Saturday, November 18, 2017

Media's Role and Future

"The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them."

-- Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington," January 16, 1787, Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 11:48-49 (emphasis supplied).

In an effort to save costs, some media owners are giving us the choice between -- to borrow from Thomas Jefferson -- newspapers without reporters, or reporters without newspapers, while in the process creating both.

-- Nicholas Johnson

Democracy's Media
Newspapers' Decline
Newspapers' Challenges
Government Without Newspapers

Note: There are some discrepancies in the cited statistics, below, owing to different sources, dates, and methods of calculation, although they generally support comparable conclusions. Readers disturbed by this are invited to do their own research, and report their findings to the author.

Democracy's Media. When Thomas Jefferson wrote that if put to the choice he would choose "newspapers without a government," he was writing about the essential pillars of a democracy -- of which citizens' opinions, informed by the media, was one. [Photo source: Wikimedia; statue in Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.]

Note that the quote, above, continues that everyone "should receive those papers and be capable of reading them." That sentence covers three more of democracy's pillars: (1) a postal system with reduced rates for books, magazines and newspapers; (2) free public libraries; and (3) free public education -- to which he would later add the First Amendment's protections for "freedom of speech, or of the press."
As evidence of Jefferson's inclusion of education as one of democracy's pillars, he limited his gravestone's inscription to "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia." ["Jefferson's Gravestone," Monticello, Thomas Jefferson Foundation.] In other words, he put more importance on his creation of a university than his having served as president.

Given the fundamental role of a free and independent media in our democracy, President Trump's deliberate efforts to diminish the public's respect for, use of, and dependence upon the media stand in stark and worrisome contrast to President Jefferson's design for our democracy. Here are some excerpts from Trump's comments about the media (he refers to as "they") on August 22, 2017:
30. "And yes, by the way -- and yes, by the way, they are trying to take away our history and our heritage. You see that."
31. "I really think they don't like our country. I really believe that."
32. "Look back there, the live red lights. They're turning those suckers off fast out there. They're turning those lights off fast." [narrator voice]: They weren't.
33. "CNN does not want its falling viewership to watch what I'm saying tonight, I can tell you."
34. "If I don't have social media, I probably would not be standing."
Chris Cillizza, "Donald Trump's 57 Most Outrageous Quotes From His Arizona Speech," CNN, August 23, 2017.
In a democracy dependent upon citizens' trust in the independence of the media, President Trump has kept up a drumbeat of attacks on the media's integrity and accuracy. On February 17, 2017, Trump even went so far as to tweet that the media "is the enemy of the American people." Michael M. Grynbaum, "Trump Calls the News Media the 'Enemy of the American People,'" New York Times, February 18, 2017, p. A15 (the full text of the tweet read: "The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @CNN, @NBCNews and many more) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people. SICK!" February 17, 2017, 4:32 p.m.).

Although "a correlation is not a cause," it would not be unreasonable to suspect that President Trump's attacks on the media are having some impact. A Politico/Morning Consult poll in October 2017 found that, "More than three-quarters of Republican voters, 76 percent, think the news media invent stories about Trump and his administration . . .. Among Democrats, one-in-five think the media make up stories . . .. Forty-four percent of independent voters think the media make up stories about Trump . . .." Steven Shepard, "Poll: 46 percent think media make up stories about Trump," Politico, October 18, 2017.

Newspapers' Decline. Trying to define "when newspapers began," or to identify "the first newspaper" is impossible without an agreed upon definition of "newspaper." Written forms of shared "news" probably go back to cave paintings and personal communications.
For an excellent essay on "The History of Newspapers," see the encyclopedia entry, Mitchell Stephens, "History of Newspapers" (undated), with illustrative examples: "'Public Occurrences, Both FORREIGN and DOMESTICK' was printed in Boston on September 25, 1690. . . . 'The Boston News-Letter,' which first appeared in print in 1704, survived for 72 years. . . . There were about 200 newspapers in the United States when Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801."
Whenever "newspapers" may have begun, they've demonstrated a great capacity for survival, and are "still here" -- at least for now. [See, Stephen Sondheim, "I'm Still Here"]

But the stark fact is that, today, newspapers' circulation and advertising revenues have declined by roughly 50 percent (revenue from $60 to $30 billion, since 2004; weekly circulation from 50 to 20 million, since 1990). [Michael Barthel, "Despite Subscription Surges for Largest U.S. Newspapers, Circulation and Revenue Fall for Industry Overall," Pew Research Center, June 1, 2017.]

