Dave Weigel and the Decline of the Post

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.

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14 Responses to Dave Weigel and the Decline of the Post

  1. Gil Roth says:

    Great post, but I think you meant “with few offsetting benefits”, not “without few offsetting benefits.”

  2. Keith Dawson says:

    Excellent work. And “cellulose-based information technologies” FTW. Google seems to believe it’s your invention. http://is.gd/d7G8K [ google.com ]

  3. LibertarianHawk says:

    “Dave’s defenders, on the other hand, believe that the notion of reporter impartiality has always been something of a myth.”

    Well, I’m not one of his defenders — I was squarely in the former group. But the irony here is that I’ve been making that same point about the myth of objectivity for years.

    So, it’s not so much that I took issue with Weigel’s turning out not to be perfectly impartial. What I took issue with was that he more or less presented himself that way (which I never believed).

    If you read his BigJournalism mea culpa today, he confesses point blank that he wrote whatever he thought his specific audience wanted to hear. When he was wooing conservatives (if not rank-and-file conservatives for readership, then at least conservative leaders for approval and access), he wrote about them in a friendly tone. When he was writing for Journolist, he was allowing that Hugh Hewitt may be “buffoonish”.

    So, it’s the pretense I had a problem with — not the boringly obvious reality that there’s actually no such thing as objectivity. If a journalist has strong personal opinions about the people he’s covering, he should either stop covering those people or, at least, be up front with his readers about those opinions….so that readers can be properly informed about the lens through which they’re looking.

  4. MichaeltheG says:

    2 things:

    First, Ezra sent me so thank him next time you see him for the traffic.
    Second, “Abstract Arguments about Journalistic Ethics” are indeed a secondary issue. You mention “a death of a thousand cuts” but with the Weigel situation, the cuts are self-inflicted.
    When will the top tier News Orgs like NYT and WaPo decide what they really want to be? To whit, you beautifully illustrate why the Post’s business model is an ever dwindling thing then argue essentially for staying bland. This is only mildly suicidal but what’s the alternative?

  5. Redshift says:

    Your points about the business model driving the “neutral” style of journalism are well taken. I wonder if the Post might (if they understood what they were getting into) be able to succeed with a “stable” of reporters in the new model with varying points of view. It wouldn’t have any particular advantage over multiple separate viewpoint outlets, except for the strength of the existing brand as a news destination. And while such viewpoints might not have risked losing part of the customer base in the “cellulose” era, some rather extreme voices the Post hired for the editorial page didn’t seem to have that effect, so if readers are accepting of the concept of news with a viewpoint in general, it may not be necessary to for one outlet to restrict itself to one flavor.

    Time will tell, I suppose.

  6. Why won’t Obama talk to Fox News? Why wouldn’t Bush talk to MSNBC? Why won’t Al Gore appear on John Stossel’s show? It often pays not to let people know you think they’re wrong, in principle. They stop caring about talking to you. And it’s kind of hard to report news when people won’t talk to you.

    There is a tradeoff to opinionated reporting. Sometimes, it’s worth it. But I see no reason — none that you’ve mentioned, anyway — to think that most news organizations will change their approach anytime soon.

  7. Rhayader says:

    Great analysis Tim — some real interesting angles here that I haven’t seen in other places (and yes, I have read all of the internet).

    I spent some time at the Reason forums on Friday trying to defend Weigel (as an aside, I was surprised at how many libertarians were lashing out at a guy for failing to toe the party line). The idea that Weigel “misrepresented himself” as a die-hard conservative seemed to dominate the discussion. I find this to be more than a little ridiculous, given the fact that his entire record was a Google search away for anyone on the planet. If anything, it was WaPo that is guilty of false advertisement here; it almost seems like they decided on a “brand” for Weigel that had nothing to do with Weigel himself. Like Tim said, it looks as though the paper’s decision-makers failed to do their homework.

    Anyway, I’ve got to agree with Sanchez: “What they apparently wanted was a movement hack to dole out indiscriminate praise to anyone claiming the mantle of conservatism.” This perfectly encapsulates the reaction from “the right” — completely intolerant of intellectual dissent among the ranks. These people are deliberately starving their own movement of philosophical vigor because…..well I’m not really sure why. But it’s certainly not endearing to someone looking in from the outside.

  8. kejia says:

    Damn! Another good blog to add to my rss feed. Doesn’t Ezra know I have too many subscriptions already on google reader? 🙂

    As an aside, isn’t the impartiality of the judges on the Supreme Court also a myth?

  9. Chris says:

    Reporters, good ones, don’t pretend not to have political opinions. Their opinions are irrelevent to covering the news objectively. Can’t grasp that simple concept?

  10. But I see no reason — none that you’ve mentioned, anyway — to think that most news organizations will change their approach anytime soon.

    But that’s my point–I don’t think that any given news organization will necessarily change its approach. Rather, I think organizations like the Washington Post will shrink, losing market share to organizations like the Washington Independent, Ars Technica, etc. that have a more opinionated style.

    Also, I think it’s a mistake to lump all opinionated forms of journalism together. Fox News is run by partisan hacks, and John Stossel is an ideological advocate who happens to do some reporting on the side. I don’t think either of those descriptions fits Dave, and while I don’t know Dave’s sources, he doesn’t seem to be having too much difficulty getting them to talk to him. Obviously, if you’re opinionated in a way that prevents you from doing your job as a journalist, then that’s bad. But I don’t think that means you have to go all the way to never expressing opinions about politics, as many traditional journalists do.

  11. Barry says:

    Chris says:
    “Reporters, good ones, don’t pretend not to have political opinions. Their opinions are irrelevent to covering the news objectively. Can’t grasp that simple concept?”

    That’s the point, and the reason is that many journalists are far from objective. What I’ve noticed in virtually ever piece of criticism directed at Weigel by journlists is no mention whatsoever of the factual correctnesss (or lack thereof) of his work.

    The reason is obvious; most journalists don’t want somebody going over *their* work and seeing whether or not it was right. Especially after 8 years of Bush II, the Iraq War, and decades of financial sector cheerleading.

  12. george says:

    If “abstract arguments about journalistic ethics are beside the point,” what, dear computer science guy, is the point?

  13. george says:

    Okay, my previous comment comes across as snide. I do appreciate your point that each medium has a specific style (and ideology). But I’m skeptical of where you seem to be heading with your last sentence, though — it seems to me that you are suggesting a materialistic/deterministic viewpoint ie. the medium (and technology) will dictate the future ideology of journalism, and there’s little we can do about it. The medium certainly does dictate ideology to some extent — as you have suggested — but dismissing the normative question of what journalism is a little harsh, in my opinion.

    Couldn’t the normative question of what journalism *should* be connect to the materialistic viewpoint of different media dictating ideology? How would you respond to the claim that new media are fulfilling a desire for a type of journalism that doesn’t pretend to have a completely detached perspective?

  14. Hi George,

    What I meant is that the “right” form of journalism will be determined by consumer demand rather than the opinions of journalists themselves. This was not so true last century because there were relatively few printing presses and so the people who ran them had a lot more discretion. But nowadays there are so many options that consumers will be able to get exactly the style of journalism they want.

    Obviously, that doesn’t mean there won’t be arguments about the best style of journalism, or that we can’t change readers’ minds about the kinds of journalism they ought to prefer. But it does mean that arguments by themselves are not going to carry the day. At the end of the day, readers will read what they want to read, and writers will have to adjust to that.

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