Two significant items about journalism in the news the past couple of days: More about them in a minute. First, while the Sun-Times is trying to keep its head above water after surviving the era of the two crooks and with the Tribune struggling in well-documented ways, their numbers are falling in the same way that the giant networks viewership is tumbling. Why? I maintain it is not because of competing news sources but because newspapers are failing to capitalize on the slow, steady rise of conservatism that has changed our politics. The Sun-Times has correctly moved from so-called bland tabloid to a vehement strongly liberal tabloid, picking up some strength from the polarized left of the public. The Trib has tried to steer a middle ground, with the news coverage slightly left of center and the editorial policy centrist with emphasis mainly on economic libertarianism and social policy the same.
Of the two, the Sun-Times is more nearly correct: imitating the past by taking a partisan position: at least appealing to one dominant political strain in Chicago and not trying to straddle. Lynn Sweet is a political writer who were she to fathom how to write an objective story would certainly have a brain hemorrhage. She writes from the left which is acceptable. The entire paper in lefty: pro-gay marriage, pro-abortion, pro-Democratic party et al.
But conversely there is a market in Chicago for a truly conservative newspaper. Slowly other cities are starting to realize this. The New York Post is an unapologetically right-wing newspaper. The New York Sun is another. Two conservative daily papers in New York City? Unheard of? No, somebody gauged the newspaper reading mood correctly. They reflected on the rise of conservative talk radio, the rise of Fox News and understood that conservatives are a different breed, a wealthier breed than liberals across the board, a breed that likes to read and reflect, a breed familiar with the need to nurture the free market, a cerebral breed that is not intimidated by the general undertow of liberal thought.
Take for example, item #1: a story in, of all places, The NewYork Times, the liberal journal I read everyday. On March 6 in the Business Page David Carr writes about the woes of Mortimer Zuckerman, the real estate mega-millionaire whose enormous personal wealth has allowed him to venture into journalism, owning the struggling New York Daily News which he bought out of bankruptcy for $36 million, a paper that makes money albeit less and less. Then Zuckerman owns U.S. News & World Report, a once conservative magazine which is trying to keep its head above water but is barely doing it. Carr reports that Zuckerman is dismayed because his Daily News is losing readers to the Post. And why? Let Carr tell us: The problem is that the Daily News competes against a paper that wakes up every day knowing exactly what it is. Did you get that? Ill repeat: a paper that wakes up every day knowing exactly what it is. And what is that? Carr has only part of the answer because as a good Timesman hes impervious to its lesson. He says the Posts tangy to toxic mix of gossip and media news makes it a must-read among certain peoplethe kind that Mr. Zuckerman hangs out withand its hard to put a price tag on that. But Carr doesnt mention the Posts conservatism! Certainly anyone who reads both papers knows that the Daily News is as glitzy as the Post on gossip and show-biz. The difference is conservatism. In brief, the same thing that has led to the rise of Fox News and talk radioconservatismis causing the Post to catch up with the Daily News. Neither paper is in particularly strong financial straits but why is one building circulation and the other losing circulation? Ill tell you.
What do you get with the Daily News? You get only one thing that is constant. It wishy-washily finds fault with Bush on some things, weakly praises him on others. The only constant is Zuckermans strong support for journalism, support which, to use Carrs words, put him in the thick of policy debates and allowed him to bang the drum on behalf of the state of Israel. True enough. The only constant in the Daily News is support for Israel. Okay, but thats not enough, even in the city of New York (the Post supports Israel, too). The Daily News has lost 40,000 in daily circulation; the Post has gained 20,000. The Daily News is only slightly ahead with 688,584 to the Posts 672,731 and only after wrangling with the Audit Bureau of Circulation did the Daily News manage to save its reputation as the citys favorite newspaper (when the Daily News was owned by Capt. Joe Patterson it was the biggest newspaper in the world). Now Zuckerman says the Post has money problems just as he does, but the point is so-called liberal New York is responding to a paper that every day it wakes up knows what it isand that is conservative. Read the Daily News and you get a mélange of political correctness, no guts, a bland pastiche of generally acceptable opinion. Do you suppose this may have something to do with the papers tumbling circulation?