The industry's response has included largely unsuccessful efforts to increase cash flow, and devastating efforts to cut costs. Because reporters are more than just a "cost," cuts in their numbers produce a significant reduction in the quantity and quality of the unique, democracy-sustaining product they create. As a result, in an effort to save costs, some media owners are giving us the choice between -- to borrow from Thomas Jefferson -- newspapers without reporters, or reporters without newspapers, while in the process creating both.

From a citizen's perspective, it is local news that's taken the hardest hit. Although the total quantity of all reporting is down, there remain online (and sometimes delivery of hard copy) alternative sources of national news (e.g., The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal), international news (e.g., Le Monde, The Guardian, The Asahi Shimbun) -- and sometimes state news (e.g., in Iowa, The Des Moines Register). But when local papers (often monopolies) go out of business, or make deep cuts in staff, there are often few, if any, adequate alternative sources of local news.
Recently, one community's chain-owned, once-robust local paper -- that now offers its subscribers only a slim, six-page main section, with an opinion page only Wednesdays and Saturdays -- published an issue that contained no stories written by local reporters. (All copy was reprinted from USA Today, the Associated Press, and another of the chain's papers.)

By contrast, another local paper, The Gazette, which is locally owned, has a stable of local reporters who produce a constant flow of serious stories of local significance -- though possibly with fewer reporters than in years past. It has dropped its Associated Press subscription and substituted sources such as Bloomberg News, Los Angeles Times, McClatchy Washington Bureau, Miami Herald, Reuters, Tribune News Service (and Tribune Washington Bureau), Washington Post, as well as Iowa papers Burlington Hawkeye, Des Moines Register, Quad-City Times, or Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier.

Because, today, one has access to online versions of most of the world's newspapers, television and radio stations, podcasts, blogs, and more, this is not the service it might once have been. I carry on my iPhone access to Al Jazeera, Associated Press, Bloomberg, CBS Sports, Des Moines Register, Deutsche Welle (German), Gazette, Guardian (London), Iowa Public Radio, Le Monde (Paris), New York Times, PBS News Hour, Reuters, Rudaw (Kurdistan), Shanghai Daily (China), South China Morning Post (China), Sputnik (Russia), Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post.

As a result, I don't need the Gazette to bring me news from those publications. On the other hand, I can't read each of these news sources thoroughly every day. So what the Gazette's selection of stories does provide, that my apps do not, is the added benefit of professional selection from national and global sources of stories the Gazette editor believes are the most significant for Iowa readers.
Of course, there are exceptions. Many of those working within the finance sector, or large corporations, understandably believe they simply must subscribe to a paper such as The Wall Street Journal or The Financial Times (London). Others may feel a professional need to subscribe to The New York Times or other papers -- especially if, as is often the case, the expense can be considered a "business expense."
The Times' circulation revenue continues to hover around $1 billion a year (from 2006 to 2016, starting in 2006 at $889.72 million, a high of $936.49 million in 2009, to a 2012 low of $795.04 million, followed by a steady climb to $880.54 million). "New York Times Company's Circulation Revenue from 2006 to 2016 (in million U.S. dollars)," Statista, 2017. Its current circulation of the hard copy editions is 571,500 (daily; November 2016) and 1,087,500 (Sunday; May 2016). Its rapidly increasing digital-only subscriptions are now twice the Sunday hard copy numbers, at 2.2 million (May 2017). The New York Times, (By way of comparison, 25 years ago "The New York Times had a circulation of 1.2 million daily and 1.8 million Sunday in 1993 . . .." Mitchell Stephens, "History of Newspapers" (undated).
Newspapers' Challenges. Equally as serious as the President's continuous assaults on our democracy's independent media are the hurricane-like consequences from strong and shifting winds of cultural, technological and economic change during the past decade.

The newspapers' challenges from technology are nothing new.

