Friday, May 16, 2008

Still 'extremely gloomy'

The death of journalism, continued:
The Internet is destroying journalism, according to Internet journalist Joshua Micah Marshall. . . . In a Friday speech at a Harvard conference on the future of the web, Marshall said traditional reporters are "terrorized" by economic and competitive challenges, living with a mix of "denial and fatalism" about the future of their craft -- and their livelihoods. When openings for entry-level jobs are posted at Marshall's site, for example, he said applications come in from senior investigate journalists struggling to find a job. The industry changes are bad for journalists, Marshall argued, but good for journalism.
Marshall is left about most things, but he's at least half-right about this. I've written before about the grim prospects for the future of journalism, although my take on the subject is somewhat different.

It's not the Internet that's killing journalism, it's illiteracy. The idea that the Internet is replacing print journalism as a news source is an illusion. There is no one-to-one exchange of people canceling newspaper subscriptions and people logging onto the Internet. There is, instead, a shrinking readership of news, period, regardless of whether the news is delivered by computer or by print.

What is the maximum daily readership of HuffingtonPost or the Drudge Report? Is that online readership smaller or larger than the combined readership decline of U.S. newspapers and newsmagazines in the past 10 years?

It's not just MSM. It's not just Old Media. It's not just "dead tree." We are witnessing the death of a mass market for news, regardless of the medium. The cyber-triumphalists of the blogosphere who cheer every report about layoffs and circulation declines at U.S. newspapers don't seem to realize that the bell also tolls for them.

Think about those surveys that tell us that under-30s get most of their political news from "The Daily Show" or Jay Leno's monologues. People who cannot read fluently -- that is, those who cannot process written information as effectively as they process the spoken word -- will never constitute a readership for serious news, whether that news is delivered via print or computer.

Evidence clearly indicates that reading fluency has declined steadily in recent decades. To read well -- to read complex material with both speed and comprehension -- requires reading often. A good reader is a habitual reader. Over the past 30 or 40 years, American schools and parents have failed to inculcate the reading habit in children, producing a generation of young adults in which a majority is incapable of reading and comprehending an article from Newsweek, let alone an essay from Commentary or the New Criterion.

Market forces are at work. The demand for news has been shrinking steadily for a couple of decades, and now the supply is dwindling. Twenty years ago, scores of American newspapers maintained bureaus in Washington. Most of those bureaus have been eliminated or stripped down to a bare minimum.

News industry executives have tried to explain away the problems of the business by citing the loss of ad revenue to Craigslist, Ebay, Fandango, etc. But while newspapers might have been able to compete with such online venues by reducing their ad rates, dwindling circulation tells a different story. People are reading less news, and this is especially true of young adults, the market most coveted by advertisers.

If the major target audience for feature films is the 18-34 demographic, why should a movie studio advertise its new releases in newspapers? When's the last time you saw someone under 35 actually reading a newspaper?

As older readers die off, they are not being replaced by young readers. The pet illusion of the cyber-triumphalists -- that readership is merely being transferred from print to online sources -- is only an illusion.

Even the most savvy news executives don't seem to grasp the dynamics of this. When I was at The Washington Times, some people in the newsroom labored under the delusion that the blogosphere is all about "kids," or that bloggers are a bunch of unshaven slackers who just rant. In fact, most bloggers are in their 30s, 40s or 50s, most of their readership is in the same age range and, in contrast to their image as ranting troglodytes, successful bloggers tend to have high levels of education.

As literacy declines and the mass market for news consequently dries up, the readership for news begins to resemble an elite. This has important ramifications. However, given that declining literacy travels in tandem with a dwindling attention span, I don't suppose there would be much of a readership for an extended discussion of those ramifications, so I will desist.

ADDENDUM: Josh Marshall is himself evidence of one my points about blogging. He's 39 years old (i.e., not a "kid") and is a Princeton alum with a Ph.D. from Brown. He is a member of the elite, writing for an elite readership, and his output is thus necessarily a reflection of elite sensibilities.

In 2000, 28 percent of freshmen at colleges and universities required remedial coursework. An 18-year-old incapable of reading at a college level is unlikely ever to become a frequent reader of political news and discussion. Civic discourse is limited to the literate few, excluding the interests and voices of the Ordinary American, who does not participate in this discourse. There are elites who claim to speak for the masses, but the masses themselves don't even read op-ed columns, much less write them.

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