The Capitulation of the New York Times

I’ve been mostly off the net lately dealing with severe server issues. It’s been pretty ugly and in the process of trying to deal with multiple issues that have arisen, leading me down multiple ratholes, I’ve posted several requests for help on multiple forums. But the most complete version of the story is on the Drupal forums and I won’t repeat it here. I’m able to post blog entries when is the one domain that I can allow to use SSL in my internal network, which sounds like and is a ridiculous situation. While I’ve gotten almost all of my usual site services running, the big services are my web sites—and most of these are, at best, only partially operational. (EarthWiki should be fully operational, but has limited content.)

In between all that, it occurred to me that the New York Times‘ recent decision to implement a paywall[1] represents a concession that deserves further consideration.

As J. Herbert Altschull put it, “Advertisements confirmed the business community’s support for individual papers, just as the earlier proud pronouncements that certain newspapers were issued on the authority of government were a source of confirmation of the worth of the product.”[2] This had a profound impact on investigative reporting even in the early twentieth century. Altschull writes,

Will Irwin, one of the leaders of the muckraking school of journalists . . . wrote that advertising was “the main handicap on American journalism in its search for truth.” It was, he said, greedy newspaper publishers who had allowed their product to be come commercial enterprises. He decried the shift of power from the editorial offices to the boardrooms and the growth of a breed of newspaper editors indistinguishable from the captains of industry who played golf at the same country clubs and news values were identical to those of the directors of Standard Oil.[3]

But that wasn’t the only impact. Advertiser support allowed newspapers to undercut their competition. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky explain:

Curran and Seaton show that the market didsuccesfully accomplish what state intervention [in the United Kingdom] failed to do. Following the repeal of the punitive taxes on newspapers between 1853 and 1869, a new daily local press came into existence, but not one new local working-class daily was established through the rest of the nineteenth century.[4]

Herman and Chomsky go on to cite technological factors that raised capital costs dramatically It simply wasn’t feasible to start a newspaper unless a would-be publisher had access to money—and ever greater amounts of it—and this became increasingly possible for those who could count on advertising revenue.[5]

Before advertising became prominent, the price of a newspaper had to cover the costs of doing business. With the growth of advertising, papers that attracted ads could afford a copy price well below production costs. This put papers lacking in advertising at a serious disadvantage: their prices would tend to be higher, curtailing sales, and they would have less surplus to invest in improving the salability of the paper (features, attractive format, promotion, etc.).[6]

In other words, business interests—those which would be most likely to advertise—would have considerable influence over publishers, because “the advertisers’ choices influence media prosperity and survival.”[7] As mass media have progressed beyond newspapers into radio, television, cable television, and satellite radio and television, technological costs have only escalated. Herman and Chomsky go on to show how more modern operations have repeatedly faced cut-offs from advertisers offended by various stories.

It is hard to imagine that given significant support for investigative reporting, the scale of white collar crime, which vastly exceeds that of so-called “street crime,”[8] would not attract considerably greater notice.

But while I’ve grown accustomed to fundraising appeals from leftist news sources, such as Alternet, Truthout, and Truthdig, newspapers all over the country are folding and the quality of news coverage—always, by the standards of Altschull, Hermann, and Chomsky, dubious anyway—is deteriorating.[9] As the newspaper of record, the New York Times may well attract enough paying customers to sustain itself. I doubt that papers like the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, which is owned by the Times, will be so fortunate.

Advertising no longer supports newspapers. It does, apparently, continue to support commercial radio and television well, but actual air time for news—subtracting advertisements, sports, weather, human interest, and miscellaneous patter—is vanishingly small on most outlets. Eric Alterman believes more people will get their news from the Internet and that news will become increasingly partisan.[10] That hasn’t been working out so well on the left, let alone the radical left. Alterman points explicitly at the Huffington Post, which recently sold to AOL for $315 million,[11] as having relied heavily on other published sources and as having acquired much content from bloggers for free (and the latter are now suing[12]). The occasional attorney general scandal aside, that’s not a model that supports investigative journalism. And as Alterman points out, a lot of bloggers analyze news that has been accumulated from professional journalists. Neither the reporters nor the newspapers they work for are compensated for these contributions. Alterman worries about the outcome for our “democracy.”[13]

But white collar crime and the crimes of war and torture illustrate that damage along these lines has already been done. We’re not facing a binary but deterioration on a scale, a scale whose upper end was never very high. I don’t have a copy on hand to cite properly but David Halberstam explained in The Powers That Be that while the Tonkin Gulf incident was well-explained overseas, U.S. domestic news operations ignored European reports that the incident that provoked the beginning of the Vietnam War was itself provoked by CIA operations. Iraq, it seems, was not the first war we went to on a lie, aided and abetted by a passive press. And another book I have read only parts of covers a long journalistic history in which the likes of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are not so exceptional.[14]

For all that, the difficulty with losing newspapers is that they are the least awful of the major mainstream sources of news. The demise of advertiser-supported outlets seems unlikely to portend a substantial revival of subscriber-supported media among mass audiences. Which means it is well worth contemplating what will happen when only the elite have any access to information on current events at all.

  1. [1]Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr., “A Letter to Our Readers About Digital Subscriptions,” New York Times, March 17, 2011,
  2. [2]J. Herbert Altschull, Agents of Power, 2nd ed. (White Plains, NY: Longman, 1995), 27.
  3. [3]Altschull, Agents of Power, 28.
  4. [4]Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 2002).
  5. [5]Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent.
  6. [6]Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, 14.
  7. [7]Herman and Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent, 14.
  8. [8]Steven E. Barkan, Criminology: A Sociological Understanding, 3rd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, 2006); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and The Poor Get Prison: Ideology, Class, and Criminal Justice, 7th ed. (Boston:Pearson, 2007).
  9. [9]Eric Alterman, “Out of Print,” New Yorker, March 31, 2008,
  10. [10]Alterman, “Out of Print.”
  11. [11]“AOL agrees to acquire the Huffington Post,” Huffington Post, February 7, 2011,
  12. [12]Keach Hagey, “Unpaid bloggers sue Huffington Post and AOL,” Politico, April 12, 2011,
  13. [13]Alterman, “Out of Print.”
  14. [14]William S. Solomon and Robert W. McChesney, eds., Ruthless Criticism: New Perspectives in U.S. Communication History, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1993).

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