Tuesday, April 07, 2009
Yeah, he's a liberal, French-loving weenie. But he has his moments.
THE NEWSPAPER THING. Honestly, I've never been a fan of Michael Kinsley, but I've always had a grudging respect for him. He played the liberal foil amicably and cogently on William F. Buckley's Firing Line, so I've never doubted that he was one of the diminishing population of lefties who don't stroke out at the mere presence of a conservative in the room. On the other hand, I had the impression that he was boringly predictable, a party-line kind of guy without much in the way of original ideas. Now I'm thinking I might have been wrong about that. His op-ed piece today in the Washington Post, "Life After Newspapers," is brilliant.
Regular readers here will know that I have a dog in this hunt. I've written about the financial catastrophe facing newspapers many times, most recently here, here and here. In the latest instance, I was responding to a newspaperman who took strong exception to my assertion that the crisis was one newspapers had brought on themselves, much of it through increasingly naked political bias. A representative excerpt of his argument and my response:
Don't take for granted the crucial role still played by newspapers in informing us about the world. If every newspaper abruptly folded tomorrow, we'd have a very empty Internet and a very clueless public. And we'd suddenly be living in a very dangerous society. Even if you don't read a single newspaper's website, you still know the news you know because of newspapers.
If you respond by saying, well, some other enterprise will step in and fill that role, then the burden is on you to explain how such a business could be any more sustainable than the ones that are struggling mightily to be sustainable as we speak.
Sorry for the lengthy post. I'm just getting weary of seeing this flawed argument about the newspaper industry's decline (i.e., various versions of "they're too biased!"), and it's hard not to wax on about it.
uh, well, "some other enterprise will step in and fill that role." And, no, I don't have any burden whatsoever "to explain how such a business could be any more sustainable than the ones that are struggling mightily to be sustainable as we speak."
But I will explain a fact or two about economics to our overwrought friend. The demand for clear, factual reportage is a constant, a market that will never go away so long as it is permitted to operate freely. Which means that it represents a huge economic opportunity, a source of enormous wealth potential to the person or entity who figures out how to meet the demand. Which also means that the demand will be met and profits will be made. It doesn't matter how.
Since then, of course, bailout fever has spread, not surprisingly, to newspapers who believe not that they're too big to fail but -- like my antagonist above -- too important to fail. Congress is actually considering the possibility of making newspapers nonprofit "foundations" subsidized by the very government they're supposed to be objectively reporting on. That should make liberals happy, shouldn't it? Well, interestingly enough, not in Michael Kinsley's case. It turns out he's the kind of old-fashioned liberal who still believes in quaint concepts like the market and an independent press. From his op-ed:
Two recent articles in Slate argued that newspapers (1) actually play a fairly unimportant role in our democracy and (2) are in this pickle because of financial shenanigans, not inexorable forces of technology. But let's say these are both wrong: that technology is on the verge of removing some traditionally vital organs of the body politic. What should we do?
How about nothing? Capitalism is a "perennial gale of creative destruction" (Joseph Schumpeter). Industries come and go. A newspaper industry that was a ward of the state or of high-minded foundations would be sadly compromised. And for what?
You may love the morning ritual of the paper and coffee, as I do, but do you seriously think that this deserves a subsidy? Sorry, but people who have grown up around computers find reading the news on paper just as annoying as you find reading it on a screen. (All that ink on your hands and clothes.) If your concern is grander -- that if we don't save traditional newspapers we will lose information vital to democracy -- you are saying that people should get this information whether or not they want it. That's an unattractive argument: shoving information down people's throats in the name of democracy.
He's also unsparing about how this crisis came to pass.
Few industries in this country have been as coddled as newspapers. The government doesn't actually write them checks, as it does to farmers and now to banks, insurance companies and automobile manufacturers. But politicians routinely pay court to local newspapers the way other industries pay court to politicians. Until very recently, most newspapers were monopolies, with a special antitrust exemption to help them stay that way....
And then along came the Internet to wipe out some of the industry's biggest costs. If you had told one of the great newspaper moguls of the past that someday it would be possible to publish a newspaper without paying anything for paper, printing and delivery, he would not have predicted that this would mean catastrophe for the industry. But that is what it has been.
Wow. That's an acute perception. And true. What's more, he's not particularly worried:
But there is no reason to suppose that when the dust has settled, people will have lost their appetite for serious news when the only fundamental change is that producing and delivering that news has become cheaper.
Maybe the newspaper of the future will be more or less like the one of the past, only not on paper. More likely it will be something more casual in tone, more opinionated, more reader-participatory. Or it will be a list of favorite Web sites rather than any single entity. Who knows? Who knows what mix of advertising and reader fees will support it? And who knows which, if any, of today's newspaper companies will survive the transition?
But will there be a Baghdad bureau? Will there be resources to expose a future Watergate? Will you be able to get your news straight and not in an ideological fog of blogs? Yes, why not -- if there are customers for these things. There used to be enough customers in each of half a dozen American cities to support networks of bureaus around the world. Now the customers can come from around the world as well.
If General Motors goes under, there will still be cars. And if the New York Times disappears, there will still be news.
It's enough to make you wonder if Michael Kinsley is becoming, um, conservative. I confess it; I'm impressed.
Now, if only we could extend the grand option of "doing nothing" to a bunch of other issues the Obama administration is interfering in so recklessly and disastrously. Then, maybe, I could begin to share CountryPunk's naive hopefulness. Although I'd also have to see some change in this depressing statistic.