"[A]nti-Capitalist Societies Have [Newspapers], But Only in the Sense That Grigory Potemkin Had Villages"

A great line from Megan McArdle's recent article on newspapers and their "pivot to dust."

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

A slightly longer excerpt, though you should read the whole article (from the Washington Post, Jan. 26):

No, the journalism business is wedded to capitalism through and through; capitalism just seems to have tired of the arrangement.

And like anyone else whose spouse is losing interest, the industry has tried — oh, how it has tried! — to win back capitalism's affections, with more makeovers than a Hollywood starlet. As usual, this didn't resolve the underlying problem: The main competition for ad dollars now comes from massive tech companies that don't produce content at all.

Journalism isn't going away, exactly. There are business models that work, largely two: funding by donors or wealthy owners willing to operate at a loss, or subscriptions. But those models can't support all the journalism now being done. The number of donors doesn't magically increase just because more are needed. And subscription models have limits, because most people can only afford a few at a time.

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79 responses to “"[A]nti-Capitalist Societies Have [Newspapers], But Only in the Sense That Grigory Potemkin Had Villages"

  1. Capitalism hasn’t so much tired of journalism, as tired of what now pretends to be journalism.

    1. Nice thought, but it wouldn’t be capitalism if it didn’t care a lot more about eyeballs than content.

      What doomed the newspapers was their revenues depended on a 3 legged stool of classifieds, subscriptions and ad revenues. Well the internet killed the classifieds, and mostly killed subscriptions, and the ad revenue model seems to work just as well for cat videos, listicles, and porn as it does for “serious” journalism.

      It would be a better story if smug satisfied establishment journalism brought about its own demise but the truth is we never cared enough about it to try to save it, or even notice as it slipped beneath the waves. Now that might be in part because at the same time the business model was collapsing we found out what lying sanctimonious assholes they were, but it wasn’t cause and effect.

      1. I’ll agree those factors you mentioned are significant, and *might* have been enough to take down modern ‘journalism’ by themselves, but the death blow comes from deciding to throw away half the potential market by, not just picking sides, but all picking the SAME side.

        That not only lost them a huge hunk of potential market share, it also broke the partisan competition mechanism that had been keeping up their quality.

        I saw that in real time in the Detroit newspaper market; When the JOA turned the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News into one paper that just published two editions with (slightly) different editorial pages, not only did the News lose it’s old base of loyal subscribers, the quality dropped rapidly, because there wasn’t any longer a hostile competitor to expose mistakes or omissions.

        Ultimately? I guess it comes down to the rise of journalism school, because that was what caused the industry to become an ideological monoculture in the first place.

        1. Establishment journalists — the “mainstream media” — reject conservative preferences, much as establishment architects and engineers prefer science to prayer, establishment biologists do not reject evolution for young Earth creationism, establishment decent people eschew gay-bashing, and establishment physicians just don’t get televangelical faith healing.

          I blame modernity, reason, and education for the mainstream’s lack of interest in right-wing preferences. That, and the great outcome of the culture war.

          1. It’s hilarious to me how few conservatives actually grasp how centrist publications like NYTimes and WaPo actually are. Like, there’s not much space to the right of them before you start getting into full-on conspiracy-theory and fake-news propagation. There’s actually not much difference between a NYTimes or WaPo editorial and mainstream, “establishment” Republican views.

            1. Perhaps they used to be centrist. Or at least more centered. They no longer are.

              1. Enjoy irrelevance at the fringe.

              2. Perhaps they used to be centrist. Or at least more centered. They no longer are.

                Says someone who evidently doesn’t read them.

                1. Says someone who is in denial.

                2. Simon, you’re confused because you are a an extreme leftist. What you call centrist is pretty far left. Kind of how my commie aunt considered Pbama right leaning because he was an authoritarian.

              3. Perhaps they used to be centrist. Or at least more centered.

                The NYT reported that there was no famine in Stalin’s USSR and that the show trials were legit.

