The best editor in America today isn't a journalist. He's Glenn Harlan
Reynolds, a law professor at the University of Tennessee, also known as the
"Instapundit." He's endangering my livelihood.
I used to say that I was in a declining industry, but fortunately, I was
declining faster than it was. Now I'm not so sure.
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
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.
Worse times are head. Senior citizens are, by far, the most reliable
newspaper readers and watchers of broadcast television news. The younger
people get, the less likely they are to subscribe to newspapers or watch Dan
or Peter or Brian. When our current crop of seniors dies off in five or ten
years, we're going to be in a world of hurt.
We have a technological problem. The "news cycle" is now 24/7. Because of
production and distribution costs, it's impractical to put out a newspaper
more than once a day. This means that much of what we report as "news" is
really "olds" to that portion of our subscribers who watch television,
listen to radio, or go online.
The broadcast networks which exist chiefly to provide entertainment are used to providing us with news at a time that is convenient to them, a
half hour in the early evening. The cable news networks provide news
updates constantly throughout the day and well into the night.
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.
An awful lot of you don't trust us to get our facts straight, to tell both
sides of the story, or to put the news in context. For that, more and more
of you are turning to web logs, or "blogs." There were hardly any blogs
five years ago. There are more than four million today. There could be
eight million by the next election.
Blogs provided you with information we in the "mainstream" media didn't want
you to have, such as John Kerry's "Christmas in Cambodia," and the fact that
the documents on which Dan Rather and CBS were relying for a hit piece on
President Bush's National Guard service were forgeries.
Journalists tend not to like bloggers, because they report on errors we
make. Dan Rather and former New York Times editor Howell Raines are
unemployed chiefly because of the vigilance and tenacity of bloggers. (We
journalists rarely turn the spotlights we use on business leaders and
government officials on ourselves.)
People who work at journalism full time ought to be able to do a better job
of it than people for whom it is a hobby. But that's not going to happen as
long as we "professional" journalists ignore stories we don't like and try
to hide our mistakes. We think of ourselves as "gatekeepers." But there is
not much future in being a gatekeeper when the walls are down.