Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Tuesday, May 11, 2010 9:30 pm

Money doesn’t quite change everything

Journalist Matt Steinglass makes the case that the often-crappy coverage provided by mainstream American news media is purely a matter of market economics:

I understand Brad DeLong’s frustrations with journalists failing to get complicated stories about economics and economic policy right. I don’t know anything about the specific cases in which he feels some reporters at the Washington Post weren’t trying to get it right. But as a broad response, I would have to say: for most of us, the level of detailed and scrupulous reportage which he expects on every story entails an amount of work that almost no journalistic institution in the world will pay us enough to do, anymore.

This isn’t really a complaint; it’s more of an observation. The quality of reportage, both financial and otherwise, is going to keep going down. And it’s going to keep going down because there isn’t a market for quality reportage. It doesn’t pay any more to interview 10 sources for an article than it does to interview 5 of them. And it doesn’t pay any more to come up with an interesting or accurate way to tell a complex story than it does to resort to a well-worn format such as “there’s a heated debate over”, present one side, present the other side, come back to somebody saying there’s a heated debate, ends.

It’s not so much that the answer to the question “why oh why can’t we have a better press corps” is “because no one will pay for one.” I’d say that the question should be “why oh why can’t we have better reporting”, and the answer is “because no one will pay for it”.

OK, I’ll admit it’s been 16 months since I’ve darkened the door of a newsroom. But I did spend a quarter-century in one before that, and I not only experienced a lot of what has happened to American journalism, I accurately predicted a good bit of it. And, yes, market forces did a lot of damage.

But they by no means did it all. In fact, I would argue, they didn’t even do the majority of it.

The worst damage was caused by the business side’s failure to drive the transition from primarily print to primarily online. Relatedly, the business side failed to develop a business model capable of supporting quality journalism — because it never really tried. Intead, it continued to act, for far too long, as if the 20-, 30-, even 40-percent pretax profit margins to which the industry grew accustomed during a period that, even at the time, was obviously a historical blip could be sustained forever. Not so much, it turns out.

But we’re not getting crappy coverage because of market forces alone.

Lack of money is not what makes the Washington Post op-ed page suck so relentlessly. Lack of money is not what makes reporters adhere to narratives that either are well past their sell-by dates or were never true in the first place. Low pay is not what makes reporters write stories, and editors let them into the paper, that don’t explain 1) what the news is and 2) why I should care. Low pay is not what causes reporters to make unsupported factual assertions. I see all of that and more in the Post, the Times and many other major-league news outlets all the freakin’ time, and you cannot convince me that money is the only problem. The problem also is that people either don’t know how to do the job, don’t care about doing it well or are, philosophically or literally, on the take.

David Broder didn’t always suck as badly as he does now. But somewhere along the way, he stopped reporting and the people who edit him stopped caring; had either of those things not happened, the fact that the world has changed while his world view hasn’t would be irrelevant. Whether that was a deliberate choice on his part and his editors’ part or not, the financial travails of The Washington Post and its (still quite profitable) parent company had nothing to do with it.

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