            2. They are solidly mainstream, right in the middle of the eastern liberal establishment.

            3. The smaller the fraction of the ideological spectrum the MSM encompasses, the further left an outlet can be and still be on the ‘right’ side of the MSM.

            4. It is also hilarious how conservatives ignore Fox News and Sinclair Media when they talk about the Establishment. In terms of people reached, the news/political media in the US is actually dominated overwhelmingly by “conservative” voices – Fox News, National Enquirer, Rush Limbaugh and similar talk radio voices, and local news outlets controlled by the Sinclair Broadcast Group. When conservatives talk about the “Establishment” they apparently mean the vanishingly small amount of media that is actually pitched above a 10th grade reading level – today that amounts to not much more than the NYT, the WaPo, and the WSJ, and even one of those still has a conservative slant on its editorial page.

              1. Someone was mentioning the other day how America has become a country of underdogs. Everyone thinks they’re fighting the Empire, regardless of reality.

                1. Here’s a helpful hint. If over 90% of the people who workin the federal govt. belong to your political party, then you are NOT the underdog. Or even Underdog.

              2. Fox news was a bit less hostile to Trump during the general election than was the MSM, but scarcely supportive. With Murdock’s kids taking over, it’s starting to transition to being a regular part of the MSM. Sinclair has some potential to challenge the MSM. Republicans still do well on talk radio, basically because AM radio was a ghetto that the left didn’t bother targeting for a takeover in time.

                Yes, a few of those still have somewhat conservative editorial pages, even as the left has taken control of the news divisions. I don’t expect that to last much longer.

              3. Leftist newspapers outnumber right leaning newspapers about a hundred to one.

                It’s hilarious how progressives ignore that fact. It’s also hilarious how progressives consider themselves to have superior literacy, when in fact the exact opposite is true.

            5. No, they aren’t centerist. There is more room between their positions and the full on Looney Right than there appears to be in terms of message…but the middle isn’t yet motivated to get its message out, while the Far Right is. Also, one needs,to be careful what one accepts as Extreme Right Wing, because the Progressive Left has a tendency to label ‘Extreme’ anything but supine acceptance of the Progressive Left.

              For example; opposition to Abortion right up to the moment of birth is hardly ‘Extreme’, though the Left certainly behaves as though it is…which is why (though I support legal abortion) I fully expect to see abortion broadly banned in my lifetime. The Pro-Choice activists are unwilling to accept that in politics, it isn’t enough to be Right. You also have to get along with the neighbors.

              Then there’s the business of calling Trump ‘as bad as (a certain despicable Austrian). A mountebank? That’s certainly a defensible position. Boss Tweed come again? A little over the top, but hardly absurd. That miserable paperhanger? Saying so may please your True Believers, but it convinces nobody who wasn’t already in your camp. If anything it rehabilitates that jumped-up corporal. If Trump is like him, then he is like Trump.

              Needless to say, he wasn’t. He was a rabid dog.

              1. ‘Guys the other side calls everything extreme. Also they are all extreme.’

          2. You’d be right if you weren’t missing the forest because all the trees are in the way.

            Bias is not about facts so much as about the choice of stories to harp on 24/7/365. Therein exposes the political agendas.

            Fox news was (was) a breath of fresh air when it came out…and it jumped to the top of the ratings because it wasn’t leftie-biased in those selections of stories.

            I gave up watching it when they became the Benghazi channel and it was obvious they were dragging things out to hurt Hillary in 2016. Not that I cared, but it got to be such a bore.

            You can hardly blame the CNN evening editorial shows from converting to the Fox model.

          3. Say the phrase: “Walter Cronkite was a centrist” three times, and, you will turn into a zombie.

            1. I really miss Cronkite hosting ‘Dialing for Dollars’.

  2. “journalists” are victims of their own un-productivity. What do they actually do these days? In many pieces I can smell the lobbyist bullet points. Yes, getting an article placed is a thing, especially in DC, to drum up support.

    Its pretty easy to check facts. Want to know how the crime rate of DC compares to Baltimore, and how the crime rate has changed since FL went shall-issue? Goggle it, the facts are on the FBI website.

