Felix Salmon has a lovely post where he picks apart the news values of the Wall Street Journal – including picking apart differences between the front page of the WSJ and the online version.
From this Paul Krugman argues that the New York Times rather than the Wall Street Journal is likely to wind up as the only national US newspaper (at least if the US does wind up with a single national newspaper).
Frankly, there was a time when I thought the Journal was better on business/economic news than the Times. But no longer; and it’s not just things like referring to the estate tax as the “death tax” in news stories. Overall, coverage is getting cruder, with more tendency to report opinions as if they were news, and substitute prejudices for real analysis.
And this bad news is good news. There’s a pretty good chance that we will end up with only one great national newspaper. And I know which paper that should be …
Krugman’s prejudice matches mine. I prefer reading the New York Times.
But one of the things Paul Krugman does better than most is argue from data or a testable model – but he lapsed badly here. Below are the top 15 newspapers in the US by circulation now and two years ago. [The sources are revisions to the relevant Wikipedia page.]
No paper has – in this data – maintained circulation. For most papers the fall has been catastrophic. (The effects of falling circulation on pulp pricing is background to my next post…)
Nonetheless, it is pretty hard to see disaster or even the “great recession” in the Wall Street Journal numbers. I gather of late that the fully paid circulation of the Wall Street Journal is rising again – albeit slowly. None of this says that Rupert did or did not overpay for Dow Jones but Paul Krugman’s argument from prejudice rather than data about the New York Times possibly becoming the nations largest newspaper because of editorializing is – well – hogwash.
What sells the news?
Paul Krugman gives his view of what sells the news. It is a view that fits the vision of the Gray Lady quite well: a clear distinction between news pages and editorial pages, facts supported by data etc. That is also how I want my news presented. However the evidence that that sells the news is quite thin. Whatever Rupert did to the WSJ Journal (that which Felix Salmon and Brad Delong rail against) appears to be working.
More generally opinion dressed up as news, especially when it panders to the prejudice of your readers or viewers works seems to sell really well. A while back I gave a quarterly series of operating profits (in millions) for Fox Cable Networks – a business dominated by Fox News. Here they are again: 197, 262, 211,194, 249, 275, 282, 284, 289, 337, 330, 313, 379, 428, 429, 434, 495.
There are few businesses with growth in operating profits without substantial capital expenditure that look anything like that. Well Fox News gets even better (at least from the perspective of a News Corp shareholder). The latest number is was $604 million operating profit for the quarter ended 30 December 2009.
I am not a newspaper guy – but I have watched for long enough to form a supported opinion – which is that opinion and prejudice sell media – especially when they back the readers’ opinion and prejudice.* It is respectable to present an alternative viewpoint – but only if it is a caricature – something weakly presented to rile the audience – but only till they pick it apart and make themselves feel smug. The lightweight Alan Colmes – the token Fox News Liberal – and the equally lightweight Miranda Devine – the conservative for the Sydney Morning Herald fit this bill.
Rupert knows this – and his news outlets all blur opinion and fact. If his audience is left-leaning he will blur from that side (he once owned the Village Voice) and he knew enough to leave its politics alone. He is (obviously enough) more comfortable with right-wing media markets (with a special love for “working class tories”) – but again – it might just be that is where the big markets are…
Krugman however insists on wonkish articles arguing closely from data. Those articles are like eating spinach. Reading them is good for you but you would rather have ice cream. But sometimes – as he did this time – he lets his prejudice out and argues like the Liberal equivalent of Fox News. His prejudice matches mine – and I love him for it. I suspect it also increases his value as an author. Advice to Paul: get it wrong more often and ask for a pay rise.
*Local newspaper guys – who know far more about this than I ever will – say that what sells newspapers is local relevance. All politics is local (but the internet is global). Readers like to see pictures of themselves and their schools and teachers and articles about their roads and public transport.