KANE: Dissecting the decline of newspapers, rise in partisanship

Jonas Kane

Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann and Glenn Beck are all skillful salesmen. They know how to pick apart the important and irrelevant stories of the day and frame them into imminent, often demagogic calls to action. They deliberately toy with people’s emotions, and they are by no means legitimate newsmen.

Most people understand this, including a number of those that watch their programs. Yet there seems to be a prevailing sentiment among many in the media that these opinion-first television hosts and bloggers are in part responsible for precipitating the decline of mainstream news and for fostering an era of divisive, partisan reporting and political culture.

This idea seems to make sense. Just last week, newspaper circulation figures painted a dim picture for the future of the industry: over the past six months, nearly all of the nation’s top newspapers have experienced sharp declines, from a 7.6 percent loss of readership for the New York Times to a 17 percent drop for USA Today. At the same time, television and radio ratings for the aforementioned gentlemen have risen to their highest levels, and the proliferation of blogs continues to create a wide array of new and often ideological information sources.

All of this is true, yet the filling-in-the-gaps mentality equates the rise of one with the fall of the other requires a stretch of the imagination. There is little to no empirical evidence to suggest the two are related, but there is still a tendency to overstate the increase in partisan views.

There was a thoughtful column a few weeks back by New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks questioning the belief that the positions advocated by opinion hosts are actually embraced by a large, rather than a small but dedicated, number of people.

After all, for all the hooplah made about people like Bill O’Reilly, consider how many viewers he actually gets on a normal night: in October, he averaged about 3.4 million viewers per show, the highest number for a “news” broadcast on cable television.

Even if a large number of people were to agree with points made by O’Reilly, a relatively small number receive their news from him or are passionate about taking his advice.

By contrast, even the CBS Evening News, the lowest rated evening news broadcast, averaged over six million viewers a night during the last year. The Times, while losing paper subscribers, had over 21 million unique viewers on its Web site during the month of September.

That being said, direct comparisons between talking heads and actual reporters are beside the point and incorrectly treat the two as mutually exclusive entities; most people are perfectly capable of differentiating between commentary and news, and people can obviously use both. If anything, numbers related to news consumption suggest more of a general disinterest in national and international issues than a greater tilt toward partisanship.

The struggle of mainstream news has much more to do with a shifting landscape.

It is multi-faceted, but there are two primary components: the drop in revenues for advertising and a failure to recognize and properly adapt to the technological changes that have made the world smaller.

Partisan commentary is nothing new, but the wider avenues through which news can be accessed are unprecedented. One of the reasons partisan blogging has been seen as a threat to genuine reporting is that it has embraced new media in a way that old-fashioned newspapers and magazines are still trying to catch up to.

Even though many people still consult traditional news sources, the profit margin that once existed simply isn’t there anymore. Online advertising fails to generate revenues like print, which means many papers are essentially giving away the news for free.

The fault for this has nothing to do with the sideshow antics of people like Beck. There will always be an audience for unironic Stephen Colbert figures, just as there is for any other bad television or bad writing. Blogging on the internet simply gives more people a chance to voice their opinions.

But there is also an audience for nonpartisan and genuine reporting, so long as the journalism industry can adapt to the internet and return to the past’s profitability without compromising its integrity.


Jonas Kane is a senior English and political

science major from Harrisburg, Pa. He can be reached at [email protected].