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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

The Coming News Crisis

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 12, 2005; 8:22 AM

The column you are reading right now is free of charge.

So is just about everything else on washingtonpost.com. And on nytimes.com, latimes.com, chicagotribune.com and so on.

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And therein lies a problem. Not that I'm advocating charging for online content--I like surfing the sites gratis as well as anyone else--but there are consequences to news organizations giving away their product.

(Reading the dead-tree version remains a very different experience than clicking on a few headlines online, and I still like sitting down with the paper even after I've cherry-picked online, but maybe I'm an old-fashioned, ink-in-the-veins kinda guy.)

This is a sensitive issue for The Post because circulation, while still a healthy 700,000, has been declining in recent years. Circulation goes up and down for a variety of reasons, but the fact that anyone can read any Post story online without paying a nickel has got to be up there. The reason you should care is that advertising revenue from the paper version is what supports this infrastructure of reporters, editors, columnists, photographers, graphic artists and others who make The Post what it is. If that's eroded, the quality of the paper's journalism will eventually suffer, and what you see online will suffer as well. (Obviously washingtonpost.com also has a number of Web-only features, including Media Notes, and generates some of its own ad dollars.)

But declining newspaper circulation has to do with far more than the Internet. I first wrote that newspapers are too cautious, too incremental and too boring in my 1993 book "Media Circus." They focus too much on process and government and too often fail to translate issues into stories that readers feel affect their lives. Too many journalists, especially in the big cities, have become part of an upper-middle-class elite that is out of touch with many readers.

Ironically, since I wrote that book, many papers have raised the level of their game with sharper writing and better efforts to tap into pop culture and backfence concerns. But the competition is so much greater than a dozen years ago--from cable, talk radio and the Web--that many people still feel no need to subscribe or regularly buy the paper. And some media corporations have cut reporting staffs in their pursuit of 25 percent profit margins, leaving readers with a watered-down product.

But maybe a watered-down product is what some people want. The only circulation growth has been in free commuter tabloids (including The Post's Express) that basically package a bunch of short wire reports, features and graphics. Again, we're giving it away.

Eric Zorn tackles this question in the Chicago Tribune:

"We--newspaper people--seem to be losing the war. Yes, there have long been doomsayers in our industry, but the chorus is growing louder. And the nimblest publishers and editors are scrambling to attract young adults who now vastly prefer to get their information--the word 'news' is kind of buzz-kill--from online and electronic sources.

"The percentage of people in their 30s who read a paper every day was 73 percent in 1972, and it's 30 percent today. The average newspaper reader is 53. More and more people, trained by the Internet, believe that information should be free, and so give-away daily tabloids are springing up in big cities all over. I realize that media professionals are studying this problem full time, but what does your gut tell you newspapers should do to remain vital and profitable in the digital age?

"My ideas are: Seven-day a week advice columns about personal technology; vastly increased coverage and criticism of other media, particularly entertainment television; a return of the old action columns in which we mediate disputes and avenge bitter consumers; more gossip and, of course, blogs, blogs, blogs."

American Journalism Review takes a look at The Post's circulation drop:

"Eight or nine Washington, D.C.-area lawyers, government workers and other residents sat around a conference table in an office building. They were strangers, all younger than 45, all had moved to the region within the last five years. None subscribed to the Washington Post.

"An affable session leader from Boston began by asking about their daily routines and news habits. About an hour and 15 minutes later, he opened a cabinet, removed a stack of Posts and dropped them on a conference table. 'What if I told you that you could have a six-month subscription free?' he asked them.

"'In one session after another, I don't think I saw one person who would take it,' says a Post staffer who watched the focus groups with colleagues from behind a one-way glass. The participants picked up various sections--Style, Metro--and stared at them like they were 'Egyptian hieroglyphics.'

"They knew about the Post, of course. How could they not? It's the region's dominant daily and one of the nation's best. They even liked the Post. But they read it online at work. Former subscribers complained unread papers piled up at their homes, making them feel guilty because they hadn't read them."

In the latest clash on the Hill, John R. Bolton doesn't have an easy time of it:

"John R. Bolton, President Bush's combative nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, battled charges by Democratic senators Monday that he sought to have two intelligence analysts removed from their jobs for refusing to alter their assessments," says the Los Angeles Times.