The telegraph, ultimately recognized as an aid to journalism, was initially seen by publishers as a threat.
"At first, most newspaper owners failed to see the advantage of this disruptive technology; they were actually threatened by it. After all, why would you even need a newspaper when the news could travel between telegraph operators?" Ron Miller, "The Telegraph, Newspapers, and 19th-Century Disruption," EContent Magazine, May 8, 2012.
The radio, and then television with its pictures, provided an instantaneous form of delivery that printing presses, trucks, and delivery persons couldn't match.

Bad enough with three dominant TV networks through the 1950s, the arrival of "cable television," with its 500 channels, caused even the networks to lose nearly half of their audience share. And today, in addition to the 24-hour news channels, the telegraph's grandchild -- the ubiquitous, instantaneous Internet -- has become the competitor the telegraph operators failed to create, providing links to billions of sites, including most of the world's newspapers, television and radio stations, podcasts, and YouTube videos.

But what may be newspapers' greatest challenge today is the ferocious fight over a slice of every individual's 168 hours a week. We have other things we want and need to do besides reading a newspaper. Every hour at work or asleep, every game of golf or fishing trip, running errands or running for health, doing dishes or helping kids with homework, watching television or listening to music, looking at iPad and iPhone screens, is time we're not reading newspapers.

And however many hours we do devote to the electronic form of the intellectual, educational, informational, artistic and entertainment portion of our lives is divided among an ever more varied and available range of sources -- Netflix and YouTube, audio books and podcasts, Facebook and Twitter.

It's bad enough that we can predict what stories will air on the evening TV news -- never mind the next day's newspaper -- but the multiple sources of news throughout the day are taking time previous generations spent with a morning newspaper and cup of coffee.

And all of this competition presumes that people are actually looking for serious discussions of important events and public policy issues. Some are -- but not many. [Mitchell Stephens, "History of Newspapers" (undated) ("In 1940, there was one newspaper circulated in the United States for every two adults, by 1990 one newspaper circulated for every three adults. According to surveys, the share of the adult population that 'read a newspaper yesterday' has declined from 85 percent in 1946 to 73 percent in 1965 to 55 percent in 1985. . . . The United States had 267 fewer newspapers in 1990 than it had in 1940.")]

The Cision U.S. newspapers' circulation list shows the following as the top seven U.S. newspapers (as of 2016) with their circulation: USA Today (2,301,917), The New York Times (2,101,611), The Wall Street Journal (1,337,376), Los Angeles Times (467,309), New York Post (424,721), Chicago Tribune (384,962), and The Washington Post (356,768). "Top 10 US Daily Newspapers," Cision, June 18, 2014, updated May 11, 2016.

Thus, given a U.S. population of 325 million, it would appear that most individual newspapers are informing far fewer than one percent of our citizenry -- an information inequality that rivals our inequalities of wealth and education. Consider the circulation of all U.S. newspapers combined in 2016 (34,657,199) and it's still about 10 percent. ["Newspapers Fact Sheet," Pew Research Center, June 1, 2017.]

Compare that news with what's happening in India:
India now has the world’s largest number of paid newspapers, and the number continues to grow, from 5,767 in 2013 to 7,871 in 2015. Over those same two years, 50 newspapers ceased publication in the US, which has less than a quarter of India’s print papers. . . . [O]ver the last decade, newspaper circulation has grown significantly in India, from 39.1 million copies in 2006 to 62.8 million in 2016 -– a 60% increase, for which there is no parallel in the world. . . . [W]while newspaper circulation grew by 12% in India, it fell in almost every other major media market: by 12% in the UK, 7% in the US, and 3% in Germany and France.
Shashi Tharoor, "There's One Country in the World Where the Newspaper Industry is Still Thriving," World Economic Forum, May 24, 2017.

Government Without Newspapers. President Jefferson said he would prefer newspapers without government to a government without newspapers. Notwithstanding his preference, we seem to be heading toward a government without newspapers.

Most countries' authoritarian leaders seek to control the media -- by disparaging their journalists and owners, or closing down papers and TV stations that fail to propagandize on the leader's behalf, or taking ownership and control, making all sources of information and opinion a form of state media. We've seen the beginnings of this in the United States, with the President's attacks on the "fake news" and the FCC's willingness to let a prominent right wing television company acquire enough stations to reach over 70% of all American homes.

