News biz future may lie in its past

Marketplace Staff Apr 30, 2008
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News biz future may lie in its past

Marketplace Staff Apr 30, 2008
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TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: Don’t let that company name fool you. Just because we’re “public” media, doesn’t mean we’re not paying attention to the troubles for-profit news outfits are having. The American Society of Newspaper Editors says papers in this country have cut more than 3,600 jobs in the past 10 years, most of them just in the last couple. Electronic media’s feeling the pinch, too. All three original broadcast news networks have been laying people off.

Commentator David Frum asks whether the future of the news business might not be found in its past.


DAVID FRUM: Ratings are declining and circulations are plunging. Advertising revenues are tumbling, layoffs, buyouts, marquee properties sold, bought and sold again. Yet, troubled as the news media business is, media as a human activity is pulsing with dynamism, creativity and invention. There’s just one problem. Nobody wants to pay for any of this, which is why salaried journalists are coming to feel like the steelworkers of the 21st century.

Perhaps some brilliant person will devise a new model to revive and sustain the big, professional news corporation, now under so much pressure, but what if it does not work? In that case, the future of the American media may look a lot like the past.

A century and a half ago, the American news media were small, polemical, often heavily subsidized by political parties and relatively poor. Horace Greeley started the New York Tribune with $1,000 in capital. That was obviously more money in 1841 than it is today, but even then, it was not so much money, not the kind of money needed to start a railway or a foundry, more like the kind of money used to start a nice looking Web site today.

Drop by a successful political blog, and you’ll notice something — ads, lots of ads, but special ads, ads from political candidates. Partisans give money to politicians, who pay money to blogs, in order to raise more money from partisans. Again, that looks more like Horace Greeley than like Walter Cronkite’s CBS, and even the big media seem to be trending in this direction.

Fox News was created as America’s first self-consciously partisan television network. The success of Fox has called forth the flattery of imitation from MSNBC. Partisanship makes political news pay, and that suggests that if we’re going to continue to enjoy political news, we’re going to have to tolerate a more partisan media. It’s a grim bargain, but then our parents thought that having to endure all those ex-lax commercials during the nightly news was a pretty grim bargain, too.

RYSSDAL: David Frum is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is called “Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again.”

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