

Just as newspapers can cover less and less, long-term projects are increasingly hard to justify. Early in 1963, my editor gave me six weeks to study the African-American population of Hartford – its origins, achievements, aspirations. As I got into it, I asked for and got a few more weeks, and then a few more,

I eventually spent six months. The result was a no-advertising, 40-page tabloid called The Negro in Hartford .  The 5,000 extra copies we printed were gone in a week. It became a  staple of libraries and academic studies, and won the owner of The Times, the Gannett Group, a Pulitzer Prize in 1964.

Today, I don’t think I could have been detached from day-to-day coverage for even a few weeks.

Newspapers simply don’t cover as much news, let alone do as much enterprise reporting. An extraordinary number of seasoned reporters have been put out to pasture, bought out with pension offers – and replaced – IF replaced – by less expensive, inexperienced reporters who may be bright, well-educated quick learners, but who have little experience and judgment, and no sense of history.

Not everyone is as gloomy as I am.   There still are people who think they can make money with newspapers.  Hearst is buying up CT newspapers – 11 so far, the biggest prize the New Haven Register, and has even hired a few more reporters. Hearst hopes for economies of scale. I’m a skeptic, but wish them well. They have the advantage of local, small-town advertising from retailers who can’t afford or haven’t figured how to use the Internet . . . but a lot of the news content will look alike in all their papers.

On the other hand, Gannett, my former employer, last year wanted to buy the Tribune papers, including The Courant, another former employer . . . but withdrew its bid, because both newspaper groups were losing money.

A side note on The Courant. For several years, the newspaper and Fox 61 were owned and managed together – a burden for reporters expected to write stories and help prepare them for TV, but a buttress for a more substantial Courant newsroom.

Several years ago, the broadcast stations owned by Tribune were separated from its newpapers, and the print side of the business became a separate entity known as Tronc – which ominously is an acronym for “Tribune Online Content.” Note, please, “online content”. No mention of paper in the name of the company. I suppose it would have been hard to fit a p-for-print into the acronym – Tronpc? – and might have sounded like the name of a president – but the “print” was left out because it’s . . . yesterday’s news.

The latest development in the newspaper world is that “Tronc” last month bought the fabled New York Daily News – for $1, plus accepting responsibility for something like $20 million in pension obligations.  The Daily News in its prime had a daily circulation of two million; today is one-tenth of that. It’s understood that Tronc wanted the Daily News primarily for its expertise in . . .  online content.

Online content is cheaper to deliver, but journalism — gathering and weighing and editing the news — still costs money.

Remember what I learned at the Hartford Times six decades ago? That it costs more to deliver a folded blank newspaper to a home than the homeowner paid for the subscription?

That’s still true, and as the number of subscribers dwindles, the cost per paper rises. I think the time is foreseeable when most papers will be printed and delivered only a few days a week, perhaps Thursday through Sunday when advertisers like drugstores and supermarkets and shopping malls want to get paper flyers and promotions inserted into newspapers and into people’s hands. The New Orleans Times-Picayune pioneered that approach a decade ago.

. . and I’m not sure that even a few-days-a-week home delivery will survive.

Newspapers will in the next decade prosper only by persuading more readers to pay for online editions, and advertisers to pay for online ads…if they can.

That’s going to be hard, because people have gotten out of the habit of paying for news. In the early days of going digital, most newspapers were so eager to convert former print advertisers into online advertisers that their first priority was to get more online readers.

A few – notably the Wall Street Journal and here, the Waterbury Republican-American – set up toll stations, pay walls, insisting that one subscribe or pay a small fee to read past the first few paragraphs; but most just gave the news away. Now everyone is trying to return to what we used to call paid circulation.

It’s not only newspapers that are hurting: broadcast television news is likewise being put on short rations: Advertisers who once paid top dollar for 30 seconds on the Channel Three 6 o’clock news now buy targeted ads at Internet sites.

It’s worth noting that Hartford’s Fox 61, the erstwhile stablemate of The Courant, and all the Tribune-owned stations, may be bought by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative owner that routinely instructs its television stations to run stories and commentary that suit the politics of the owner.