But responsibility falls on the citizens of a democracy as well. If we are to be in fact as well as in theory a democratic nation of informed citizens actively engaged in self-governing, more of us need to subscribe to and otherwise support our local newspapers -- and read more than the sports pages, comics, crossword puzzle, and obituaries. More of us need to watch the PBS NewsHour and turn off the commercial networks' "junk news" (as distinguished from "fake news"); see, "Two Nights with 'World News Tonight,'" in "Three Legged Calves, Wolves, Sheep and Democracy's Media," December 1, 2014. More of us need to take an occasional break from the silo, echo chambers that reinforce our predispositions More of those of us who are retired, or otherwise have some free time, need to pick a government body (e.g., city council, school board, county board of supervisors, state legislative committee), track its work, and "report" on it in letters to the editor, op ed columns, blogs, and other social media.

There is much more to think and write about, such as: What are "the media's" alternative futures thirty years from now? What can be done to minimize presidential disparagement of a democracy's independent media? What might K-12 and college educators do to improve citizens' media literacy and "civics" education generally? What are the most effective business plans for sustaining commercial media? What potential is there for "citizen journalism"? How might the FCC be reformed to encourage the use of its "public interest" powers to restrain corporate control of an ever-increasing number of outlets, or a content-neutral Fairness Doctrine approach to content diversity? But this is more than enough for one blog post.

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Random Additional Thoughts

(1) What's the question? A question, to be an answerable question, needs to suggest the process, or data, one would need in order to find the answer. As such, research is more about drafting questions than finding answers.

(2) Elements and ultimate goals. Is the ultimate goal to "save newspapers" -- the hard copy paper one reads with morning coffee? It is for some, and is a perfectly sensible goal. But how does the pursuit for answers change if the goal is expressed as maintaining the existence, quantity, quality, and social/political role of journalists and the journalism they produce? In short, a focus on the content and function of what's now produced by journalists, and distributed by newspapers. That distribution could be (and some is) in the form of online services, aggregators, journalists' blogs and Web pages, books and magazines, or distribution orally on television, radio, podcasts, YouTube videos, or even presentations in schools, churches, community town halls, and public lecturers on national tour.

(3) Product and audience. If by "journalism" we mean what's found in newspapers we include the sports section, comics, crossword puzzles, obituaries, and classified ads. If, on the other hand, we are really seeking that portion of journalism relevant to a functioning democracy, it's the slice of a paper's content that involves government, politics, public policy and projects, and reports of the communitarian forces that make for a fully functioning "community."

How many Americans are reading those news stories, columns, and letters to the editor? For starters, 43% of Americans "read" at a basic, or below basic, level (2003). It's unlikely many in that group are subscribers. In fact, well less than half of all Americans, or American homes (by some counts as few as 10%) subscribe to a hard copy or online newspaper. Local news is what's most threatened. But even among our major national papers -- New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post -- none can claim a readership of even one percent of all Americans. How many of those who do see a paper devote more than 5 or 10 minutes to it daily? Of those, how many read the government/politics/policy-related stories, editorials and columns? Of those, how many use that information in their public activism in their community?

(4) Prerequisites. Basic evidence of civic engagement is voting. Roughly 20% of the Americans eligible to register don't. Of those who could vote, 45% choose not to. And that's presidential elections. Turnouts of 5% to 10% are not uncommon in city council and school board elections. We have among the lowest political participation rates of any country.

No matter the quality of your seed corn, if you scatter it on a mall parking lot it's not likely to produce much of a crop. How much difference would it make in voting turnout, and other civic participation, if a quality local paper were delivered to every home? Would it be read -- by the adults, by the children? How well are we preparing our children to be "public citizens"? How many schools integrate newspapers into their curriculum? How many high school graduates, following exposure to a social studies curriculum, register to vote when they turn 18? Should we be rephrasing the question, focusing on the seed bed rather than the seed?

(5) Basic fundamentals. Before we can even begin with civic education, the basic needs of that 40% to 50% of our fellow citizens must be addressed: housing, nutrition, public health and healthcare, increased minimum wage, job training, and public education (through community college) -- including bringing as many as possible above "basic" reading ability and a heavy dose of civics (one of the original purposes of public education).

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