    Why should I read an article where the “journalist” has not even bothered to do a Google search, spewing lobbyist bullet points without any skepticism?

    What is killing “journalism” is they they do not add enough value. I subscribe to the WSJ and Washington Post. I clear my cookies when I want to read the Baltimore Sub (for free) because 95% of any article their is typically the same as the one written by a Reuters or AP wire piece and will be the same in the WaPo.

    For journalism to survive they need to add value. Capitalism is like natural selection. The herd gets thinned and the ones who survive eventually are the ones who produce the most at the least cost.

    1. What is also killing “journalism” is the homogenaity of the “content.” Why pay to read never ending repeats of the same agenda-driven drivel?

    2. “journalists” are victims of their own un-productivity. What do they actually do these days? In many pieces I can smell the lobbyist bullet points.

      You have to read newspapers if you want to get a sense of what they do – not just the enraging stories you see pop up in your social media from time to time.

      1. We do. They suck. They are left wing propaganda.

        1. The only true way to safeguard democracy is to slavishly agree with PH2!

          1. It would be wise to in this case, as he is correct.

      2. The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect isnt a new realization. Journalists seldom know what they are talking about and get BASIC stuff amazingly wrong.

  3. Everyone here is wrong, including the WaPo piece.

    “Capitalism” hasn’t “grown tired” of “journalism,” and you’re going to have to strain to try to prove that journalism is worse or more partisan than it was historically. Read up on it. There is more open partisanship in U.S. journalism today than in the late-20th century, but it’s hardly new.

    What’s happened is that electronic/digital journalism has gutted newspaper subscriptions and advertising, putting a lot into death spirals. It’s been going on for decades. The rest are trying to stay afloat by going regional or national, or by becoming parts of chains, but it’s a tough slog.

    Digital communication has made it ever easier for content to be aimed at more limited markets of consumers, rather than at mass publics. So folks with minority POV’s can cater to people drawn to them, which draws them away from mass market journalism. Monetizing the content is harder — so much material can be taken and rebroadcast so easily — so it is important to hold onto the base, which means catering to them ever more. The result is those bubbles we keep talking about.

    But capitalism didn’t demand this. It’s support of electronic/digital communication encouraged it, and then businesses went where the people were, so they could entice the folks to buy such-and-such products. It supports all those outlets, including this one, through all those damned ads that are driving me crazy at this very minute!

    1. Everyone here is wrong, including the WaPo piece.

      “Capitalism” hasn’t “grown tired” of “journalism,”…

      What’s happened is that electronic/digital journalism has gutted newspaper subscriptions and advertising, putting a lot into death spirals.

      Uh, that’s what the WaPo piece says.

  4. Most newspapers are basically progressive propaganda pumps . . . seems to me, this is a big part of their problem.

    1. So are strong universities’ physics, biology, English, environmental studies, and history departments.

      1. Yes we know. That’s why they are also getting worse.

      2. The better professors are not progressives. Arty wouldn’t really know though, he never even finished high school

  5. A little postscript to this is a small but important profit niche local newspapers had called printing legal notices. This was as dependable a revenue source as obituaries. Since neither death nor the law is going away, something semi-officialish will have to fill the void.

  6. As a subscription-supported publication, I’d like to see the WaPo trim some fat, like its weird commitment to giving McArdle a platform.

    1. The left always wants to censor.

      1. Not as badly as the right does.

        1. Nope.

    2. I’d like to see the, gone for good. Then there would be one less propaganda rag, and more out of work Marxist propagandists.

  7. I do have a quibble about the Potemkin village trope surfacing again. I am now convinced that the deliberate Russian colonization of the Eastern Ukraine (which involved the planned construction and populating of villages along the direct marching route from Moscow to the Crimea) was in fact a successful infrastructure project and it eventually supported the successful campaigns which resulted in Britain and Turkey trying to take Crimea back from the Russians.

