Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Good News News

Jack Kelly laments the decline of main stream journalism:

Last year was a lousy year for newspapers. Circulation was stagnant, or dropped, at two thirds of all dailies in America, including such biggies as the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times, where readership is in free fall.

Most years recently have been bad years for newspapers. In 1950, 123 percent of households subscribed to a newspaper. (One household in five subscribed to more than one paper.) Today the figure is less than 53 percent.

Circulation declines may be larger than these numbers indicate. Four big newspapers -- the Chicago Sun Times, the Dallas Morning News, Long Island's Newsday, and the Spanish language newspaper Hoy -- have admitted supplying bogus numbers to the Audit Bureau of Circulation.

The evening newscasts on network television have been losing viewers even faster than newspapers have been shedding readers. Audiences for the nightly news on ABC, NBC and CBS have fallen 59 percent from their peak in 1969. At dinner time in 1980, 75 percent of all television sets in use were tuned to one of the three nightly newscasts. Last year, barely more than one in five were.
Why do I call this news "good"? Because it indicates the breakup of one of the two major elites that have come to dominate American culture (the other is the education system).

In the early days of journalism, newspapers were run by entrepreneurs who were more or less independent and competitive. But like other aspects of the Industrial Revolution, journalism went through a period of consolidation that resulted in the dominance of a few mega-corporations by the end of the 20th century. A good history of this trend can be found here. Now that online sources are beginning to challenge that dominance, there is an opportunity for increased freedom unprecedented in history.

Of course, the caveat remains that just as the print media went through a period of consolidation, so too can the online world be dominated by a few influential voices. Right now, the top bloggers have an ideology that embraces competition and free debate but that isn't necessarily a guarantee that future generations will continue to do so. As Mr. Kelly points out:
If our only problem were technological, newspapers would still be in pretty good shape. Radio and television deprived us of the ability to give you breaking news first. But since all you can get in a couple of minutes on the hour and half hour is the headlines, and all the copy in a half hour television newscast would barely fill a single newspaper column, we still had a large lead in providing depth and context to the news.

That's where our trust problem kicks in. Journalists rank near the bottom of the professions in honesty and ethical standards, according to Gallup's annual survey. Last year, only 21 percent of respondents said newspaper reporters had high or very high ethical standards.
So, although technology is driving the current trend, the ultimate issue is, as usual, a moral one. And betting on the continued moral excellence of people is usually a losing proposition.

On the other hand, there is a ratcheting effect to freedom. Once a new level of freedom is reached, it tends to be resistant to subsequent restrictions: our access to information even under the most monopolistic of mainstream media is greater than those places that do not have a free press. A can of worms having been opened, the only way to re-can them is with a larger can.

I am pleased to see this window of opportunity open, even if in retrospect it turns out to have been brief.

(Via Instapundit)

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