Sunday, December 7, 2008

Newspapers -- in need of fiscal resuscitation?

Ed Kemmick offers an elegy for the disappearing newspaper, a noble beast that once thundered in huge herds across this country.

We sympathize, although not to the point of believing that newspapers should receive government subsidies. Perhaps Kemmick was in jest, but as we pointed out some time ago, The Nation wasn't when it proposed just that. Exhibit A in why newspapers should be subsidized, including and perhaps especially in Montana, was the fact that Jon Tester became U.S. Senator Jon Tester.

It seems quaint now, with Democrats worrying in this past election cycle only about whether they could get a filibuster-proof majority, but The Fate of Humanity Itself hung in the balance here in Montana just a couple of years ago, and as The Nation describes it, Montana's newspapers delivered the goods for Jon Tester and made the difference in getting him elected. They almost helped deliver Montana for Obama (may his enemies cringe at the fearful sound of his name) in the last election cycle.

So why exactly do we sympathize, especially when the Billings Gazette endorsed Democrats in 5 of the 6 competitive statewide races this election season (and saved its most tepid "well if we have to say it we suppose there's no real reason to vote against him so OK go ahead if you really feel you need to maybe" endorsement for the lone Republican they endorsed -- Brad Johnson?

Well, just call us suckers for a lost cause -- that's what conservatives are good at, right?

It just isn't the same looking at news on the web -- it's that simple. Newspapers go deep in the MH psyche, seated somewhere near the brainstem, going back to the mists of time when the daily paper arrived two days late because it had to be delivered first by rail to the nearest town, and then via rural mail to a certain isolated homestead. A summary of any truly breaking news had already been learned by radio or by watching John Chancellor on a fuzzy black-and-white screen, but it somehow didn't seem like real news until that crackle of an opening grey newspaper said it was so.

In the days before digital recording allowed one to pause a program, or to rewind and listen to a particular piece again, only print news allowed that luxury. You could even cut out the clipping and show it to someone else who didn't get the paper, or even save it. Wow.

Then came the wonders of big city life and the magic of having a daily paper (for a while, even two daily papers -- morning and evening) delivered to one's door. While the sky might be clear, one really didn't know that the world wasn't coming to an end until one opened the morning paper and saw that the headlines were about something mundane like a superpower summit meeting or an energy crisis. Then came settling down over a cup of coffee for a more leisurely perusal. Death to any visitor who suggested turning on the television or radio in the morning -- like drinking alcohol, there is a time before which civilized people just don't do certain things.

Just because -- that's why.

So, while MH has heard many conservatives, like so many old warrior-athletes comparing scars, one-up each other by saying how long ago they cancelled their subscription to the Gazette, we've never been able to bring ourselves to do it, no matter how unhappy we might be over political coverage from time to time.

How, after all, can one be a conservative dinosaur if one doesn't spend a fair amount of time with the news medium that dates back to before the Founding -- for as long as it lasts anyway? This business of canceling newspaper subscriptions and going paperless sounds, well, like another example of undue influence by neoconservatives if you ask us. Besides, the sports section, the hunting and fishing section, and the comics can generally be relied on to be free of bias (or at least of bias that would hurt anyone.)

And how can an unhappy conservative throw the paper down on the table or into the fireplace, calling it a dirty rotten lying rag, if one doesn't actually hold a dirty rotten lying rag in one's hands? We're just too old around here to change -- been doing it for too many decades. We still remember how those dirty rags picked on Nixon over stuff for which they would have given LBJ a free ride. Now you see the point -- closing a browser window emphatically just doesn't have the same satisfying effect. And on TV or the internet, we can go to conservative sites for news -- only in the daily paper is there that complete lack of competition that makes for a good old-fashioned gnashing of teeth.

Still -- subsidize those remaining daily newspapers? You know, the ones who, in terms of circulation, endorsed Obama by a ratio of 3 to 1? (Wonder which ones would get the inside track on the subsidies?) On the face of it, though, it sort of makes sense. After all, another old-fashioned and eminently civilized thing to do is to travel by train, but doing so requires government subsidies -- (even though there aren't enough subsidies to bring a train through the parts of Montana where most people in the state live.)

In a time, however, when those powers that might agitate for subsidizing major newspapers are also agitating for shutting down talk radio stations even though they don't require subsidies to stay afloat, it seems it would take logical gymnastics too painfully twisted even for The Nation.
No, just like so many other good things that have disappeared (like the Eagles with Don Felder in the lineup, the Chicago Symphony with Solti conducting, the good old college football system whereby no-one had a clue who the national champion was some years, or a federal government that only does what the Constitution says it can do,) we just have to enjoy newspapers while they are here, then talk nostalgically about them after they are gone.


Dave Rye said...

The Gazette's Opinion page is so far to the left of its readership that I keep expecting "We DARE you to cancel your subscription" to appear at the end of an editorial. Even when a token conservative columnist appears, it's usually Cal Thomas or George Will rather than, say, Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter or Kathleen Parker, thus reinforcing the idea that ours is a philosophy confined to elderly white males.

Montana Headlines said...

That is perhaps the important point -- it is not so much that the Gazette has a far-left opinion page (by national standards, it doesn't,) it is that it is significantly to the left of its readers -- and particularly to the left of its potential growth market.

