Howard Kurtz Critiques the Press and Analyzes the Media

Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, May 4, 2009; 12:00 PM

Washington Post staff writer and columnist Howard Kurtz was online Monday, May 4, at Noon ET to take your questions and comments about the press and media coverage of the news.


Potomac, Md.: Howie, what's your take on the potential shutdown of the Boston Globe? Seems surprising to me to see the N.Y. Times corporate poo-bahs playing such hardball.

What does this say about the newspaper industry at large though? If these trends continue are we going to see just a very few large papers survive, like the Post, WSJ, NT Times, Daily News, LA Times, etc.?

Interesting question to ponder: maybe the Library of Congress should gain control of the archives of closed newspapers and put them out there for free on the Web. Hmmm, interesting cultural resource out there!

Howard Kurtz: I have a hard time imagining that the New York Times Co. will actually close the Boston Globe, despite the hardball nature of these negotiations. The fact that the negotiations are continuing, and hasn't yet (as of this hour) followed through on its threat to file a 60-day shutdown notice with federal authorities, suggests to me that both sides want a deal.

But I think we'll see other newspaper closings this year beyond the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. After all, you have the extraordinary spectacle of both Chicago papers being in bankruptcy (and, by extension, such Tribune properties as the L.A. Times and Baltimore Sun).

_______________________ N.Y. Times to File Notice It Will Close Boston Globe (The Washington Post, May 4, 2009)

Howard Kurtz: Here's the link to the story I filed at midnight.


Central Maine: Hi Howard,

Your column this morning on the threatened shutdown of the Boston Globe was one of the few I've read in a national publication. Why do you think this is? Perhaps I'm being provincial, but I would think the threat by a major newspaper organization (NYT) to shut down a name-brand paper (Globe) would generate more press than it has so far. The looming deadline and management demanding ever-increasing union concessions add to the drama.

I know the NYT management has been refusing to comment, making it difficult for in-depth reporting to take place, but still -- this is such a compelling story on so many levels that I don't understand why it hasn't generated more coverage until now.

What is your take on this? N.Y. Times to File Notice It Will Close Boston Globe (Post, May 4)

Howard Kurtz: I do think the Times' coverage has been rather thin, especially considering that it has a Boston bureau and covers that region aggressively. The paper has long had a certain reticence about covering itself. I write about The Post all the time and consider it part of my job.


Washington, D.C.: Howard,

I saw plenty of critical coverage of Specter and his motivations for switching parties, so I don't really think anyone gave him a pass on that. Most of the papers you cited had stories that included more criticism of Specter than their headlines suggest. Specter Skates (Post, May 4)

Howard Kurtz: I went over the news stories and network reports and in no case was the propriety of Specter's decision to abandon his party of 35 years the focus of the story. In fact, it usually got a paragraph or so; the unspoken assumption was that politicians act in their own self-interest; and the coverage was concerned mainly with the impact on the Senate and the Obama administration. Certainly, pundits on the left or right have beaten up or praised Specter's move, but the reporters have, with few exceptions, not even pointed out that Specter told Newsweek he would remain a Republican as recently as three weeks ago.


Richmond, Va: Do you think that the right wing talking machine crossed the line with some of their comments during the flu scare?

Howard Kurtz: I don't see it as a right/left issue at all. If anyone crossed the line, it's the media with their relentless and sometimes overdramatized coverage of a virus that so far has not killed a single American and which may--I emphasize may--turn out to be less lethal than ordinary seasonal flu. So it may be safe for Joe Biden to ride the subway again.


Washington, D.C.: Has the NYT editorial board, which is generally supportive of unions, denounced the NYT's threat to shut down if it does not get more union concessions?

Howard Kurtz: I am fairly certain that the Times editorial page has not addressed the matter at all.


Jersey City, N.J.: Howie -- thanks for taking my question. Do you think the cable news shows will ever learn from all their constant coverage of swine flu is just one more reason why they are losing the trust of the public to be reasonable analyzers of what makes "news"?

Howard Kurtz: Well, it's not just cable. Newspapers, including this one, have run a whole lot of stories (The Post has started a swine flu blog). The network newscasts have been all over this; ABC's "World News," as just one example, carried 13 stories in the first four days of last week. (ABC's Dr. Tim Johnson said on my show yesterday that the media in general have overreacted.) But cable has certainly provided the daily drumbeat, carried the live news conferences and put up such headlines as "Outbreak of Fear." And I'm sure the ratings were up last week.


