The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes
Sunday, January 02, 2005
Blogger's hubris, the legacy media and top papers' stock prices
Over at Jay Rosen's, there is a festival of dancing (much of it hobnail-booted) on the (anticipated) grave of Big Media, aka MSM, in a piece entitled PressThink's Top Ten Ideas for 2004.
We're post-Rathergate, of course (it was the blogs wot won it...), and post-campaign, whose dire and dismal coverage was daily anatomised by the nice people at CampaignDesk.org and countless thousands besides. Jon Stewart is the new Walter Cronkite. The evil bitch-monster of death (or WMD, at least), Judith Miller, is facing a sojourn in the hoosegow.
A pre-revolutionary situation, surely, and little wonder that blogospherical tricoteuses and sans-culottes are sharpening their needles and discarding their underwear in anticipation of the Glorious Day.
Colour me unimpressed.
For instance, point 2 is
He said, she said, we said.our old friend, stenographical reporting. It's certainly got more popular recognition over the course of the campaign. But is there the slightest chance that the top papers (NYT, Post, LAT) will give up the practice in the foreseeable future?
One may cite their timid forays into the fact-checking business (campaign ads, debates, not much else); the eternity before the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth were seriously challenged on their lack of veracity; the Bronx cheer with which Old Dan Okrent's blind quote challenge was greeted, not least by his own Times.
It's business. Talk about legacy carriers - the airline source for the legacy tag - is absurd; these airlines have lost business to other airlines providing a substitutable product.
Blogging is not substitutable for the AP or the top papers or the nightly news, gravely flawed though these all are. And newspapers can't be run as democracies, any more than armies can, however flexible the software and broad the band.
The fact of generally sagging circulation in the newspaper industry is no evidence that new forms of news gathering and publication would be more profitable than the existing outlets; even if those forms were much less capital-intensive than dead-tree product, they would necessarily be much riskier.
(Would the legacy outlets agree to die quietly? I should coco!)
I've not seen any proper study, based on market research, with numbers duly crunched, to demonstrate any business model for the provision of news that could run existing titles out of business. (That's what legacy means surely? Dead company walking.) Or a model that could even survive for long against existing outlets.
(Which is not to say such studies don't exist. They would be expensive to produce, and those who commissioned them would hardly be giving the results away!)
Mildly à propos of all of this, I compare the stock prices of the NYT Co and the Post Co  over the last two years: the Times stock is down 10% (against an NYSE rise of 45%), the slide starting around June 2004; the Post stock has risen around 40%, the rising trend starting in the back of 2003.
The effort required to supply these piffling stats dissuades me from further stock analysis (that and lack of actual expertise). But the signs of a clear, secular slide towards oblivion of the top papers as a group seem to be lacking.
And the onus of proof is clearly on those making the claim that their days are numbered.
On the stenography question, I turn once more to Michael Massing's NYROB piece and spy the following:
"At the moment, there's real sensitivity about the perceived political nature of every story coming out of Iraq," a Baghdad correspondent for a large US paper told me in mid-October. "Every story from Iraq is by definition an assessment as to whether things are going well or badly." In reality, he said, the situation in Iraq was a "catastrophe," a view "almost unanimously" shared by his colleagues. But, he added, "editors are hypersensitive about not wanting to appear to be coming down on one side or the other."
Sensitivity levels have dropped a bit since the end of the campaign, probably. But editors wanting a quiet life as the default state won't have.
They've all seen All The President's Men: if a Pulitzer is in prospect on a particular story, as an exception, they may be prepared to go out on a limb or two. They weigh the risk against the reward.
But the unceasing meat-grinder of White House spin machine and their many friends is another matter. Every day, on everyday stories, there's no percentage in bravery. Stenography minimises the risk of a row - and, almost as important, allows a boilerplate response to complaints.
Just the facts, ma'am...
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