While a newspaper in theory could do a public service by routinely challenging the presuppositions of its readers, that doesn't seem to be what happens at the New York Times or Washington Post, where the content reflects the opinions of its liberal readership pretty faithfully.

The Gazette has the most conservative population of the coverage areas of Montana's major newspapers. One would think that a sound business model would want to take advantage of that fact.

Not only could the Gazette use some fresh conservative columnists (there's a lot of diversity out there -- how about Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Ken Blackwell, Linda Chavez...,) one would think that the Gazette would want to cultivate a local conservative columnist or two.

Other Lee newspapers have done it.

Ed Kemmick said...

Dave, tell me you're not serious. You would actually like to bring Ann Coulter to a wider audience? Why? So people could witness the erosion of a once proudly intellectual conservative movement? We ran Bill O'Reilly for a while, until it became apparent that he (or perhaps one of his interns) was spending a maximum of 10 minutes per column. But even O'Reilly seems like a paragon of intelligence and patient reasoning compared to Coulter. She is a walking ego in a black dress who writes deliberately outrageous slime just to keep herself in the news. Point me to one, a single one, decent column she has ever written.

As for our stable of columnists -- who are the liberals we run? We regularly run Dionne, but is there anyone else? I suppose you could include Ellen Goodman, but if anyone thinks the day is long enough to read one of her columns, I wish them well. And we do now run Sirota occasionally, which I regret, because he is so predictable and infatuated with thinking of himself as the reigning populist, but who else is there?

On the conservative side, we run Will and Thomas regularly, with occasional appearances by Rusher. We also have the economic fellow, whose name escapes me, but I know he writes for newsweek. He is mostly conservative, usually just so damned knowledgeable that you can't argue with him. And now we have the paired op-ed pieces from the liberal gal and the conservative gal, which I've been enjoying. If you see a huge imbalance on that page, I think you are straining very hard to reach that conclusion.

Dave Rye said...

Robert Samuelson is the Newsweek guy. He seems to write without an agendum to promote, which certainly distinguishes him from the rest of the magazine. I let my Newsweek subscription lapse this year, after 30 years, because its Democratic Party partisanship was no longer subtle.

Okay, Ed, maybe I got carried away with including Ann Coulter, but her columns, because they are highly inflammatory, are therefore wildly entertaining. Ellen Goodman, who does appear in the Gazette sometimes, is in my judgment just as vicious from the left as Ann (the official babe of the vast rightwing conspiracy) is from the right.

Agreed: the paired ladies on the Saturday Opinion Page are good.

Mostly, though, I was referring to the local editorials. Either you've got a way left-of-center editorial board these days, or Pat Bellinghausen has the go-ahead to write whatever she personally thinks, and what she appears to think is that more and bigger government is the answer to practically every societal problem. That's a real departure from the days when Gary Svee, a thoughtful and compassionate man of the left whose thoughts probably mirror Pat's pretty closely, was often under orders to write some pieces which were in conflict with his personal opinions. (Wayne Schile, hated though he may have been in the newsroom, had opinions which were generally representative of the majority of your readers.)

Ed Kemmick said...

Dave, honest to God, this is a serious offer: If you can find one comment from Ellen Goodman (and I'm going out on a limb here, because I haven't bothered to read her stuff in at least several years) that is as loony and vicious as virtually any random sentence I could pull from a Coulter column, I'll buy you a case of beer. OK, that might involve some subjectivity, but honest to God, it's as if you haven't really read Goodman ever. At most she indulges in some juvenile word play or domestic metaphors, but I can't ever remember her going on the attack in the way that Coulter does on every single outing. I mean, it's like comparing what what you say on the radio with what Michael Moore says in his movies, or saying that Pat Bellinghausen is as off the rails as Michael Savage. I can't believe you're being serious about this.

Montana Headlines said...

I have to agree with Ed in that that Ann Coulter is not my idea of a serious or even useful conservative writer. She was a lot of fun at first, and I greatly enjoyed her first couple of books for their breathtaking audacity.

But at a certain point, you want to have the fun girl grow up into a serious woman Ay this point she is similar to the aging hippie still trying to squeeze into hip-hugging bellbottoms 20 years later.

Anonymous said...

I generally don't have too much trouble with national columnists. I think it is somewhat disengenuous for newspapers to count George Will as one of their conservative columnnists -- though he is indeed conservative -- but he spends as much time whacking conservatives as he does liberals. He hated McCain.

There aren't many liberal columnists who take on the party or its titular heads, such as Obama. You don't see Ellen Goodman writing columns critical of her beloved Democrats.

But the big problem with the Gazette and other MT papers is that they all, with the exception of the Kalispell paper, lean to the left in their editorial stands. There is no one who acts as a watchdog on Democrats. It is rare to see an editorial that criticizes the governor or Jon Tester or Max Baucus, etc.

What these papers should do is hire conservative columnists who will hire a local/Montana perspective on things. This isn't a difficult concept. It would be very easy to do. (Hire Montana Headlines--he's a good writer and he's very perceptive).

This would also generate a lot of good will with readers, and it would make the newspapers a lot more interesting. Right now the papers basically come across as mouthpieces for the MT Democratic party.

What would be wrong with having someone in the Gazette pages asking tough questions of our Democratic office holders?