More Backwards Reasoning about the Decline of Newspapers

Alex Jones

Alex Jones

I was listening to today’s episode of “Fresh Air,” which featured the journalist and publisher Alex Jones (not the crackpot radio host). Jones is worried about the future of the newspaper business, and in his interview he made an argument that brilliantly illustrates a point I made last week about the way newspaper partisans think about the decline of their industry:

I think virtually any investigative report is done in opposition to somebody, usually somebody or some institution very powerful. It can take a lot of legal expense and a lot of Freedom of Information Act inquiries, a lot of reaction in the form of boycotts, and this is not just at the New York Times level.

I tell the story in the book of the Idaho Falls, Idaho newspaper, which is a small newspaper in the heart of Mormon country, just north of Salt Lake City, in which they took on the Boy Scouts, which were essentially an arm of the Mormon Church, because the Boy Scouts were shielding some Scout leaders who had been guilty of abusing, sexually abusing some of their charges.

And the newspaper, you know, it suffered terribly: boycotts, denunciations and so forth. But they stuck to their guns, and they were able to do that in part because they were an institution that made money, and I think that people, you know, when – I’m all for nonprofit journalism, but I think that when you’re talking about doing journalism in opposition, having the resources is vitally important and something that I think is not well understood.

Jones gets the implications of this story completely backwards. It’s only because newspapers are large, profitable, commercial enterprises that the kind of intimidation techniques he talks about work at all. Imagine it’s 2020 and the Idaho newspapers have all gone out of business, and they’ve been replaced by several hundred bloggers, most of them amateurs. A whistleblower discovers some evidence of wrongdoing by a prominent Mormon official. Is it easier or harder for the whistleblower to get the word out?

Barbara Stresand's House

Barbara Stresand's House

Obviously, it’s easier. She can anonymously email the evidence to a dozen different bloggers. Those bloggers don’t have to all prepare long “investigative journalism” write-ups; some of them can just post the raw documents for others to look at. Once they’re widely available, other bloggers can link to those raw documents and provide commentary. The official being criticized has three big problems. First, taking legal action will be vastly more expensive because he’d have to sue dozens of bloggers rather than just one newspaper. Second, many of those bloggers won’t have any assets to speak of, so he’s unlikely to recover his legal costs even if he wins. And finally, if he foolishly presses forward, he’ll discover our friend the Streisand Effect: the fact that he files the lawsuit will cause a lot more people to cover the original allegations.

Likewise, the threat of a boycott only works because newspapers are for-profit operations with significant overhead. Threatening a boycott against, a blogger who writes in a his free time is no threat at all. And even if we’re talking about for-profit online publications, boycotts will become less effective as the web gets decentralized, because there will likely be at least a few online media outlets whose readers skew against the party being criticized and will become more loyal as a result of the controversy.

What we’re seeing here is the same pattern I pointed out last week: newspaper partisans assume that the news organizations of the future will need to do their jobs exactly the same way as the news organizations of the past did, and then they worry that there won’t be enough money to fund all their activities, be it a large legal staff or plane tickets to Toronto. But the whole reason Internet-based news sources are winning in the marketplace is because they’re finding ways to cut these kinds of expenses. Asking how to pay for them is getting the story completely backwards.

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2 Responses to More Backwards Reasoning about the Decline of Newspapers

  1. LD says:

    A great commentary, Mr. Lee! I will have to read more of your articles, now…

  2. Rhayader says:

    I’m still bugged by David Simon’s story about a recent police shooting in Baltimore. He was being a little snide, but it sort of rings true when he said he didn’t trip over any “citizen journalists” during his trip through the labyrinthine police department bureaucracy to get to the bottom of the incident.

    I suppose it’s a question of resources; having the time, the money, and — most importantly — the personal contacts to effectively cut through the PR lies and obfuscations. Keeping an eye on the government is critical for our society, and they tend not to give the time or respect to some Joe Blow with no rep and no inside sources who walks into downtown headquarters demanding answers.

    I’m not saying Simon is right when he claims the newspapers are critical here and some sort of intervention should take place to prevent their decline. But I’m not sure he’s completely wrong either; I hate to think of the police shooting folks without being held accountable. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this Tim. Am I missing something that could rid me of that nagging feeling that we shouldn’t quite be dancing on the dead tree graves yet?

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