"Bolton testified that he did speak to the superiors of both analysts to say that he had lost confidence in the analysts and thought they should be reassigned. Bolton did not succeed in persuading congressional critics that the issue was the analysts' unprofessional behavior and not a clash over intelligence views.

"In a long, bruising hearing, Senate Democrats painted Bolton as ideologically hostile to the United Nations, undiplomatic, and too compromised by his handling of intelligence to be entrusted with America's top U.N. job."

Reverend Al, who's had his problems handling money over the years, is under investigation:

"The FBI, as part of an ongoing criminal investigation into the Rev. Al Sharpton, secretly videotaped him pocketing campaign donations from two shady fund-raisers in a New York City hotel room and then asking for more, it was reported yesterday," says the New York Post.

"One of the donors was later recorded on a wiretap saying Sharpton may not have reported to the Federal Election Commission tens of thousands of dollars in campaign cash, as is required by the law, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer."

Farhad Manjoo of Salon seizes on a Gallup poll in assessing the rhetorical war over the judiciary:

"'Changes to how the federal courts handle moral issues' is an issue deemed 'extremely important' by only 20 percent of the nation.

"Here's the troubling thing: That 20 percent is running the country, and they're now pressing for such changes in the way the courts decide cases. While most Americans are apparently indifferent to the long-term implications of the Schiavo case, many religious conservatives see it as having lasting political utility. Its most important outcome, they say, is in highlighting an unsettling flaw in American governance. They call this flaw 'judicial tyranny,' though most of the rest of us know it by a friendlier name, 'checks and balances.'

"For the politicians representing this minority -- which is to say, leaders in the House and Senate, if not the president himself -- the Schiavo case presents an opportunity to stem what conservatives frequently call an 'out-of-control' judiciary. By 'out of control,' they mean out of their control; in the Schiavo case, after all, we saw two branches of the federal government succumb to the will of this savvy minority, while a third branch remained determinedly out of reach. Now that third branch is under attack. It is far from clear that the judiciary will survive unscathed."

On the DeLay front, Slate's James Harding focuses on the congressman's lobbyist pal:

"Where to begin examining the extraordinary career of Jack Abramoff? His work trying to secure a visa for the great Zairian kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko, perhaps, or the bilking of an estimated $66 million out of Native American tribes, clients he described as 'monkeys,' 'troglodytes,' and 'idiots'? Or his leadership of a 1980s think tank financed, unbeknownst to him apparently, by the intelligence arm of South Africa's apartheid regime?

"No, the chapter of our man's story that matters most at the moment begins with a toast given by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay during a New Year's trip they both took to Saipan in the Northern Mariana Islands in 1997. 'When one of my closest and dearest friends, Jack Abramoff, your most able representative in Washington, D.C., invited me to the islands, I wanted to see firsthand the free-market success and the progress and reform you have made,' DeLay said before an audience of Abramoff's clients in the islands' garment industry -- whom, upon his return to Washington, he helped win an extended exemption from federal immigration and labor laws.

"The most salient fact about Abramoff these days is that he may prove DeLay's undoing. The House majority leader has so far commanded extraordinary, tight-lipped loyalty from the Republican ranks in Congress in the face of scandals detailed here. But precedent is not on his side. Newt Gingrich's political demise was a slow death by a thousand cuts. Today there is already plenty of speculation in Washington that the White House is wavering about DeLay: As much as the president prizes loyalty, he is intolerant of sleaze and impatient with damaging distractions from his agenda. 'Within six months, Karl will force him out,' a senior administration official from the first term says, speaking, of course, of Karl Rove."

Man, that guy must be powerful!

The counterattack is that the media are out to pound the Hammer, as this Bob Novak column suggests:

"On March 24, former Congressman Bob Livingston was sent an e-mail by a New York Times editorial page staffer suggesting he write an op-ed essay. Would Livingston, who in 1998 gave up certain elevation to be House speaker because of a sexual affair, write about how Majority Leader Tom DeLay should now act under fire? In a subsequent conversation, it was made clear the Times wanted the prominent Republican to say DeLay should step aside for the good of the party.

