Media Blog

Jeff Jacoby Has It Wrong on Newspaper Bias

Jeff Jacoby, conservative in captivity at the Boston Globe, has supplemented the surfeit of newspaper columns protesting that liberal bias is not hurting liberal newspapers. The centerpiece of his argument:

But if liberal media bias is the explanation, why are undeniably left-of-center papers like the Globe, The New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle attracting more readers than ever when visitors to their websites are taken into account? How does liberal bias explain the shutdown of Denver’s more conservative Rocky Mountain News, but not the more liberal Denver Post? How does it explain the collapse of newspapers in lefty enclaves like Seattle and San Francisco? How does it explain why the great majority of Americans – 60 percent, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll – get most of their news from TV?

This seems to me full of obvious error.

First, let us dispense with the implicit straw man: No serious critic is arguing that liberal bias is the only problem facing newspapers. It is one problem, and one that is undermining the credibility of institutions such as the New York Times, even among their own shareholders.It is worth noting that the liberal-bias problem, and the liberal-bias-denial problem, is closely related to the institutional arrogance problem. As The Bulletin reports, when Pinch Sulzberger was asked by a minority shareholder whether the New York Times spiked a story that might have damaged the Obama campaign, and spiked it for political reasons, Sulzberger’s response was, basically: Talk to my secretary; it’s not important enough for me to bother about. Talk to the hand, peon.

And as a former Boston Herald guy, Jacoby ought to be able to recognize the difference between the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post in terms of market position. He might even consider the possibility that institutional strength leads to liberalism, not the other way around: Dominant, establishmentarian dailies, where editors had long been insulated from the rigors of the marketplace and the quotidian concerns of the little people, tend to be culturally liberal for the same reasons Hollywood does, though on a less grand scale.

So, why might “undeniably left-of-center” newspapers have seen strong growth on the web? The obvious answer to that is that web readership tends to be a multiple of print readership; newspapers that started off with a big presence in the print market — say, the New York Times – have the institutional clout and brand-recognition that they will inevitably be among the big web-traffic draws, for now. Likewise non-lefty enclaves such as the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section. The question, though, is this: In five or ten years, when the old newspaper companies no longer own 80 percent of the content-generation apparatus, will the New York Times & al. still dominate? Probably not. Especially if they remain arrogant and insular, and if they remain in denial about the threats that their political biases, and their refusal to acknowledge them, present to their credibility.

What’s fascinating about that arrogance is that it is so entirely unearned. Jacoby includes the inevitable lament of Craigslist:

Craigslist and its ilk have vaporized what used to be most papers’ greatest profit center: classified advertising.

Craigslist has been very little more than a spam lure for some time now; for finding a job or an apartment in a major U.S. city — say, Boston — it’s not only useless, it’s counterproductive. Newspapers failed to see the Craiglist model coming and still haven’t figured out that the Craigslist model has basically failed for everything other than prostitution totally legitimate adult services — and still haven’t figured out that they have an opportunity to win much of that business back. Who else has the infrastructure to collect, screen, rank, and monetize classified advertising?

But the “liberalism isn’t our problem” line has become a sacred untruth in the newspaper world. Of course the world is complex, and of course no single factor in the marketplace explains everything. But the vehemence and insistence with which the newspaper powers-that-be deny the significance of their cherished biases gives us real insight into why American newspapers are so culturally and intellectually stagnant — and that accounts for more of their decline than does Craigslist.


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