Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bezos Buys Washington Post; Media Chokes On Its Own Pearl Clutch


News that Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.com, agreed to purchase The Washington Post for $250 million sent shockwaves through the national media. The combination of pearl clutching and teeth gnashing about "what this means" for journalism would have been amusing if it was not so hypocritical. For years all we've heard about is the idea that print journalism was dying, its relevance shunted aside in an age of blogs, news aggregation sites and cable television. The WaPo sale (and last week's fire sale of The Boston Globe for $70 million, less than 10% of what The New York Times purchased it for more than a decade ago) was seen as a defining moment cementing this narrative. The fear, vaguely alluded to, is that somehow the august reputation of The Washington Post may be sullied if owned by a single, ├╝ber wealthy individual. 

Of course, this trope was being uttered on airwaves controlled by corporate overlords whose own empires are tentacled across every conceivable information delivery method. Consider one of the most egregious violators - MSNBC. Sitting in for Chris Hayes last night, Ezra Klein spent the first 40 minutes of All In With Chris discussing the sale of a media outlet from a family of rich people (the Grahams) to a single rich person (Bezos) on airwaves controlled by an obscenely wealthy company. MSNBC is a cable station owned by Comcast. Comcast not only delivers cable television into tens of millions of homes throughout the country, as part of its purchase of NBC Universal, it acquired more than a dozen TV channels, including NBC. So how it is that a news anchor on airwaves controlled by a enormous media conglomerate can express such concern over the sale of a newspaper to a billionaire? More importantly, how can a viewer take such a critique seriously?

And this is not to pick on Comcast-owned MSNBC. The same hyperbolic reaction could be found on ABC (a division of some company called "Disney"), CBS (controlled by multibillionaire Sumner Redstone) and FOX (owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns high profile newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post). Pretty remarkable considering The Washington Post has a daily circulation of less than 500,000 and has been on the decline for years. But in the insular world of national media and "This Town" mentality that does little but stare at itself in the mirror and consider its own unique role in the "decisions that matter," the sale of The Washington Post was a capital B, capital F, capital D, never mind that most Americans, if they do know of the paper, remember it from breaking the Watergate story 40 years ago, not, for example, its mindless cheerleading of the run-up to the Iraq War (along with most of the rest of its ilk) or decimation of its newsroom within the past few years. The Post sale, and the less reported sale of TV stations by Allbritton for nearly $1 billion that will be used to expand Politico, [1] speaks to the view of smart money that news is very much a growth industry, but only in the two places it seems to matter anymore - Washington, D.C. and New York City.

In fact, media at the national level is doing quite well. The New York Times introduced a "modified paywall" in the past year or so that has helped generate tens of million of dollars in ad revenue and has more than 738,000 subscribers. [2] Over at CBS, an all-time record in quarterly revenue of $3.7 billion was just reported. [3]  It is not "national" level media that is suffering, but the little fish in the journalistic pond, who no longer have the resources to cover run of the mill stories of corruption, governmental malfeasance or, god forbid, triumphs of the human spirit, that might matter to residents in their smaller communities.  In New Jersey, where I live, a daily copy of the The Times of Trenton, which covers the state capital and government, the local shenanigans of the city of Trenton's politicians, not to mention the high profile town of Princeton, is a two-section daily that charges 75 cents and commonly has at least half of its "A" section devoted to wire stories from the Associated Press. This is simply not a sustainable business model. [4]

The media freak out over Bezos's purchase also ignores history. A hundred years ago, major newspapers, whose primacy was unquestioned in an era before television (or radio for that matter), had known and obvious political biases and were often manipulated by politicians and businessmen alike to slant coverage either for or against. The media landscape of 2013 is similar in some ways (the aforementioned consolidation) but dissimilar in one key respect - the democratization of information through the Internet affords people the opportunity to be far more circumspect consumers of the news. And while the risk of "confirmation bias" when one can shop a la carte for how s/he obtains "facts" is apparent, [5] that burden is on the shoulders of the reader - objective facts are accessible if one chooses to find them. In the meantime, talking heads on television and in what's left of the ink-stained print media can stop breaking my irony machine and go back to acting as stenographers for their corporate masters.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy


