Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The twilight of the gods

John Podhoretz examines the Newseum, a half-billion dollar tribute of the news industry to itself "on a scale that would have gladdened the heart of Ramses II" with a morbid fascination. Podhoretz writes:

For newspapers, these are the end times, or something very much like them. Every week provides a new marker on the road to apocalypse: hundreds of layoffs in Los Angeles, circulation scandals in Dallas and Long Island, buyout packages in New York and Washington. Newspaper-circulation numbers are released twice a year, and for the past decade those numbers have charted an uninterrupted downward curve, accelerating at speeds now approaching an avalanche. Designed as a monument to the daily, the Newseum may in fact be its mausoleum, with the marble First Amendment slab serving as its tombstone.

The problem for newspapers wasn't technology. Indeed, the newspapers embraced technology with the zeal of the newly converted, the better to manage its effects. Podhoretz recalls:

So clearly did news organizations see the threat posed by the computer that they mobilized to address it, to get ahead of it, and to manage it. In the 1980’s, they spent hundreds of millions and perhaps billions of dollars in the effort. To take one example, the Washington Post Co., a well-run and far-thinking industry leader, sank nearly $50 million into an electronic news service called Datatext.

But what the papers couldn't control was that technology was simultaneously changing the market. In particular it was destroying the mass market for standardized news. "It was universally understood that the mass audience for news was shrinking—the same audience on which the business relied in order to sell subscriptions and advertising. Readership had already declined by 50 percent since the advent of television. Young adults who had never developed the habit of reading a paper as children were showing no inclination to pick it up later in life."

The newspapers were getting better at selling the same product to an ever declining pool of readers. Nowhere did the knife go deeper than in sale of advertising space. "Katharine Graham, who ran the Washington Post, once told me that the primary reason she was worried about the future of her paper lay with the threat posed by the computer to, of all things, classified advertising."

As the information market fragmented and found new channels the classifieds followed them. And like the great English country mansions that still dot its landscape, the newspapers were left with their facades and not much else. "All they will have left is a very powerful brand—the term we now use for what used to be called a name. That brand will be worth a very great deal, but it will not be worth enough on its own to produce the kind of comprehensive news portrait that has been the defining purpose of urban and regional newspapers for a century and a half." Podhoretz doesn't know what model will replace the newspaper. But he has high hopes.

After much study, the Newseum’s researchers have determined that Katharine Graham’s husband, Philip, the editor of the Washington Post, was the first person to utter the phrase, “News is the rough first draft of history.” ... But read the sentence again: “news is the rough first draft of history.” There is a very becoming modesty at work here. For as every writer knows in his marrow, and every editor knows to his annoyance and grief, the central quality of a rough first draft is that it is full of mistakes.

Nor is this very rough first draft expected to improve on a second reading. It is supposed to be superseded by something else. Something better.

Something different, to be sure.

The Belmont Club is supported largely by donations from its readers.


Blogger Buddy Larsen said...

hahaha -- "The Wages of Sin is Death" -- hahaha --

4/22/2008 04:52:00 PM  
Blogger Pyrthroes said...

Recall reading of this monumental "Newseum" near five years ago (2003). A central tenet of the classic Peter Principle (1968) is, "Perfection of planned layout is achieved only by organizations on the brink of collapse." (Peter and Hull cite the erection of St. Peter's Cathedral in 16th Century Rome, perfectly timed for Protestant Reformation.)

Even in 2003, it was evident that Old Media --print and TV-- were devoid of content, resorting to gimmicky tech-fixes at vast expense. Until his Pinch-like heir takes over, Rupert Murdoch will compete monetarily; but by 2018 (when 1946 Boomers turn 72) the NYT, LAT, WaPo et al. will be one with Nineveh and Tyre. Most likely, network broadcasters plus cable TV will be rump fragments too.

"Newseum", indeed! Big Media's real symbol is Ozymandias.

4/22/2008 05:13:00 PM  
Blogger Teresita said...