"Livingston in effect declined by responding that if he wrote anything for the Times, it would be pro-DeLay. But this remarkable case of that august newspaper fishing for an op-ed piece makes it appear part of a calculated campaign to bring down the single most powerful Republican in Congress."

American Prospect's Michael Tomasky parses the media's view of Bush:

"Did you notice this one? A Gallup-CNN-USA Today poll at the end of last week found that 50 percent of American adults now believe that the Bush administration "deliberately misled" them about why we had to go to war in Iraq. It seems fair to say that the average respondent will have understood that 'deliberately misled' is a polite way of saying the word 'lie'; so, in sum, every other American adult believes the president and his apparatchiks lied us into war.

"That's an astonishing fact: The president of the United States has no credibility with half of the adult citizenry on a defining question of his tenure that happens to have sent more than 1,500 young Americans to their graves. . . .

"Bush is tanking. The public thinks that his war wasn't worth it, and that he lied about it. His Social Security scheme is distrusted and detested by most Americans. His decision to fly back to Washington from Crawford to 'err on the side of life' was opposed by a massive majority. He's still liked personally, but he's doing virtually nothing with which the people he was elected to serve agree. His Republican colleagues in Congress are even more unpopular.

"But with all this, the media are still reflexively deferential to this administration. There's more reporting now that cuts against that narrative than there was a few months ago. But the underlying assumptions of coverage are still that Bush is a strong leader, and that anything that doesn't go his way is an aberration."

Elisabeth Bumiller has a cute little NYT piece about the president's iPod preferences. Imagine having a personal assistant to do all your downloading!

Dan Kennedy brings us up to date on a little problem at the Boston Herald:

"On Friday, Globe reporter Raphael Lewis revealed that former Romney-administration official Charles Chieppo, now getting paid to write a weekly column for the Herald, had just landed a $10,000 state contract to promote the governor's environmental policies. Weirdly, the Herald first stuck by Chieppo; does he really have that many readers? But late Friday, after learning that Chieppo also had a $32,000 contract with the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority, the Herald said goodbye."

Kevin Drum whacks the NYT over its coverage of Columbia University's report on allegations of anti-Semitism:

"What I hadn't heard was that New York Times reporter Karen Arenson recently managed to scoop her competitors by obtaining a copy of the Columbia report a day before it was released. How did she get it? An editor's note explains:

"The article did not disclose The Times's source for the document, but Columbia officials have since confirmed publicly that they provided it, a day before its formal release, on the condition that the writer not seek reaction from other interested parties.

"As Daniel Okrent writes Sunday, this is part of the obsessive scoop driven culture of American journalism, in which fact checking is secondary if you think the competition is close to breaking a story you're working on yourself. (See Clinton, William J., 1997-1998, for further details.)

"But it's worse than that. If this story is any indication, it's an out and out psychosis. Cutting corners to get a jump on your competitors is bad enough, but being offered an exclusive by a corporate PR department isn't even a scoop. It's just PR. Once you start making explicit agreements about who you will and won't talk to in pursuit of a story, you're just a shill.

"Are bloggers journalists? Beats me. But if Karen Arenson is a journalist, I think I'll pass."

Columbia Journalism Review criticizes not just the Times but Columbia:

"The mighty Times . . . kept its word. Unfortunately, that involved a promise that should never have been made (or maybe, for that matter, offered by Columbia in the first place. PR is PR, we concede, but Columbia is the home of the Pulitzers, a top journalism school, and CJR itself. It should know better. Even its flacks should know better.)

"If you're looking for an example of irresponsible journalism, this is about as cut and dried as it gets. The Times itself admitted as much in an editor's note."

Noting that the Columbia Spectator turned down a similar deal, CJR says: "In this case, student journalists on a campus newspaper upheld a higher standard of journalistic integrity than the 'paper of record,' the Times is right to be embarrassed."

Obviously Drudge is very good at touting forthcoming books and articles, so he gives a good ride to "The Truth About Hillary" by former NYT Magazine and Vanity Fair contributor Edward Klein. But without the specifics, how fair is the following blind quote?

"'The revelations in it should sink her candidacy,' a source close to Klein warns the DRUDGE REPORT."

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