Brooklyn, N.Y.: I'm curious. Have you seen any stories showing how many people have contracted and died from the regular flu since the swine flu became the only thing in the news?

I read that 36,000 people die in the U.S. every year from the regular flu. If we had 1/100th of that die from the swine flue people would be freaking out and running wild in the streets it seems.

Has this swine flu been blown out of proportion?

Howard Kurtz: At this point I would have to say yes. We're past the regular flu season, but if this is a typical year, probably at least 12,000 people have died from flu-related causes so far in 2009.


Newspapers: Mr. Kurtz,

No offense, but there is way too much hand wringing going on over the newspaper industry. I am about your age and grew up reading papers. But I would now much rather read on-line. For one thing, I can access other markets, like reading The Post. Delivery to my neck of the woods would be ridiculous if not impossible.

You seem to have already decided that you can't charge on the Web, that no one will pay. Balderdash! Remember when cable TV came into being? All the old school network people scoffed and said no one would pay for TV when they get it now for free. See how that worked out. I also remember that people said no one would pay to download music and places like Napster would go out of business. Wrong again. And the movie industry saying that DVDs would put them out of business, now they make a ton of money off them.

Surely someone can come up with a profitable version of news on the web. The Washington Post should be spearheading this, not fighting it. Since the majority of people under 35 do not read hard copy papers, it would be best for your industry to do something sooner rather than later.

Howard Kurtz: If it was easy, dude, someone would have figured it out already. And while I don't blame you for wanting to read the news online -- after all, we put it out there -- without printed papers, we simply don't have the revenue to support the newsrooms that provide the kind of journalism you've come to expect. Maybe the model will change, but so far, it hasn't.


Florida Chick: It may seem shocking that the Boston Globe is holding on to a thread but the situation is that dire, or close, at many papers. When Warren Buffett says "game over" then it is timing along that is keeping many papers running. Do you think hyperlocal web sites will be profitable to pay people to run them? is doing well, for instance.

Howard Kurtz: I did a piece a few weeks back on local news Web sites in Chicago, such as EveryBlock (which provides raw neighborhood data down to the block level in about a dozen cities, including D.C.). The people who run these sites tell me they're not even close to being profitable. In fact, most of

them are financed by foundations and other donors.


Illinois: "Well, it's not just cable. Newspapers, including this one, have run a whole lot of stories (The Post has started a swine flu blog)."

Sure, but did you compare it to the Black Death, as one cable news shop did?

Howard Kurtz: I did make a (satiric) reference to bubonic plague in today's column.


Atlanta, Ga.: Howie -- brilliant montage of cuts on the Swine Flu (sorry, H1N1) and media coverage on Sunday. The constant barrage of fear when none was warranted is irresponsible -- you can tell the story without making it sound like the end of humanity, which by all counts, is not close because of Swine Flu -- nor was it ever. I appreciate the need to get the info out -- but not the "Deadly Flu rampaging across the globe could mean death to humanity in a matter of weeks" stuff.

Howard Kurtz: Thanks. I've rarely seen a medical story dominate the news like that while the scope and lethality of the outbreak was so tentative.


Boston, Mass.: Howie, I have to admit I have lived here for 10 years, work at a university, and don't know anyone who reads the Boston Globe as a paper product other than the Sunday edition. People do, however, read It seems that the paper product can only be a money drain. Shouldn't they just go all online?

Howard Kurtz: Well, the Globe's weekday circulation is 302,000, so someone is reading it. As for going Web-only, I addressed that a few moments ago. Most of the staff would have to be fired.


D.C.: One way the Post could make more money is to move into the Baltimore market; at this point the Baltimore Sun has virtually no news content; hundreds, if not thousands, of people commute from Baltimore to D.C. every day -- yet you cannot subscribe to the Post if you live in Baltimore.

Howard Kurtz: Yes, but I question the market for a newspaper whose focus is on D.C. and Virginia as much as it is on Maryland. Or, perhaps even more important, that no longer has a sportswriter covering the Orioles, as opposed to the Nationals.


Washington, D.C.: Howard, I'm always dumbfounded at how whenever the talk of a Supreme Court nomination comes up, the politicians and media all start focusing on what this means for abortion rights. I liked how Obama said he would look for someone with "compassion," and some conservative said that was a "code-word for pro-abortion," and the media was off and running.

The court deals with scores of issues every year, usually none of which has anything to do with abortion. Isn't it a disservice to the public to act as if this branch of government only deals with one issue?

