Tuesday, May 24, 2011

On the Newspaper Front...

It's only been depressing. Advertising is recovering everywhere but in newspapers. It is rarely pointed out that newspapers' ad base -- the now-nearly-vanished help wanteds and real estate, the display ads for new subdivisions, and local retail -- continues to be the area worst-hit by the economic malaise and thus showing the slowest advertising recovery. That really doesn't make any difference to the bottom line, though.

So what increasingly looks to many like a march to the cliff continues -- it's now become folk-wisdom, as in "I love your newspaper, it's a shame you're all going out of business." I just wish that in writing about the problems of newspapers, people would cite the no-call law (as Rick Edmonds pointed out in noting an award for the New York Times' success in selling, yes, print subscriptions at events), the merger of Federated and May Co. that killed local department store competition in many markets, and other issues instead of simply saying "the Internet." As has been noted, it wasn't "the Internet" that's essentially killed Borders and put Barnes & Noble in jeopardy; it was the Internet (Amazon) plus Walmart and Target selling nearly every best-seller (or at least every best-seller with a strong female readership) at 40 percent off as a loss leader to get women to do all their shopping there. But journalists tend to look for one cause for any effect. It's the fatal flaw in "get both sides of the story." That works in court and on election night. But most stories have multiple sides -- which makes them, of course, worse stories.

And where did that meme about "the Internet" and its eventual triumph over -- well, everything come from? Read the book "The Filter Bubble" by Eli Pariser, board president of MoveOn.org. Read it for its own usefulness in showing just how quickly the Internet is become a series of paths we will be led down. It's not that the transformation-of-media Pariser writes about isn't happening. It's the law of unintended consequences that he now sees. There's a gem on nearly every page of this book, in which Pariser is hopeful that the better world early Internet enthusiasts saw will still happen but acknowledges that at the moment, it's been hijacked.  I could quote this book all day -- and infringe on Pariser's copyright -- but for now I'll just quote this:

"Experts have a lot invested in theories they've developed to explain the world. And after a few years of working on them, they tend to see them everywhere."

And who did newspaper reporters call about what was happening to their business? Internet experts -- who not only saw the effect the Internet would have on newspapers, but also, more importantly, wanted it to happen and thus told newspapers there was nothing they could do.

Also for your reading list, from the New York Review of Books, "The Very Violent Road to America," by J.H. Elliott, a review of Daniel K. Richter's "Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Paths."  When you're asking yourself, exactly what America do the tea party people want back, don't just think about the president's color or heritage. Remember the history of our country that we all were taught:

"The resulting story, as told to generations of Americans, was relatively simple and straightforward. Its origins were located in England, the England of Magna Carta, the Protestant Reformation, and the seventeenth-century struggle to save liberty from the grasp of arbitrary power. It was thus an essentially English story, which was then carried across the Atlantic by English emigrants, and was in due course replayed on the soil of America, and primarily of New England. Naturally it acquired new elements along the way....

"The story, however, continued to be shaped by three defining elements. It was Anglocentric, in the sense that it placed the weight of its emphasis on the contribution of British settlers, with some assistance from continental Europeans, primarily those of Teutonic origin, who were granted a kind of honorary Anglo status. It was teleological, in the sense that everything in the story built up to a logical conclusion in the winning of independence. And it was exceptionalist, in the sense that it was a story like no other about a nation that itself was like no other. As William Findley wrote, even before the eighteenth century was over, Americans had “formed a character peculiar to themselves, and in some respects distinct from that of other nations.”

"Over the past few decades all three pillars supporting the structure of colonial history have come to look increasingly insecure, partly as a consequence of changes in the discipline of history, but also because of the enormous political, social, and cultural changes that have transformed the world itself. As far as teleology is concerned, the Whig approach to history, with its retrospective selection of those features of the past that are held to explain a distinctive, and equally selective, interpretation of the present, has fallen out of favor. ... American exceptionalism, too, has come to look out of joint with the times.... On examination, the early settlers of Jamestown do not look so very different in their aspirations and methods from the Spanish conquistadores hunting after gold and Indian laborers in Mexico and Peru. But perhaps most important of all, the world has changed, and, with it, the United States’ sense of itself. National self-confidence, which once took for granted a manifest destiny deriving from a set of exceptional national qualities and characteristics, has taken some hard knocks since the 1960s. If the destiny is less manifest and some of the characteristics are less positive than they once appeared, then perhaps, after all, the United States does not have all the answers."

That's the America they want back -- the America that made them, as Americans, not only the greatest people in the world but sort of the point of a theory of cultural evolution. As with creationism, the America they want back is one in which the point of Western history was to create -- us. "Us" did not include a half-African who grew up in Jakarta -- happy to have you live here, of course, but as with everyone who does not have "honorary Anglo status," mind your manners and know your place. This story is about us, not you. When myths meet reality, though, don't myths usually win?

1 comment:

Doug said...

Good stuff as usual.

I will assume you had your tongue firmly planted in your cheek when you wrote, "But most stories have multiple sides -- which makes them, of course, worse stories."

Understanding that stories are not black and white but shades of gray, of course, is what makes them better stories. And if we are to believe the oracles of journalism, readers say they want "stories." (At least when they want stories. Yeah, OK, they want factoids, too, but I'm not ready to believe those crowd out everything else.)

The problem is to some extent the mythology of journalism that also has held "this ain't rocket science" and anyone who's a decent listener, a bit glib and a decent writer can do it.

But I think we're getting past that. That stuff, which journalists have for years refashioned largely from factoids organized cleverly into factual expositions, is the commodity stuff available ad nauseam (and free) online. Journalism has to advance beyond that.

The raw material actually is there. What we do with it is the question. No, it's not rocket science, still, but it's a heck of a lot more demanding than it used to be - a good thing, I think.