15 June 2012

Reversing the Newspaper's Decline

This week, Newhouse Media announced that it would soon begin printing the New Orleans daily paper only three times a week.

Newspapers are going through the most dramatic change since their emergence in 18th century Europe. Until their reporting of corporate business is as extensive and nuanced as their coverage of national politics, they will continue to shrink. 

It is no coincidence that newspapers emerged along with notions of participatory government and individual rights. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, William and Mary were invited by Parliament to be the new English monarchs. Parliament insisted on something new, though. William and Mary were not to be absolute monarchs but were – instead – to be constitutional monarchs. The words in constitutional documents were to now be the ultimate source of authority.

This threw Europe into a new kind of politics, one that relied as much on ideas as armies.  And, Wikipedia reports, the first successful English daily was published from 1702 to 1735, beginning about a decade after the coronation of this new kind of monarch. As government became dependent on words, the newspaper became its new battleground.

Enlightenment thinkers believed in progress but not from divine sources. They argued theories and studied results. Newspapers were as crucial to the process of political experimentation as labs were to scientific experiments. Democracy founders without data, debate, and reports. Newspapers rose in prominence as wider swaths of the population were able to vote. (America’s original founding fathers were gradually joined at the polls by voters who were not landowners, not Protestant, not white, not male, and not 21 or over).  

As democracies had to negotiate the interests of a wider variety of voters, newspapers grew in importance as a forum for presenting news and views. Newspapers taught diversity and tolerance by giving voice to people we might not see around our Thanksgiving table.

But that changed.

First talk radio and then the Internet – with its blogs, tweets, and social networks – became a new forum for conversation. No newspaper could give voice to as many people as did Facebook.  And as governments became more stable in form – a post-Cold War reality dubbed “the end of history” - nuanced political debate captured in op-eds gave way to the starker contrasts of Fox and MSNBC.  Good reporters lost audience to both professional and amateur commentators.

There is, however, a public arena still largely ignored by newspapers and their reporters, one worth trillions to the community.

Love it or hate it, we’re all now dependent on the modern corporation. Towards the end of the last century, average people passed the rich in total stock holdings through mutual funds, pension funds, and direct holdings. The average person is dependent on corporate performance for a job, retirement income, and even the quality of their air or water. As just one small example of their impact, the pension fund problem for San Diego City would never have happened had corporations managed to sustain even a portion of the gain in stock prices that they had experienced in the late 1990s. Corporate decisions determine whether people are hired or laid off, and in what part of the world.

To date, newspapers have done a poor job of adapting to this new institutional reality. They do little to make public corporations public, in spite of how important those corporations are to their readers. Passing along corporate announcements on layoffs, earnings, and new products is good but it simply is not enough.
The closet thing we have to 18th century monarchs is the CEO. Today, a modern American can say vile things about a George W. Bush or Barack Obama without fear of losing citizenship. An employee within a major corporation who said something similar about the CEO would quickly be fired. While corporations are owned by all of us, it is the CEO and his senior staff that manage with little challenge from stockholders or employees.

It took great daring for newspapers to challenge heads of state. (Even today, journalism in less politically developed places like Russia is a dangerous profession.) It might take similar courage and vision for the next generation of media outlets to challenge heads of corporations, creating a forum for employees and stockholders to discuss policy, philosophy, and personalities in the same way that newspapers do in the political realm.

Reporting skills have not changed in importance. What has changed is the relative importance of the corporation. If reporters want to explore how communities are defined, increasingly the answers are found in corporate, rather than government, decisions. Communities and journalists will prosper when the media begins focusing more attention on corporate policy. And curiously, after the average investor, the biggest beneficiary of this new focus could be the very corporations that now own newspapers.

1 comment:

nunya said...

"To date, newspapers have done a poor job of adapting to this new institutional reality."

They are part of it.