That merger may not go through – the FCC, the Federal Communication Commission, is being urged to block what could become a conservative TV empire, with 200 TV stations in 108 markets, that would have undue influence on what most Americans see on television.

That proposed merger wouldn’t even be a possibility if television news, like newspapers, weren’t on short rations. I was at Channel Three in the heyday of its profits, when we had a helicopter at our beck and call, and reporters were almost invited to think of ways to use Sky 3 as part of our reporting. Nowadays, the most likely aerial photos are from a remote-controlled drone.

Meanwhile, there is no cessation in ways to employ digital technology to get people’s attention. Would you believe the next innovation may be … on billboards.

I knew, as you probably do, that our smartphones keep track of where we are at any time.  I learned last year that if our car stops every morning at a schoolhouse, AT&T or Sprint or any phone service can figure out that we’re taking children to school – and will sell that information to those new electronic billboards along the highway, which can be programmed to see us coming, recognize our cell phones, and display advertising aimed at parents of children.

I won’t dwell on the privacy aspects of that. That’s another topic.

But it’s clear that advertising will increasingly be targeted, and mass media as we’ve known it will barely be in the game.

That’s an overview of the changing economics of the news business.  Now let me turn to the corollary: What constitutes news, and where Americans get it.

When I joined The Times, most reporters had beats. Any of us might be called off our beat to cover a breaking story, but there were only a handful of general assignment reporters. The rest of us, for the most part, didn’t go out to “get” a story whose dimensions were already known; we poked around, chatted, cultivated sources, and developed stories – enterprise reporting.

I spent two years covering West Hartford – police, fires, schools, town government – and then moved to the State Office Building beat, covering a lot of state agencies. Sometimes stories were handed me as press releases, but more often I did enterprise reporting.

My favorite example: a new law required that the then-new food vending machines be inspected and then licensed by the Dept of Consumer Protection. I learned one day that more than a thousand had been licensed, and none had been inspected. Needless to say, Page One news.

Commissioner Frassinelli swore he’d never talk to me or The Times again. My editor counselled me to be patient – and sure enough, within a few weeks the commissioner’s aide phoned me to urge coverage of something he had done right.

I rather doubt that the power of the press would prevail so easily today.

WFSB reporters, by contrast, were mostly general assignment –  as I’ve indicated, mostly making video versions of newspaper stories. There’s more original reporting on TV nowadays, and more reporters more or less on beats. But the medium takes far too much of their small staff’s time by having them report “live” from the site of stories that happened hours earlier. In any case, in 1975, there were only two real beat reporters – Gerry Toney in the cop shop – the police beat — and me at the Capitol.

What went on at the Capitol was the quintessence of competitive yet cooperative reporting. There were a dozen regulars – imagine, a dozen! – from a half-dozen newspapers, two TV stations and a radio service.

That was a lot of brainpower being applied to picking the brains of everyone up and down the chains of command, and very little escaped notice. The result: a better-informed citizenry than today.

The formal Q&A news conference was still the way governors and legislators were expected to address the press. Ella Grasso set up a news-conference room wired and lit to help TV reporters participate. When one reporter was being stonewalled, it was not uncommon for others – competitors – to pick up the line of questioning . . . even if they weren’t quite sure where a colleague was headed . . . and keep the issue alive until we got an answer.

In later years, those formal sessions yielded to photo-ops and hurried questions in hallways, better suited to talking-head television than to thorough inquiry about public policies.

One of the newspaper functions I missed on television was careful editing. At the Times, my stories were first read, and critiqued, by my immediate editor, and then, after I made corrections, went to the copy desk, a circle of eight senior editors who were ferociously thorough. I remember being told to use rebut instead of refute in political debate stories, because refute implies having the final answer. Similarly, it was drilled into us not to describe someone as “pointing out” the supposed errors in an opponent’s argument; the correct usage is that someone “claims” to see error.

Impartiality was rigorously enforced.

