Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Death Wish

-- by Sara

It's no secret that the newspaper industry has fallen on very hard times. Their readership is ebbing as fast and visibly as the tide recedes before a tsunami -- quarter after quarter, there's less water underneath for them to stay afloat on, and everyone in the business knows there's a bigger disaster yet to come.

In the face of this, you'd think that they'd do everything they could to attract and hold those of us who are most likely to keep our subscriptions current: the educated, informed middle and professional classes who have a lively interest in the world, and enough income to be of interest to their advertisers. These days, "educated and informed" very often translates to centrist-to-progressive political leanings: the reason they call it "liberal education" is that the more of it you have, the more liberal you tend to become. Any paper wanting to stay in business in today's climate would get very tight these people, and do whatever it took to keep them on board.

One of the first things you'd do toward that goal is pack your op-ed page with a rich supply of centrist-to-progressive political opinion -- preferably balanced with a 50/50 mix of well-regarded, thoughtful conservative writers. (Jonah Goldberg does not qualify.) With all voices represented, the page projects a fairness that lends credibility to your entire paper. It sets up a real back-and-forth dialogue that leaves readers feeling well-informed, and gives them lots to talk to their friends about. And it keeps your other pack of can't-lose-'em readers -- the older folks who are lifelong newspaper readers, and who tend to be more conservative -- on the subscription lists as well.

What you would not do, on the other hand, is load up your op-ed page with a bunch of cranky conservative blowhards who make your paper sound exactly like everybody's angry old Uncle Louie after he's finished the first six-pack. (On the other hand, if you wanted to piss younger and middle-aged blue-chip readers off -- possibly badly enough to cancel their subscriptions for good -- that might be your first step.)

You'd think this would be a no-brainer. Evidently, it's not.

We can only assume that America's newspaper editors have a death wish, though. Because, it turns out, this is precisely what they've done. According to a comprehensive Media Matters study released yesterday, the vast majority of the country's papers have, in defiance of their own best interests, purged progressive and centrist columnists in overwhelming favor of conservative ones. "The results show that in paper after paper, state after state, region after region, conservative syndicated columnists get more space than their progressive counterparts," say the study's authors. "As Editor and Publisher paraphrased one syndicate executive noting, 'U.S. dailies run more conservative than liberal columns, but some are willing to consider liberal voices.'"

We knew long ago that we lost AM radio. But when it came to our daily paper, I suspect most of us were suffering in silence, figuring that it was just our own local rag that made our corn flakes settle with that familiar bilious burn every morning. (The Nexium people should pay royalties to Cal Thomas and Kathleen Parker.) Somewhere out there, other people were starting their day with bigger, better papers, which were no doubt more fairly balanced. Surely. It had to be.

Well, no. The summary of the Media Matters study makes it clear that newspaper editors across much of the country have written off the interests their liberal readership:
-- Sixty percent of the nation's daily newspapers print more conservative syndicated columnists every week than progressive syndicated columnists. Only 20 percent run more progressives than conservatives, while the remaining 20 percent are evenly balanced.

-- In a given week, nationally syndicated progressive columnists are published in newspapers with a combined total circulation of 125 million. Conservative columnists, on the other hand, are published in newspapers with a combined total circulation of more than 152 million.

-- The top 10 columnists as ranked by the number of papers in which they are carried include five conservatives, two centrists, and only three progressives.

-- The top 10 columnists as ranked by the total circulation of the papers in which they are published also include five conservatives, two centrists, and only three progressives.

-- In 38 states, the conservative voice is greater than the progressive voice -- in other words, conservative columns reach more readers in total than progressive columns. In only 12 states is the progressive voice greater than the conservative voice.

-- In three out of the four broad regions of the country -- the West, the South, and the Midwest -- conservative syndicated columnists reach more readers than progressive syndicated columnists. Only in the Northeast do progressives reach more readers, and only by a margin of 2 percent.

-- In eight of the nine divisions into which the U.S. Census Bureau divides the country, conservative syndicated columnists reach more readers than progressive syndicated columnists in any given week. Only in the Middle Atlantic division do progressive columnists reach more readers each week.
So, to recap: They eliminate progressive columnists, create op-ed pages that undermine their own credibility and alienate their most influential readers -- and then wonder and whine that their readership and revenue are tanking. Go figure.

Fortunately, out of all the media, local newspapers are easily the most responsive to consumer pressure. Compared to most things, fixing this particular inequity should be relatively quick and easy.

Local Democratic parties buy a lot of newspaper ads come election season (and small dailies rely heavily on this money). County leaders might meet with publishers, and tell them that if they don't start including Democratic-friendly views on their op-ed pages year-round, their election-season income is going to reflect that fact. (With off-year elections looming, this might be a good season in which to announce this.) Other progressive groups, like MoveOn, can point out that they represent X number of educated, affluent subscribers -- who will unsubscribe en masse if policies don't change. Progressive businesses can also call their sales reps, point out the discrepancy, and threaten to withhold their advertising until it changes. ("I don't want to support a paper that doesn't represent my views.") A coordinated push by a number of groups on several of these fronts can make a publisher see the writing on the wall in a matter of a few weeks. Get your netroots and liberal friends together this week, and you could be reading E.J. Dionne in your local gazette by Halloween.

We deserve to have op-ed pages that represent the full range of views present in the community. Liberals are no longer a minority in this country, not when 70% of Americans agree with our views on everything from the war to the environment to civil rights. It's time for our newspaper op-ed pages to reflect that fact -- for their own good, as well as ours.

And if they refuse to -- if publishers continue to choose their personal ideology over their mandate to serve their communities and their own economic self-interest -- then the laws of the free market dictate that they will die a mostly voluntary and entirely deserved death. Sic transit gloria mundi, and bring on the Internet news.

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