Zuckerman is bewildered. How is it that a paper with half the ads, a hemorrhaging balance sheet and what he thinks are questionable journalistic ethics has more cachet? Of course, the ethics thing is a cheap shot. Neither paper is the pristine Christian Science Monitor. One is gutsy New York and the other is pale pastel.
Now take a look at Zuckermans other property, the U.S. News & World Report. When the magazine was run by conservative David Lawrence, it had no trouble standing out in bas relief from Time and Newsweek. Now those who magazines are liberal, losing circulation and increasingly glitzy. The U.S. News & World Report is characteristic of Zuckerman himself, on-one-hand-then-the-other with liberal feminist columnist Gloria Borger, a conservative columnist Michael Barone, a Periscope that tilts liberal with a final back-page column by Zuckerman himself which has no absolutes except Israel. Another mélange. So the upshot with U.S.-based news magazines is they are either copiously liberal, predictably so or, in the case of U.S. News a mélange. What does that tell you?
O.k., heres item #2. The Economist, the magazine that improbably calls itself a newspaper which is published in London. Clive Crook in National Journal gives us the story. Its worldwide circulation has doubled over the past 10 years with the United States accounting for roughly half. It sells more than three times as many copies in America as in its home British market. Writes Crook: The papers growth has run counter to a nearly universal trend of declining circulation of newspapers and general interest magazines. Moreover, The Economist is expensive
My point is, you actually have to pay for it, unlike much of the competition, once you have allowed for discounts and promotions. I draw comfort from this as the industry reshapes itself around the Internet. The right kind of content has value and will continue to, regardless of the technology that delivers it. The Economist isstill small compared with publications like Time and Newsweek but thanks to its high price and its readers appeal to advertisers, it is profitable.
Compare The Economist to Time and Newsweek and youll find it has small photographs, is full of maps and charts and does not even provide its writers with bylines, forsaking the journalistic star system. It concentrates on the economy but not exclusively, is witty, ranges over global politics with a depth that no other magazine (er, paper) does. It is more influential than the three U.S. newsmagazines. It will feature Chicagos economy and politics in the next issue. And it makes money.
The Economist is, by and large, conservativecertainly conservative economically: laissez-faire. Yes, it is liberal socially but on its basic product, the economy, it is solid. Moreover it blends opinion and facts together ala the old Chicago Tribune, verifying my position that a publication should do that to compete in todays market (and why I think basically the Sun-Times which for the most part produces a slanted journal, is following the right business course: I dont think much of so-called objective journalism as you know, believing there is no such animal.) The Economist is the publication a well-read traveler, sophisticated business type, articulate person-of-the-world, would read. And would want to be caught dead having read it.
My contention is that if someone were to start a Chicago newspaper, published, say, five days a week with a decidedly conservative bent, youd be surprised at how it would begin to grow ala The Post and The Sun in New York. Well, why hasnt it happened thus far? The same reason why Hollywood does not produce films that sell but panders to the political left while the U.S. public loves Narnia by C. S. Lewis. Hollywood gives its awards to films that entertain a distinct minority: Crash, Brokeback Mountain et al. They produce films that gain kudos from the so-called intelligentsia and from each other. Michael Medved has chronicled it brilliantly. (The big critical cheese here is supposedly Roger Ebert who gloriously zips off to Hollywood and with his lefty buddies to Canne, who praises Good Night and Good Luck as a testament to the McCarthy era when the film hardly mentions the surrounding atmosphere of the Cold Warbut Roger doesnt know, how would he? Hes congenitally unable to. But all the same Roger fits the bill for a Democratic newspaper). What we need is a conservative Republican newspaper. If somebody ever figures that out, real change will begin to happen in Chicagoand Illinois.