At WFSB there was no comparable copy desk. Pat Sheehan, one of the few anchors whom I thought a real journalist, would call a reporter over to suggest changes in phrasing or challenge assertions, and I was encouraged to play such a role, but it was hit-or-miss.

Let me take a moment here to address a complaint that I hear often – that impartiality is no longer prized, and opinions creep into news coverage, blurring the once-solid line between news pages and the editorial/op ed pages.

It’s a fair criticism, but there’s a reason:

You may recall my mentioning how the Hartford Times learned to print color photos to compete with television.

We also knew that increasingly readers would already have heard the news before picking up our newspaper. The best way to persuade them to keep reading was to offer an extra: Explanation or interpretation of the news – putting the news in context.

That can be done with great objectivity, for instance by interviewing people on both sides of an issue and letting them give readers an insight into the story behind the story. But it’s also a slippery slope, and I’m the first to say that there’s far too much opinion in today’s news pages.

Most newspapers, by the way, always have an extra headline, or a bit of type tucked into the opening paragraphs, with labels like “News Analysis” or the name of a reporter’s regular column. That includes The Courant.  Dan Haar isn’t an ordinary byline: his name is in special type, usually with a photo, meant to signal that he’s offering analysis or commentary.

The New York Times also established the practice of printing such articles ragged right, rather than in justified type — not spacing each line so the first and last letters are at the edges of the column, but letting natural spaces occur at the right edge of each line.  It’s still done today – a visual signal that an article isn’t straight news.

The problem is that few readers know that – I’ll bet few in this room knew it until just now — and The Times has ignored pleas – some from me – to explain the practice so most readers get the signal.  Next time you read The Times, you’ll get it.

Unhappily because of the way websites are built, everything online nowadays is ragged right; the visual cue isn’t possible.

Let me go back now to look at the impact on community – on democracy, I would argue – of the way journalists covered the news in the decades after World War II, and talk about the trust readers and viewers placed in us as intermediaries.

The Hartford Times’ daily “news conference” – and everyone else’s — where editors told each other what their reporters are working on – decided what went on Page One based on what we thought people needed to know. We competed with The Courant, but had a shared view of what mattered.

If The Courant had a story first, we’d try to develop it – get what we called a “second day lead” — with new information. The Courant did the same with stories we got first.  Readers of either newspaper knew about any story.

Yes, there were enterprise stories and features, and one of my predecessors insisted that there be one “good news” story on page one every day . . . but there was a broadly-shared view among editors at both newspapers as to what was news — and therefore a broadly shared view among readers.

And readers made time to read. When I came to The Times, we sold 160,000 papers a day, The Courant soon sold upwards of 200,000, and in several suburbs, a majority of householders took both papers.  That was a lot of people with a common understanding of what of importance was happening.

As I’ve said, I had to good fortune to be at Channel Three when we had a huge audience, and so again a shared view of what mattered. In my third year at Channel 3, 1978, a Nielsen survey concluded that at 6 pm, 90 percent of all TV sets within the reach of Channel 3, 8 and 30 – all of Connecticut, and bits of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Long Island – were tuned to one of our three stations. Ninety percent!

As in the days of the Times-Courant rivalry – and piggybacking on newspapers’ judgments — all three television news directors essentially agreed about what mattered. Again, we did some enterprise reporting, especially during rating weeks, and we had a fuzzily-defined “i-team” for investigative reporting; but day in, day out we went to the same news conferences and fires and court appearances etc.

So, again, a huge audience, for an hour a day, shared a common perception of what mattered in the events of the day.

Today, with four stations, not three – Fox 61 the fourth — the percentage of sets tuned to one of those stations at 6 pm is only 30 percent, one-third the size of the collective audience four decades ago.

Where has the rest of that audience gone?