Howard Kurtz: I think the coverage has dealt with a number of issues, but abortion is front and center because of the court's Roe-related rulings in recent years and the fact that the court is so closely divided on the issue.


Former Baltimorean: Howard, thanks for mentioning the cutbacks at the Baltimore Sun. However, you might not have heard about how heartless some were. Did you hear that the paper called two columnists and a photographer while they were covering the Oriole game to tell them they were fired? So they had to leave the press box in front of their colleagues. Stay classy Sunpapers!

Howard Kurtz: I had heard that but didn't have it confirmed. Geez.


Washington, D.C.: If the Globe does get shut down, would it be possible for someone else to buy the assets out of bankruptcy and re-start it? Or would someone have to start a completely different newspaper?

Howard Kurtz: The Globe or its assets could be sold, assuming that there was a willing buyer. But I don't think we're at that point yet.


But I would now much rather read on-line. : The hand-wringing is from those of us who decidedly would not rather read on-line. We've been loyal customers for in some cases half a century or longer. Why should we be run roughshod over because we don't want to drag a computer out to the porch to spill coffee on every morning?

Howard Kurtz: You shouldn't. But apparently there aren't enough of you. Beyond that, the main problem for newspapers isn't circulation but advertising. It's fallen off a cliff. Some of the department stores that were once mainstays are gone. Think Chrysler dealers are doing a whole lot of advertising right now? And Craigslist, Monster and other online services have decimated what was once a lucrative newspaper market for classified ads.


Baltimorean: As someone who grew up with the Sun, back when it was giving the Post and the Times something of a run for their money, it's slow demise has been painful to watch. The closing of foreign bureaus, the departure of great columnists, the lowering of editorial standards and the siphoning off of resources by the parent company, after the purchase by that Chicago company have been sordid at best. I remember thinking that the worst that could happen was the closure of the Evening Sun. Aside from sports coverage and local politics, The Sun seems to have abrogated it's most important reporting to parent company sources. I realize that I don't know the full story, and to some degree I'm certainly blaming the newspaper corporations. But it seems to me that this is a case in which bigger (newspaper corporations) is not better. All things need to adapt in order to survive. It seems like its harder for a large organization to adapt than a smaller one. I could be wrong, but I haven't seen any dinosaurs walking around lately.

Howard Kurtz: I wouldn't necessarily agree that editorial standards have been lowered, but the Sun has definitely shrunk, like many other papers its size. And that, of course, creates a vicious cycle. As with other metro dailies, the Sun was once locally owned. It ended up being sold to Times Mirror, the once-great L.A. Times chain, which in turn was bought by Tribune, which in turn was bought by Sam Zell, the Chicago mogul who took on $13 billion in debt as part of the deal. A year later, the company was in Chapter 11.


Winter Park, Fla.: From today's Media Notes column: "So what if Specter had promised to serve six years as a Republican?"

I agree that Specter had, until recently, claimed he was going to stay a Republican. But the idea that a politician makes a moral agreement to serve as a member of a particular political party doesn't really resonate with me. It seems to me that all Specter promised the people of Pennsylvania was to represent them as Arlen Specter, not as a Republican. (And, in fact, as a former resident of that state, the fact that he doesn't seem to fit as a Republican -or- a Democrat, no matter his part affiliation, may have been part of what a lot of voters find appealing about him.)

So, the question: Why the implicit claims from a number of commentators (not just you) that voters vote more for party labels than personalities? Specter Skates (Post, May 4)

Howard Kurtz: It's fine if partisan affiliation doesn't resonate with you. Maybe what Arlen Specter did was perfectly reasonable, given that 200,000 Pennsylvania Republicans had left the party, leaving him with a smaller, more conservative base to win over in next year's primary. My complaint was that most news stories didn't even explore the question of whether Specter's conduct was reasonable or not. They were much more along the lines of, "OK, the Dems will now have 60, what will that mean...?"


New York : I found it interesting that your 'round table' yesterday contained two mainstream journalists, one of whom was our own Dana Milbank, 'balanced' by a former speechwriter for a far right politician, who has since been retired by the electorate. Not very round from the looks of it. Do you sometimes do this for the other side, perhaps using Michael Moore or Al Sharpton in the role of the far left wing ideologue, and if not, why not? Or is it your belief that most journalists are left-liberal, and have to be balanced by a conservative?

