On Friday, the DC media world was abuzz with the news that Dave Weigel resigned from the Washington Post after intemperate comments he’d made on a private mailing list were made public. Dave’s a friend of mine, so unsurprisingly I think the Post screwed up. But plenty of people have made that case better than I could, so I’ll just endorse Marc Ambinder and Julian Sanchez‘s takes.
Instead, I want to talk a bit about the structural factors that led to Dave and the Post parting ways on Friday. There’s a huge cultural chasm between Dave’s defenders and his critics. On the one hand are folks who argue that the Post was simply defending traditional principles of journalistic objectivity. For example, the Post‘s ombudsman says that “Weigel’s e-mails showed strikingly poor judgment and revealed a bias that only underscored existing complaints from conservatives that he couldn’t impartially cover them.”
Dave’s defenders, on the other hand, believe that the notion of reporter impartiality has always been something of a myth. Reporters inevitably form opinions about the subjects they cover, and members of Team Weigel argue that the pretense of objectivity has always been just that: a pretense. On this view, it’s better to have reporters be candid with their readers about their own biases, and then readers can take that into account in judging their work.
The tendency to debate the issue as an abstract question of journalistic ethics misses what’s actually going on here. The ethos of journalistic objectivity isn’t declining because its opponents suddenly came up with stronger arguments. Rather, the shift in journalistic behavior is driven by economic forces that are making Weigel-style journalism more profitable and Post-style journalism less so.
To understand why, we have to understand where the ethic of journalistic objectivity came from in the first place. Because of the tremendous economies of scale in newspaper printing and distribution, operating a high-circulation paper is much more profitable than operating a low-circulation one. A smaller paper has to devote a larger fraction of its budget to basics like printing and distribution. That leaves less money for hiring reporters, which harms the quality of the paper’s content. And inferior content makes it hard to attract subscribers.
The Washington Star was the last serious Post competitor to succumb to this vicious cycle in 1981. It was quickly replaced by the Washington Times, which has only been able to stay in business because Sun Myung Moon was prepared to cover the paper’s losses in perpetuity in order to promote his conservative views. In its heyday circa 1990, the Washington Post had something like 800,000 subscribers, an order of magnitude more than any other DC daily. There are fewer than 2 million households in DC, so by this point the Post was operating in a relatively saturated market: not every household was a Post subscriber, but most of those that were interested in taking a newspaper were taking the Post.
In a winner-take all market like this, it pays to be seen as scrupulously neutral and even-handed. Being seen as “the liberal paper” effectively concedes half of the market to a potential competitor with few offsetting benefits. A reporter that inspired fanatical loyalty among 10 percent of the population but angered a different 10 percent would have been bad for the bottom line: The loyal 10 percent would probably have subscribed anyway, but the angry 10 percent might cancel their subscriptions out of spite if a particular reporter angers them enough. So the most successful newspapers tended to be the ones whose reporters pretended not to have opinions. And as papers with that culture came to dominate the industry, it came to be seen as not just good business strategy but as central to Journalistic Ethics.
The Internet fundamentally changes the economics of the news business. Running 100 newspapers with 5 reporters each is much more expensive than running a single newspaper with 500 reporters, so the winning business strategy in 1990 was to get as big as possible. On the web, distribution costs are trivial, which means that running 100 online news outlets with 5 reporters each (like Dave’s former perch at the Washington Independent) costs about the same as running a single online news outlet with 500 reporters. If washingtonpost.com needs (say) 10 million daily visitors to pay the salaries of its 500 reporters, then washingtonindependent.com, can support its 5 reporters with around 100,000 daily readers.
A polarizing reporter can be an asset for a small publication. The Windy isn’t expecting to dominate the market, so it’s a perfectly viable business strategy to cater to left-leaning readers and ignore right-leaning ones. If one of its reporters inspires fanatical loyalty among left-wing readers and venomous hatred among right-wingers, that’s not a problem; the lefties will stick around and the conservatives probably weren’t going to be regular readers anyway.
There are now dozens of sites pursuing this strategy: building small, edgy, opinionated news outlets with a handful of reporters catering to a relatively narrow audience. It turns out that when given a choice, a lot of people prefer this style of reporting to to the bland, one-size-fits-all stuff the Post is serving up. Individually, none of these sites poses a threat to major outlets like the Post but collectively they’re causing a death of a thousand cuts, as each segment of their audience is bled away by a different, tiny competitor.
Things have gotten so grim that the paper is flailing, trying one strategy after another in hopes of hitting on a strategy that will work. Hiring Dave and Ezra Klein was apparently one such attempt. Unfortunately, the paper didn’t do its homework. They seem not to have read enough of Dave’s past work to realize that his style of reporting was fundamentally different from the style practiced by other reporters at the Post. When they finally realized this fact, they rather ludicrously blamed Dave for his failure to be “impartial,” despite the fact that Dave has never pretended to be.
There’s a tendency among professional blogger types to cluck their tongues and say that the Post just needs to start behaving in a more bloggy fashion and everything will be OK. But I think that largely misses the point. Hiring opinionated reporters can be a good strategy in general, but it’s probably not a good strategy for the Washington Post. A large, bureaucratic organization like the Post is almost certainly incapable of nurturing the kind of quirky, bottom-up culture you that produces successful bloggers. And the business strategy of the Post requires that it appeal to a broad audience. You don’t do that by hiring some bloggers who offend liberals and other bloggers who offend conservatives; that will just alienate everyone.
The decline of the ethic of journalistic impartiality is just one facet of the larger decline of cellulose-based information technologies that are the foundation of the Washington Post‘s business. Late-20th-century print journalists fooled themselves into thinking that the journalistic culture of large daily newspapers was the gold standard for journalists in general. In reality, each medium has its own distinctive style. The Internet is still a young medium, and so it’s too early to say what the new culture will look like. But the key point is that the optimal style for online journalism is something that will be discovered by trial and error. Abstract arguments about journalistic ethics are sort of beside the point.