  • Many people get their news during the day on their smartphones from news “aggregators” like the Huffington Post, or the New York Times or others that (unlike The Courant) keep putting the latest news on the internet – for the most part free.
  • Many get their news from 24-hour cable and internet stations, most with a visible tilt to the left or right. Because filling up 24 hours seven days a week is a daunting obligation, cable stations repeat themselves (still with that “Breaking News” logo, even the next day) and hammer at their tilt – all day and night.
  • Increasingly, people get their information – what passes for news — on social media like Twitter, where our president holds forth, and Facebook (which has enrolled one fourth of humankind, and is listed among their news sources by almost half of all Americans)
  • And an astonishing number get their view of what happens every day from late-night TV comedians.  Comedy Central and Saturday Night Live are identified by huge numbers of younger citizens as prime sources of information. Stephen Colbert’s audience has grown as he sharpens his comedic criticisms of the president – and shapes the audience’s view. The live audience comes because they love and agree with the comic; they applaud. Viewers at home hear the applause, and figure they must be hearing reliable information.

(Consider, as a recent example, NBC’s Jimmy Kimmel’s influence on the most recent Republican attempt to repeal Obamacare. Kimmel’s son had needed intensive medical care that his father could afford – but Kimmel a month or so ago argued that every child ought to have access to needed care. A Louisiana senator came on the show to say he agreed – but then helped draft that latest ‘repeal and replace’ legislation, which had no such assurance. Kimmel excoriated Senator Cassidy, and I would argue helped shape the national view.)

  • And any list of where Americans get their information nowadays must include Breitbart News, headed by the erstwhile presidential aide Steve Bannon. Amazon’s analytics agency reported early this year that Breitbart had 45 million unique monthly visitors, traffic surpassing Fox News, the Huffington Post, the Washington Post and Buzzfeed. A month later, it surpassed the sports network ESPN, becoming the 29th most trafficked site in the United States. It since has slipped somewhat – last month it was at 56th – but that’s still a LOT of readers and viewers.

We have become a nation of people who deliberately get news from sources that we know will agree with our biases. And in the age of social media, information is amplified by people who echo their favorite source with tweets or Facebook sharings – which are, in turn, followed by people who agree. Part of Facebook’s “news feed” algorithm is to give each viewer more of the kind of items they have read in the past.

Farhad Manjoo, the NYTimes technology guru, wrote last November that “as a society, we are roiled by preconceptions and biases, and we usually do what feels easiest — we gorge on information that confirms our ideas, and we shun what does not.” This dynamic becomes especially problematic in a news landscape of near infinite choice.

The Internet, he concluded, is “loosening our grip on the truth.”

When the president attacks the established media – the New York Times, the Washington Post, CBS and NBC and ABC and CNN –- as “fake news,” that reinforces, for many, that impulse to seek out and listen to less professional sources. It is one of the worst results of the Trump incumbency. That’s not just hurt feelings of a retired journalist. Starting with the Founding Fathers, our presidents until now have valued a free press:

  • Thomas Jefferson: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
  • James Madison: “if you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free and many times adversarial press. And without it, I am afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That’s how dictators get started.”
  • John Adams: “The liberty of the press is essential to the security of freedom in a state.”

Of course, there is fake news, in astonishing quantity. We’ve all read, in the past month or so, about Facebook’s finding itself steering its members to hoax news sites – and finding it’s been selling space for such hoax news to Russian trolls. Twitter has now acknowledged a similar problem.

Samantha Powers, our former UN ambassador, recently described a study by respected economists. They used a database of 156 election-related stories that fact-checking websites deemed false, and concluded that those false stories had been shared by American social media users 38 million times in the last three months of the 2016 presidential election campaign. Each piece of hoax news was repeated, on average, almost a quarter-million times.

And remember what I said about the growing ability to target Internet ads – and all other content – to reach specific audiences. There’s some evidence that Russia set out to saturate specific swing districts with exaggerated or distorted or plain untrue stories aimed at raising voters’ fears about foreigners, Jews, refugees, people of color and false assertion of increases in crime – fears that would lead voters to prefer Trump over Clinton.

And . . . it hasn’t stopped, despite what Facebook told Congress last week. Many Americans, the New York Times reported yesterday, “may have been shocked to learn that the man behind the mass shooting in Las Vegas. . . was an anti-Trump liberal who liked Rachel Maddow and, that the F.B.I. had already linked him to the Islamic State, and that mainstream news organizations were suppressing that he had recently converted to Islam.”