END NOTES

1. http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-07-29/business/40858980_1_allbritton-communications-riggs-bank-stations
2. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323681904578641784211759750.html
3. http://online.wsj.com/article/PR-CO-20130731-915278.html
4. Indeed, the Times of Trenton's parent company, which runs the larger circulating Newark Star-Ledger has recently threatened to shut down if unions did not offer concessions to help keep the company afloat. http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2013/06/star-ledger_threatens_to_close_without_concessions_as_union_officials_reject_ultimatum.html
5. http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/04/how-confirmation-bias-shapes-the-debate-over-income-inequality/255815/

3 comments:

  1. This article is spot on. The sale and subsequent overreaction is much ado about nothing. As you have so eloquently pointed out, the wealthy have owned the media for quite awhile so Bezos buying the Post is status quo.

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  2. Filling half a section with wire copy isn't a business model, it's a cheap way to fill a paper and is the result of failed business models and a perverse lack of commitment to cover the communities and topics that matter in to readers of a local or metro paper (whether those readers buy the paper, read online, for free or pay, or hear excerpts on the local radio station). Deep cuts to reporting staff, a move to favoring stories that get the most clicks, but maybe don't fulfill the mission of many journalists (to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted... to hold institutions accountable and make sure people paying taxes (etc) know what's going on with that money... to inform people about things they didn't know they wanted to--or should--know) and an inability to really explain the value of professional, smart reporting (maybe because that isn't what owners or shareholders are after)have all led to your wire-copy-filled newspaper.

    The parent company of the Times of Trenton and the Star-Ledger long avoided the profit-before-people-and-journalism slippery slope. In 2009, Advance--owned by the Newhouse family--abandoned its longstanding no-layoff policy (http://mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/08/05/at-newhouse-newspapers-a-change-in-a-no-layoffs-policy/?_r=0). Of course, that was after threatening to shut the paper down if some 200 people didn't accept buyouts. But still, the company maintained its journalistic promise for longer than most before the buyout threat.

    Newspapers did, indeed, fail to innovate fast enough, married for too long to a bloated and pricey sales force who--also for too long--focused on selling what they knew and how they knew it to be, never innovating. The main loser in this has been the reader, or potential reader.

    There are blowhards in every field, prognosticators who are in it for the fame and the byline or television appearance (even if they also espouse the afflict the comfortable ideal), and there are those who navel-gaze for far too long about an era long gone (and as you point out, actually not so different than the old days in some ways) when newspapers helped to, I think, smooth out the confirmation bias that has become the main way people consume and choose what they read and call news.

    But, I think if you stepped further into the world of journalism, you'd find for every Ezra Klein--for every big name, bold face--there are dozens of journalists who still feel they want to and can do something that matters. Because they do. The hand-wringing over the sale of the WaPo was certainly over the top, as were the twitter jokes and puns and the endless stories generated in the 24-hour period following the news.

    But, for most non-big-name, big-face journalists, I'd argue the angst was more a foray into nostalgia, not of the kind you point to as the perpetual agenda-fueled type, but rather of the possibility that newspapers--and the reporters who work for them--could and would be as grand as the days of Watergate.

    ...cont'd

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  3. Very few journalists are corporate stenographers. For one, real stenographers get paid more, so why bother if that's the only point of the job. But that's beside the point. Most journalists aren't in it for "the man" and would bristle or quit if their principles were compromised by the corporate machinery that owns whatever little slice of media they happen to work for.

    Viewers don't make the connections, sure, but the journalists themselves (ok, I don't know about Klein, specifically and DC-types may be an exception, I'm not sure) don't either. It's not stupidity, it's lack of actual connection other than a parent company.

    Yes, there was too much on Bezos and WaPo. But, look beyond that to the stories you don't read and maybe you'll see what all the nostalgia is about. You won't read it every day... not anymore... those days went away when the layoffs began and the gimmicks came along. But some days, you will find it.

    When I look at the coverage the Boston Globe did after the marathon bombing, for instance, I stand in awe. That sort of thing, on a smaller scale, happens more often than you may realize. And it has some value, even it is 90% less than what some bozo paid for it years ago...

    --JM

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