    Potemkin villages were never about the Russian Chancellor trying to hoodwink Catherine the Great about “ideal” villages. These were ordinary villages in ideal locations to support Russian troop movements.

    The whole fable that has become so popular in the West was basically Fake News generated by a Prussian diplomat who was only too aware that it was succeeding. That’s the problem with Fake News. It can even become fake history.

  8. The claim that the amount consumers will pay for journalism can’t support a decent supply isn’t supported by almost any evidence.

    We need to not confuse the claim that there isn’t enough money in journalism to support the current number of journalists and there isn’t enough money to support the current level of quality. The truth is there is a lot of waste in journalism now. Excepting only few top investigative publications every local newspaper who writes their own version (or even just edits it) of a national story is wasting resources. Even redoing the page layout so every city has their own paper mixing local and national news is silly.

    I’m confident that there is plenty of consumer willingness to pay a reasonable rate for news if the going price wasn’t 0. However, we just won’t get there until all the old journalism companies burn through enough resources that they stop operating at a loss and pushing the price of news to 0.

  9. Couple things.

    First journalism has always been leftist propaganda. But now people are realizing that thanks to the Internet. Maybe they shouldn’t have been so quick to jump on, say the Covington kids, and then keep doubling down.

    Second the methods of advertising got worse and worse, leading to ad blockers.

    So it’s not capitalism that did this, but journalism itself.

    1. Twitter has killed what little legitimacy the media had left.

      1. I know! It’s one of the few things I like about Twitter. All the lefty twits and twats just can’t help themselves.

        It’s good when a progressive is destroyed.

  10. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be ‘outraged’ about here.

    Yes the traditional media types (print and broadcast, which are capitalistic enterprises), are being changed by the internet (another capitalistic enterprise).

    Um, ok….

    I tend to see the good side of capitalism vastly outweighs capitalism’s negative affects so am just going to enjoy the ride.

    Maybe traditional journalism just needs to die away (like the horse and buggy).

    Why do we need this buffer between us and the sources of news.

    For example, every politician has their own Facebook, Twitter, etc. so why do I need a journalist to interview them when I can do it myself.

    1. The democratization of journalism has caused a shift in what’s being highlighted. So you get more cops and whatnot behaving badly captured on phone, but less investigative work about large institutions.

      Between social media and the lower cost of content production, populist tactics are also a lot more effective and profitable than in the past, regardless of accuracy. We’ll adapt to this new drug or we’ll die a partisan death.

      1. In your example, say three badcop incidents are caught on camera.

        I can see that leading to a Fire Chief Wiggum campaign.

        All-in-all, I’m optimistic.

        1. I am as well. You see a lot of anxiety about television in old sci-fi, and we managed to adapt. Surveys seem to indicate college-aged kids are largely inured to the social media aspect.

          We shall see.

          As for afflicting the police versus corporations/agencies/churches, I don’t know that I’d trade one for the other. Elites and the demos both have their benefits in policymaking in most areas, and this seems no different to me. We’ll see how the market shakes out over the next decade or so.

      2. The investigation of large institutions hasn’t had its entrepreneurs who have figured out how to democratize the investigation.

    2. “For example, every politician has their own Facebook, Twitter, etc. so why do I need a journalist to interview them when I can do it myself.”

      Unintentional hilarity is Bellmore’s bailiwick.

  11. If this were true, Der Spiegel would not be one of the highest-quality journals in the world. Plenty of other counter-examples are easy to find. This quote is ideological nonsense, and it is beneath you to repeat it.

  12. I flunked out of grad school three (yes 3!) times, in journalism, history, and engineering science, all for failing to finish up something or other. Usually as a result of being offended by someone on the faculty. However I retained a lifelong interest in history and engineering, At J-school I excelled in headline writing, but couldn’t get my mind at ease with the epiphany that I would necessarily become a propagandist, not a true researcher or detective.

  13. The problem is definitely journalism, not capitalism’s relationship with it. Independent journalists like Tim Pool are doing just fine economically by presenting facts, distinguishing their opinions from facts, and being objective irrespective of their own personal beliefs.

