I recently gave a podcast interview about the future of the newspaper industry and was asked how the business would be different if the internet had not been invented.
I offered a two-part answer.
First, the newspaper revenue model, especially the once-robust classified advertising business, would be considerably healthier. Sites such as Craigslist and Monster.com changed everything. Other forms of print advertising have also been affected and, as years passed, fewer new readers assumed the ink-on-paper reading habit, opting for screens.
That downward business pressure has resulted in fewer jobs in newspaper journalism. There were 41,400 people employed as reporters and editors in the newspaper industry in 2015, the latest figure available, a 37-percent decrease from 2004, according to the Pew Research Center.
Editors do their best to serve readers with fewer journalists, notably by protecting front-line reporting positions at the expense of the layers of editing that used to be common. For example, when I freelanced for the New York Times in the 1980s, I might interact with three or four editors on a single story. In June, the Times eliminated its copyediting desk.
Part two of my answer is that, internet or not, the newspaper business would still be much changed from the old days because much of society has split into ideological tribes affecting their media choices.
With the advent of conservative Fox News on cable television about two decades ago, the mainstream media entered an era in which claims of bias often became the first line of defense against negative stories.
Granted, the internet, with its ease of entry, has sped up this phenomenon. But it was cable television and its incessant appetite for “talking heads” — or perhaps “shouting heads” — that set us on a path towards today’s bifurcated media ecosystems. Talk radio was also a cause, and it would also be flourishing without the internet.
So, while the internet poses a massive challenge to the business of newspaper journalism, this liberal-conservative media split and quick-trigger claims of bias pose a challenge to the soul of newspaper journalism.
I recall how Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, his vice president, tried mightily to discredit Watergate revelations by the Washington Post in the early 1970s by saying stories were concocted for ideological reasons. That claim never took hold.
But times change. Donald Trump portrays the mainstream media as a more dangerous enemy than an avowed adversary like Russia. There is little doubt that Trump’s true believers discount most anything reported about him as trumped up.
Michael Wagner, a journalism professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, wrote a recent essay for Vox about that phenomenon. Wagner cited a new survey by the Elections Research Center at UW-Madison which asked a sample of 2,000 Americans: “When the news media and politicians disagree about the facts of a situation, which one are you more likely to trust?”
Seventy percent of the total sample chose the media, Wagner wrote, but of those who approved of Trump’s job performance — about 38 percent of the sample — 80 percent said they had more trust in a politician.
Other research suggests that Trump supporters continue to believe that only he can fix what ails us, whatever misstatements, White House upheaval, legislative defeats and investigations the media reports.
Wagner concludes in his article: “One year after his unlikely victory, the president’s hold over Americans who are deeply skeptical of journalists who seek to check the accuracy of his claims and report the progress of the big promises he makes remains the sharpest arrow in Donald Trump’s quiver.”
I asked Wagner what most surprised him in the research.
“I wasn’t surprised that Trump supporters had so little trust for the media, but I did a bit of a double-take when I saw that only 6 percent of Trump supporters trusted the people they elect to make political decisions,” he said.
“What’s troubling is that one role of the news media is to inform the public when politicians are not telling the truth. The evidence here goes beyond the normal partisan reasoning that we often go through. Some of President Trump’s supporters appear to be willing to believe him over anything else, no matter what.”
But let me pivot, more hopefully, to the overall sample, the 70 percent who would believe the press over politicians.
In the not-yet-posted podcast — the interviewer was Dick Goldberg of Madison — I posed what to me is the central question: What motive would newspaper journalists possibly have to slant the news, or, even more unimaginably, invent the news?
Journalism schools emphasize accuracy and fairness as top-line standards, just as integrity is central in medicine, accounting or law.
Let me address the elephant in this room. As editor and executive publisher of The Cap Times, I wear many hats, including that of a left-of-center columnist.
But a proverbial wall — it is thick and high — exists between the opinions I and other Cap Times columnists write and how our reporters and editors operate in covering the news.
It is not unlike the wall that exists between the newsroom and advertising department — no professional newspaper editor worth her or his salt would permit an advertiser to shape content.
Granted, some might argue that Fox News or HuffPost slant coverage and succeed. But they are, at their core, ideological brands, while the Cap Times and most newsrooms are about geography — delivering news and information important to a local market. That’s a big difference.
Look, our foremost goal at the Cap Times is to ensure our relevance far into the future and central to that mission is aggressive, objective and professional local journalism.
That’s the ingredient in shortest supply in an era, as a recent video produced for The Cap Times 100th anniversary suggested, of “sound-bite news and alternative facts.” In newspaper journalism — as I assume is the case in most businesses — credibility is everything.
So back to that 30 percent of respondents who say they would trust a politician over a newspaper. I have this question.
If the business goal of the Cap Times and mainstream media in general is to be indispensable to and trusted by the largest audience possible, why in the world would we distort news coverage? Answer me that.
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