Politics of the Press

Back when I was a professor, a million years ago now, I taught a few sections of Politics and Media. Media and Communications, a subsection with political science, wasn’t one of my specialities in grad school, but I sort of stumbled into it later. I was teaching at a small college, and they needed someone to cover the class. I had also started publishing academic research about the politics of blogs (that is still being cited in other academic research, thank you very much), because I knew a lot about it.

It was a pain in the ass class to teach because the existing textbooks were so massively out of date. It seemed stupid to be using textbooks that talked about Walter Cronkite and evening news patterns, when most of my students were getting their news from online sources, if at all. So, I reworked that damn class three times and still wasn’t happy with my syllabus.

It’s not just the textbooks that are out of date. The industry has changed massively in the past five years. In real life, I am constantly correcting people — even press relations people who should know better — about how things work. In the past few years, things have gotten both more professional — more fact checking — and more amateur — more writers with less experience and less job security —  at the same time.

Megan McArdle had a great post and twitter thread last week about how the industry is going to have to put up paywalls, because it can’t afford to carry on with free content. I subscribed to the WaPo for the first time this month.

And then there’s the whole White House Correspondents’ Dinner drama from this weekend. My twitter stream is still ranting about Michelle Wolf’s jokes about Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I watched it. I was uncomfortable, but I hate all roasts. There’s something horrible about watching someone’s face when they are being publicly mocked. That kind of comedy is not my cup of tea.

The Correspondent Dinner is always a weird affair. The press and politicians should not mingle and be all chummy or be all hate-y either. It’s not cool. There should be a big wall between them. And there should be an emotional detachment from politics, which is different from objectivity. Objectivity is a higher standard and is probably impossible. Detachment is a lower bar and is simply reporting without sentiment. I think we can do that.

But to have a great press, I think that the WHCD is the least of the problems. We have to solve the problems that Megan talks about in her article. We have to figure out how to pay grown-ups to do the writing. Because right now, that’s not happening.

 

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32 thoughts on “Politics of the Press

  1. Yes to paying for good reporting! I subscribe to some Canadian newspapers and during the US election, started subscribing to the WaPo. I’ve subscribed to the SNYT for years (despite the decline in quality of reporting!). Also the Economist and after it’s amazing article on your now president, Teen Vogue (I’m far from being a teenager and have one on the verge in the house).

    We all have fallen into the trap of online = free. It definitely is time to dial it back and pay for “content” (how that word has become icky) whether it be the news, literature, tv, movies, etc. I’m also a stickler for paying for online movies/tv unless there absolutely is no way for me to get it otherwise. Actors and the like deserve to be paid for their work too.

    1. Thinking (before I have to get the girl up for school!) that our conversation about well, having good conversations, relates to this broader idea of paying people for their work. You look up, look people in the eye, and interact with a real person. You pay for the work of a real person too, whether it’s reporting, a movie, an interview, a museum, your staff, the local barista, etc.

  2. I do think paying the providers of information for their work is necessary but, I also think the subscription, paywall model is not going to survive by getting individual people like you and me to subscribe. As I said some number of posts ago, I started subscribing to the Atlantic when I started reading your articles there; I also subscribe to the Wa Post, NY Times, Economist, Guardian, Science, and even the New Yorker (because I couldn’t bear the idea that those coves will disappear). Clearly I can’t read all those things and the assorted sources online, too. My subscriptions are my own charitable contribution. But, I think the Wa Post will survive as long as Bezos wants it to (which could be indefinitely) but, I think it’s largely dependent on him, not my subscription. Of course, relying on billionaire patrons creates other concerns.

    I may be wrong, though, I thought books might not survive the electronic model, but they seem to have. I wonder what the difference is there? — paywalls, for one, celebrity writers, longer production cycles, editing, curation?

    1. bj said,

      “I may be wrong, though, I thought books might not survive the electronic model, but they seem to have. I wonder what the difference is there? — paywalls, for one, celebrity writers, longer production cycles, editing, curation?”

      One of the differences with books is that there are reviews, so it tends to be possible to figure out in advance whether a particular book is worth your time and money.

      Whereas, it’s not quite so clear that any particular media outlet is going to earn its subscription in a given year.

      Plus, Amazon makes it very easy and simple to buy an e-book.

      Here’s what we have subscribed to in print off and on the last few years: House Beautiful, Country Living, This Old House, Discover, Smithsonian, National Geographic, MAKE Magazine, Ukulele Magazine and National Review. (I asked for National Review for Christmas, as I’ve been impressed with their digital work the last few years.) Basically, it’s all magazines, and except for NR, it divides into two categories: a) design magazines for me and b) educational magazines for the kids. These are print subscriptions, because being an old school gal, I rip out and save design pictures I like for future inspiration, and the print magazines are convenient for passing around the family. The subscriptions tend to work out to $1 an issue for the design magazines, which is pretty darn good.