  14. Yes, most media biased, but that’s not the cause of its demise. If it were, then conservative outlets would gobble up the demand–like Fox News did for TV news. Newspapers considered right leaning, such as the Dallas Morning News and Las Vegas Review-Journal, also cut jobs.

    The problem is that people are willing to pay only for good journalism, and most of what newspapers publish is mindless drivel. The sort of fluff akin to a CBS sitcom.

    In the pre-internet days, newspapers met that demand for fluff for a price. But with the internet, fluff is free. The demand is the same as ever (or maybe even greater), but there’s an overwhelming supply of it.

    Unfortunately, newspapers aren’t responding by bulking up on good journalism. Quite the opposite. They are cutting journalists and publishing more fluff to get more clicks. Compare most papers today to what they were 20-30 years ago. Stories are shorter and more sparse. The best columnists are often gone. Those who are left try to be sensational to get retweets and Facebook postings. It’s a death spiral for newspapers.

    I would rather have (and pay for) a local newspaper that published once a week, but filled the issue with in-depth, well-written stories by smart, critical journalists than 7 days of what they’re giving now. Stop trying to compete with the entirety of the internet and instead focus on the unmet demand for good local journalism.

    1. The problem is that people are willing to pay only for good journalism, and most of what newspapers publish is mindless drivel.

      You sure it’s not the reverse? Otherwise, what explains the market failure you describe?

      1. It is not. When a story is in the paper about something you actually know about, you recognize that the media doesn’t know what the fuck they are talking about.

        …but you assume they do about stuff you DON’T know about.

        Journalists are English majors without talent. They are little more than stenographers now. Newspapers would be wise to hire private investigators and not J-School idiots for their newsrooms,

        1. When your answer to a post about how journalism is needed to maintain freeedom is ‘screw journalists’ that might not be sending the message you want it to.

          But what has changed that journalists are ‘little more than stenographers now?’

          Access journalism is actually a pretty small part of a newsroom because it’s so easy. Moreover, one thing about the Trump era that I like is that access journalism is dying, and shoe-leather is on the rise in response.

          1. When your answer to a post about how journalism is needed to maintain freeedom is ‘screw journalists’ that might not be sending the message you want it to.

            We need doctors but I happily oppose quacks doing shit to people. We need the police to enforce laws but I happily oppose cops who abuse their authority.

            I do not see why throwing out the bad/incompetent means you have to throw them ALL out — unless your argument is that they are ALL incompetent. If so, then yes, throw them all out.

            Only worse than no journalism is terrible journalism.

            Access journalism is actually a pretty small part of a newsroom because it’s so easy. Moreover, one thing about the Trump era that I like is that access journalism is dying, and shoe-leather is on the rise in response.

            Oh dear…you actually BELIEVE that?

            The media are stenographers. They are stenographers for Democrats, as usual. It’s just that the Democrats are not running the show. So, they are now the “opposition”.

            1. Journalists are English majors without talent. They are little more than stenographers now. Newspapers would be wise to hire private investigators and not J-School idiots for their newsrooms,
              You didn’t oppose bad journalists, your post above was not limited and looked like you had contempt for journalism broadly. Glad that’s not what you meant.

              The media are stenographers. They are stenographers for Democrats, as usual.
              Ah. So you’re just adding a bit of conspiracy to the usual unsupported feelings-based media bias carping.

              It’s just that the Democrats are not running the show. So, they are now the “opposition”.
              Weird that those who control the media and education aren’t running the show. Also not understanding your scare quotes around opposition. Are the Dems actually not the opposition, and just rope-a-doping us all?!

              1. You didn’t oppose bad journalists, your post above was not limited and looked like you had contempt for journalism broadly. Glad that’s not what you meant.

                J School grads are, by and large, complete morons with an IQ hovering around 30. Employing people who didn’t go through the doctrination of J School would make far more sense. For his numerous faults, Ben Rhodes assessment of journalists was spot on. They don’t know a thing.