None of that was true, of course – almost nothing was known about the man — but those fake news items were widely spread by Google and Facebook, planted by several notorious right-wing online message boards.

Fixing that isn’t going to be easy, and we’re going to have to struggle with the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech.

Facebook is investing staff and money into taking down hoax sites, although Las Vegas shows there’s a long way to go.

Many Internet entities are trying to bar “hate speech”.

But who decides what to disallow, and on what grounds?

For example: leaders of the World Socialist Website, a stodgily dogmatic Leninist entity, noticed a drop in the site’s traffic this spring, and concluded that Google had stopped directing search inquiries to its site. Google had indeed announced an initiative called “Project Owl” to provide “algorithmic updates to surface more authoritative content” and stamp out fake news stories from its search results.

Erasing patently untrue hoaxes is fine.  But I don’t want Google or Facebook or Twitter –with or without algorithms — becoming arbiters of what ideas you and I can go look at. And I certainly don’t want government playing that role.

What’s the alternative?

  • One easy one: Make sources clear. Political candidates must say, in political television ads, “I’m so-and-so and I approve this message.” It may be more complicated, but it should be possible to identify the sources of Internet items, and to say if someone has paid to amplify them. I want transparency.
  • And I hope Congress will design ways to prevent foreign powers from interfering in our elections as it’s now clear Russia did in 2016. It has long been illegal for foreign governments to spend money to influence American elections; we need to establish new and more vigilant mechanisms to identify and label and publicize such efforts, and bar them.
  • What’s going to be harder is to persuade most Americans to return to mediated platforms, relying on professional gatekeepers – journalists — to screen out disinformation. We’re unlikely to have any more avuncular, universally trusted Walter Cronkites.
  • Newspapers and other news media are going to have to be candid, if not blunt, in identifying their own news analyses that verge on opinion. CNN’s Anderson Cooper often begins his two-hour show, at 8 p.m., with a direct opinion monologue – but it’s not identified as such.
  • If news anchors are also, from time to time, going to be editorialists – a dubious practice – they need at least to make the difference clear, visible, like the special typography in newspapers that identifies “news analysis”.
  • And all news media should spend more of their time and effort on providing – to quote you may remember Sergeant Friday – “just the facts, ma’am.”

And perhaps most important – and more difficult – is to make Americans more discerning readers and viewers.

My friend Louise Loomis, up at Duncaster, has for years championed public education tools to foster what she calls “critical thinking.” She’s been ahead of her time; the rest of us have to catch up. We need to raise a younger generation with sensitive noses that detect when something seems too pat, or too outrageous, to be true. I want people to go instinctively to fact-checking sites like Snopes or Politifact to evaluate  “facts” they find on social media.

Another: We need to persuade people of all ages to deliberately seek out ideological competitors. It isn’t hard to find people who swear by MSNBC and would never deign to see what’s being reported on Fox News – and vice versa. Probably some in this room.

We need more people who insist on hearing different viewpoints – and that, by the way, ought to begin on our college campuses, although that, too, is a topic for another day.

The online New York Times every day offers thumbnail opinions on current controversies from liberal, centrist and conservative media – sometimes a dozen or more — and with a click or series of clicks lets one jump to read any or all of them in full. All media should find ways to do that – to encourage skepticism and searching examination of opinions.

None of that’s going to be easy. I suspect the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and a few other major newspapers will survive, and prosper.

I’m a lot less confident that state newspapers like The Courant can survive in anything like their former thoroughness and earned influence – unless we can somehow revive a demand for honest, unbiased mediators of our news.

The fragmenting of American society – as seen in the most recent Presidential election and the surprise ascendancy of Donald Trump – is in significant part the fruit of a sea-change in the way news is gathered, presented and absorbed.

Fixing that will be a tough task – but it would be hard to exaggerate the deleterious effect on our democracy of an ill-informed citizenry, incapable of critical evaluation of the welter of information available to them.

Thank you. Let’s take a break, then come back to give you a chance to weigh in.


2 thoughts on “Failing newspapers, damaged democracy

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