Fine Print - October 2008

He rests his case with Edwards
By G.D. Gearino

I never meant for there to be a sequel to my August column about the newspaper business. But after John Edwards and Rielle Hunter teamed up not only to make whoopee (as well as a baby, allegedly) but also to make my point for me, that previous piece is worth revisiting. What you witnessed as the Edwards saga unfolded was the unprecedented sight of a monopoly business stepping meekly aside in the face of unorganized, leaderless competition. The newspaper industry took the opportunity of Edwards’ philandering to tacitly demonstrate, once and for all, that it understands its new role in the digital age — that of a boutique information source, just one among many.

My August column made the case that technology’s greatest blow to the newspaper industry was that it revealed journalism as something any reasonably intelligent amateur could master. The resulting explosion of independent newssources vaporized billions of dollars of newspaper companies’ market value. The industry’s reaction to that paradigm shift has been puzzling. Its strategy has been to (1) try to convince the public that newspapers are the only truly reliable and comprehensive source of news and (2) give readers a daily report that often is neither reliable nor comprehensive. The Edwards saga put those conflicting instincts on full display, with editors letting a significant story be brought to the public by the very channels they have encouraged us to ignore and, afterward, wringing their hands and bleating endlessly about why they hadn’t reported it themselves. (That the leader of the journalism pack was the National Enquirer was an irony too farcical for even a sitcom writer to dream up.)

That’s no way to run a business. Then again, the newspaper industry has a business model rivaled for strangeness only by the Zimbabwean tactic of fighting inflation by printing more money. Underlying both is the apparent belief that it doesn’t matter what you do as long as you own the press. During the decades when newspapers enjoyed their monopolies, the steady and easy profits led the industry to develop bad habits, some bordering on bipolar. Newspapers rarely had to fight for circulation and became disdainful of the desires of many of their readers. They developed a fetishistic worship of “objectivity” but couldn’t get out of the way of their institutional biases. They emulated the worst traits of popular culture — an attitude-heavy writing style, for instance — but simultaneously sought to position themselves as the wise and mature presence in the community.

But perhaps the worst habit to evolve was the separation of customers from readers. Customers were the people who bought advertising, and they tended to be looked after by any newspaper’s business staff. Readers were the people who bought the paper — and they tended to be ignored by the news staff. Many are the instances of rude treatment and condescending kiss-off when readers sought to register an opinion or complaint (and God knows I was regrettably guilty of many such kiss-offs during my 30 years in the business). Worse yet, newspapers remained weirdly paternalistic even as the news business became egalitarian. The more sources that readers found for news, the more entrenched newspapers became in their belief that it ain’t news unless they say so.

Funny thing, though: As readers desert a newspaper, advertisers do, too. That’s what made the industry’s approach to the Edwards affair so nonsensical (and for North Carolina’s major papers, perhaps fatally so). Ignoring the story not only gave a major boost to digital-age competitors, it was a stupid business move. On a day in mid-August when the news about Edwards was peaking, the Raleigh News & Observer published its weekly list of the five most-read stories on its Web site. Four were about Edwards, the longtime Raleigh resident who had become a national political figure.

That was also the point at which the story evolved from a relatively routine tale of infidelity into one that carried evidence of lies, a mammoth coverup and payoffs — possibly involving campaign funds — to Edwards’ mistress and the man who claimed to be the father of her child. Considering that readers were clearly interested and that by even the strictest definition the Edwards saga was news, you would think the N&O and its sister paper, The Charlotte Observer, would have pursued it with vigor. After all, it was a golden moment when good journalism and good business were the same thing. They didn’t. But the alternative news outlets did.

Postscript: On the very day this column was written, the Charlotte and Raleigh newspapers announced a third round of job cuts, and the stock price of their parent company, McClatchy, hit a new low.

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