                Weird that those who control the media and education aren’t running the show. Also not understanding your scare quotes around opposition. Are the Dems actually not the opposition, and just rope-a-doping us all?!

                Was referring to the media, but good to see you agree that they are Democrats.

                I can cite you polls, political contributions, etc to bolster my claim.

                1. J School grads are, by and large, complete morons with an IQ hovering around 30
                  Says more about you than me.

                  You think registering for a political party means you can’t be professional?

                  1. You think registering for a political party means you can’t be professional?

                    Evidence clearly indicates that they cannot.

                    1. Clearly.

                      So clearly you can just invoke the predominant party affiliation and then pretend you’ve done any work proving bias.

                    2. What “proof” would you like? History of not naming the political party in a scandal until the middle of a story if it involves a Democrat? The constant “REPUBLICANS POUNCE!” stories? The laughable attempts at fact checking? That there seems to be no such thing as “far left” while “far right” is fairly regular? Why are REpublicans forced to answer for idiots like Steve King or Todd Akin but Democrats aren’t expected to do the same for their idiots?

                    3. Confirmation bias and anecdote-based outrage is no way to go through life.

              2. Sarc, have you ever seen the polling on how many professional journalists are registered democrats? It’s almost all of them.

                “When everyone is out to get you, paranoia just makes good sense”

                -Dr. Johnny Fever

      2. I’m sure it’s not the reverse because there are papers that are increasing circulation and profits.

        In particular, the Wall Street Journal reported increased circulation and prices (despite lower ad revenue). The Economist and The Atlantic also report circulation increases and profits. All three publications are known for in-depth pieces and have excellent writing. They are also all fairly centered (with WSJ and Economist leaning slightly right; Atlantic slightly left).

        Also consider The Athletic. It hired a bunch of top writers from local newspapers or print media outlets. It’s also be growing at an incredible rate.

  15. It occurs to me that the more fundamental problem is not that most of the media is a progressive propaganda pump, but that most journalists are clueless victims of progressive educators, i.e., unable to differentiate between facts and opinions.

    1. How’d you manage to dodge that bullet and stay so smart?

    2. Many of the, feel their opinions should be fact. Just like that they cannot comprehend a system where someone would sublimate their feelings and opinions so as not to make them public policy.

      A progressive can’t beleive that. That’s why they can’t really fathom someone who believes in limiting public policy to the confines of the constitution.

  16. Was educated “back in the day” when education was about reading, writing and arithmetic, rather than progressive “social science”. . . the educational equivalent of meditation and basket weaving.

    1. And here we go!

      Tell us what else was so good about the good-ol’-days!

      1. You could get mallomars as big as your first for only a penny. WTF else do you want to know?

      2. apedad,

        If you wish to gain some insight start with google and Great Books of the Western World

        1. My shelves are jammed with multiple great book series, to include the Harvard Classics and the Britannica Great Book series. I have the complete Will & Ariel Durant history series, which proves I am hopelessly out of date to venerate a fuddy-duddy historian who was pre-obsession with race and sex-based grievances. Don’t have a home, have a library/art museum with beds and small kitchen.

          Then I am proud of my special library on the history of mathematics and physics, which together in the last century have handed man some fantastic tools and understandings, but of late have become kind of a mystical quagmire of ideas so slippery you do well to cling to an insight from one hour to the next.

          I recommend Roger Penrose’s recent: FASHION, FAITH, AND FANTASY IN THE NEW PHYSICS OF THE UNIVERSE. Not the least reason this book is fascinating is because the best thing the elitists in the EU did was put a fantastic amount of cash into CERN, verifying the “God Particle.”

          Lovely when theory can be proved out. However, Penrose says some disturbing things about where these bright, shiny new theories drag mankind intellectually. The elites may soon have buyer’s remorse. See also Lee Smolin and Sabine Hossenfelder on the pitfalls of group-think in science.

          1. I should add that I acquired most of these great books at yard sale prices. Older folks used to buy them so that their homes could look cultured. Millennials could give a rat’s ass.

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