Howard Kurtz: Ryan Lizza of the New Yorker, formerly of the New Republic, is a very smart guy who certainly leans toward the liberal side of the spectrum.


Washington, D.C.: Is there a reason why ad revenues from on-line newspapers (your Website is chock-full of ads) are so much lower than from print papers? There have to be more hits on on-line papers than the dead tree version. Why do advertisers value the print version so much more?

Howard Kurtz: How much time do you spend looking at online ads? How often do you click on them? Each ad may be getting a very brief exposure to people who may spend a few seconds looking at the page it's on. With a newspaper, you have readers who have paid for the product and who generally spend a certain amount of time perusing it.


Somerdale, N.J.: Howie, You are always commenting on Newspaper profitability, yet I haven't heard you comment on newspapers that aren't in it for the money. The Washington Times loses money every year. How can this be? How can a non-profitable paper last for decades? Is it a newspaper or a funded pr paper for the conservative movement? Also, we hear about Murdoch and Fox, why don't we ever see any reporting on the ownership of the Wash Times?

Howard Kurtz: It's a well-established fact that officials of the Unification Church keep the Washington Times afloat and have since its launch 20 years ago. The same goes for Rupert Murdoch at the New York Post. And that's fine, they have First Amendment rights. But it is their deep pockets that keep those newspapers alive.


Arlington, Va.: There was quite a bloodbath at the Baltimore Sun last week including the evisceration of the sports staff. The basic question is at what point does the rapidly shrinking paper become irrelevant to the community that it serves?

Howard Kurtz: That is the question. We all have to do more with less, but at some point, you risk alienating the very folks who have been your most loyal customers.


RE: The Globe: It's interesting to see the NYT company busting a union...I guess it's easier to be the working man's friend if you have enough dough, like Pinch inherited.

Howard Kurtz: Not even the unions have charged that the Times Co. is trying to break them. The company is trying to wring painful concessions from them, which is not the same thing. These include lifetime job guarantees for some workers that were negotiated in previous contracts. Who has lifetime job guarantees anymore??


Port Tobacco, Md.: It seems that nearly every liberal pundit is concerned about a Republican party that is too far right. Yet these liberal pundits never seem to feel concerned about Democrats going too far left after the Democrats have been defeated. Why is this so? And since most liberal pundits only have contempt for the Republican Party, why should Republicans even care what the pundits write about the GOP?

Howard Kurtz: On the contrary, when the Democrats lost in 2000, 2002 and 2004, there were roughly 10 million articles written on what the party needed to do, whether it should move left or move toward the center, and how it could break what was seen by many pundits and analysts as a Republican lock on the White House. Even now there are tensions within the party about whether to moderate some of its liberal positions to help its red-state moderates hang on in 2010. But you read far fewer of these kinds of pieces when a party controls the White House and both houses of Congress.


Vive le difference?: Howard, I pondered this tidbit from your column about the onging marital problems for the Italian Prime Minister: "The prime minister has been hanging around with an 18-year-old girl and showed up at her birthday bash, prompting this rejoinder from Lario: 'That surprised me. Because he never attended the 18th birthday parties of his own children, even if he was invited.'"

Even though I laughed, I couldn't help but think of how differently this story would develop in the U.S. No president could ever get away with being in this predicament. It seems hard to believe a sitting president could ever get divorced and quickly remarry, especially when the second wife was a former supermodel/pop star, as Sarkozy did in France.

Is this just an example of differing cultural (or moral) standards or different, maybe unrealistic expectations, on our part?

Howard Kurtz: In a nutshell, the Europeans do things differently. But even by European standards, this is a doozy of a story. This morning I read that Berlusconi has demanded that his wife apologize. No comment yet from the 18-year-old.


Alexandria, Va.: Another problem with newspaper staffing is that, between buyouts and plain, ordinary fear of losing one's job, people who've been with newspapers for years and are quite good at what they do are leaving for other opportunities. Buyouts obviously aren't being replaced, and people who are lucky enough to get other jobs either aren't replaced or are replaced with someone much younger who'll work for far less money and, though perhaps talented, just hasn't the experience.

It's gut wrenching for people who've been in the industry for decades to leave their papers, but in some cases it's either leave or be laid off.

Howard Kurtz: That is true. The unspoken pressure, and sometimes not so unspoken, is that it's better to take the money and run than wait for your job to be downsized out of existence, when you'll just get a typical (and much smaller) severance. The Post, by the way, is currently going through its fourth round of buyouts in recent years.

Thanks for the chat, folks.


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