When Democrats are in power, the headline is INACTION PART OF DEMOCRAT LAWMAKERS' GAME PLAN. When Republicans are in power the headline is CAPITOL GRIDLOCK SHOWS FAILURE OF G.O.P. PLANS. So we use it as fishwrap.

4/22/2008 05:17:00 PM  
Blogger ricpic said...

My beloved NY Post is bucking the trend...so far.

How will I start my day without coffee, a bagel and the Post?

Starting the day with Instapundit or Drudge or Belmont just isn't the same thing.

But soon those for whom staring at a screen is natural will inherit the world. Thank God I'll be out of it by then when nothing tactile or sensual will remain.

4/22/2008 07:04:00 PM  
Blogger Aslam said...

I rejoice knowing that MSM and all those it employs will die a slow gruesome death.

For decades have they foisted upon us untruth after untruth. The Tet "defeat". The myths of multiculturalism. The American "defeat" in Iraq.

Each untruth worse than the next. Each a tribute to their fascist ideological brethren in Berkeley.
Each steeped in the toxins of treason.

There is some justice, after all. It is not a full justice ...for if it were they would be eviserated and their body parts sold to keep alive those whom they destroyed with scarce any regret.

No, justice is not full. But, to see them thus, it is bordering on sufficient.

4/22/2008 07:36:00 PM  
Blogger Buddy Larsen said...

It was a long con indeed -- but we 'marks' have nothing to be proud of, buying it as we did, decade after decade with hardly a murmur of complaint.

4/22/2008 07:53:00 PM  
Blogger Charles said...

Katharine Graham’s husband, Philip, the editor of the Washington Post, ... was one of the casualties of the McCarthy Era. He was one of two people in the Media in whom the NSA confided about the Venona Cables.

Consequently he believed McCarthy. However, this put him at terrible odds with the rest of the Washington Post--for whom to be pro McCarthyite was to be anti semitic.

Phillip became a heavy drinker. He clumsily tried to take control of the Washington Post from his wife and failed. He then took a girl friend. And finally he committed suicide in 1962.

4/22/2008 09:13:00 PM  
Blogger Fat Man said...

Aslam: They won't have suffered nearly enough.

4/22/2008 09:18:00 PM  
Blogger ADE said...


What you said.

And while I'm at it, here are a few more of my great delights at the misfortune of others:

The shakeout and ultimate collapse of The Relegion of Peace;

the exposure of the Democrat's carpetbaggers;

the wonderful collapse of the Canadian Human Rights racket;

the collapse of the Melbourne Comedy Festival, because the Leftoids have nothing left to laugh at (except themselves);

and of course, the fact that the last 10 years have seen global cooling.

Me bad?


4/23/2008 05:30:00 AM  
Blogger Buddy Larsen said...

don't forget the Democratic party's sudden and ongoing education in the underside of its trademark 'identity politics'.

4/23/2008 07:03:00 AM  
Blogger Dan said...

I have a BS degree in Mass Communications...one I've never used in my employment as a software developer.

But I did associate with many starry-eyed journalists-to-be when I was in school, and I wrote for the school paper. All of these idealistic, politically-minded young people were ready to graduate and go out to set the world on fire.

They were going to catch themselves a Nixon. They were going to tear down greedy, polluting corporations and expose all the evils of business and government and make the world safe for True Democracy. I had many long discussions with these fellow students, sometimes long into the night over beers, about what journalism should be and where it was headed. None of us ever speculated that it might 20 years later be where it is now.

Man, am I glad I decided to ditch the business for software before I ever got into it. I bet my career is looking prettier than the ones that actually followed through on our discussions.

I'm a former Mass Comm major, and I have not picked up a dead-tree paper in maybe a decade. I don't even visit news sites anymore usually, unless I click through from a blog.


4/23/2008 10:20:00 AM  
Blogger Buddy Larsen said...

i agree -- 'Watergate' ruined a generation of journalists -- somehow the stakes got so grand in their heads that it began to seem wrong not to manipulate.

4/23/2008 04:56:00 PM  

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