      I haven’t ever had a digital newspaper subscription and I haven’t had a print newspaper subscription probably since the early 90s, when I was a journalism student, we had to pass news quizzes and I used to madly skim a week’s worth of LA Times before class.

      Right now, we’re probably at the peak of our kid expenses (knock on wood), and I’m not going to spend more on media at this point. I might spend less, but not more.

      If we had more disposable income, here’s what I would be willing to spend money on:

      1. New York Times
      2. Washington Post
      3. Our local newspaper

      There really isn’t a #4, and #2 is debatable. For me personally, the New York Times is the only really indispensable newspaper. Aside from that, it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that–so it wouldn’t be worthwhile to buy any whole subscriptions beyond that. (Star Tribune, you keep emailing me, but I’m not that into you–it was just that one article I registered for 5 years ago–you’re not that interesting.)

      That said, for me #4 might be something like the following: I buy a $20 monthly membership from Amazon good for 20 articles total from an assortment of different sources.

      That said, my total expenditures on newspaper subscriptions would not total much more than $100 a month no matter how rich I got.

  3. I find that there isn’t a shortage of people (mostly academics) who want to write for free about topics I want to read about. Historically, most academic writing has not been compensated, or at least not well-compensated. The blogosphere has simply changed the means of dissemination from little magazines, book reviews, and op-ed pages to the internet.

    I’m sure there are areas, like corruption at the local department of transportation, where only a paid reporter would be willing to go. The problem is that very little of the traditional news media was ever interested in those areas. Pundits who pontificate on foreign affairs were always more respected than beat reporters, and humorists and advice columnists were always better-paid than either.

    1. Oh, this has been a huge subsidy to the “free” model of journalism. But it’s limited, not just because academic interests do not actually overlay very well with general interests, but also because academia does not select at all on the ability to write for a general audience. Many of them are terrible writers (that’s not a slur; they have other talents I lack), and they’re all trained to write in a way that just won’t do for a lay audience. Some of these are stupid–unnecessary jargon, and in some disciplines, a weird, almost German, syntax. But some of them are correct for academia, and hopeless for general interest writing.

      I have a small, weird cadre of academic critics who say things like “I’d give this an ‘F’ in my freshman writing class (or ‘Intro to World History’, or whatever). Now, I think an ‘F’ is a little harsh, but I wouldn’t grade my columns all that highly as a term paper either. The thing is, I’d grade their writing–or the writing their students turn in to their classes–with a “C for effort” in the class I teach on opinion writing. Because as I ceaselessly drum into my students, “No one is getting paid to read your journalism.”

      You can get away with a lot of stuff when people are getting paid to read what you write. You can be baggy, redundant, boring, and obscure. You can’t get away with any of that for a lay audience. In general, people groan about editing academics, because they are so hyperfocused on removing ambiguity that they cannot be bothered to hold the reader’s interest. They have to be told, repeatedly and forcefully, that their prose has eliminated the possibility of confusing readers by ensuring that they won’t have any.

      Some of them eventually get over the desire to use hyper-specific jargon and address every possible counterargument with copious footnotes. Many of them never do. Which means they can’t just become the scabs in the consumer strike against paying for content. Especially since “tenured professordom” is having its own trouble as a business model.

      1. Even though I’m six years out of academia, I still don’t consider myself a journalist. I still think of myself as an academic who doesn’t suck at writing.

        But funny we should talk about academics and writing, because yesterday I got kind of obsessed with an idea to create a website that helped academics do a better job of selling their research. Let me back up…

        So, a couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a really excellent research paper. I follow a bunch of academics on twitter and somebody mentioned it. I tracked down the article and emailed the professor and got a copy of it. It’s really interesting. I’ll probably write about it. And I love writing articles about new studies, because it’s a really easy article to write. I pretty much sum up the research and talk with the academic. Super easy.

        But it’s not easy to find that research. I usually just stumble across these studies in the weirdest ways, like this one that I picked up from eavesdropping on academic twitter. Because there is no PR system for academic research. Universities and journals do not have the staff to do this. Professors have no clue how to write for a general audience. So, instead I get a dozen PR pitches a day from organizations with deep pockets, and their ideas are all crap.

        What if there was a website that was a clearing house for academic ideas that provided a formula for academics to pitch their ideas? Journalists, foundations, and venture capitalists could skim through the material to look for ideas to promote or fund. So, I created a website yesterday just so I could get it out of my system. https://pubsandpromo.wordpress.com

        What do you think?

      2. Laura, have you looked at Researchgate? They are trying to do something like what you are talking about except in a way that is probably useless for journalists but is alleged to be useful for researchers. I’ve never used it or known anybody to use it but they keep sending me emails about how everybody I’ve ever worked with is using it. I don’t know if it has enough legs to stand up to google scholar or not.

        Anyway, I think you have a nice site and a good idea for the social sciences. I have my doubts about other areas. I can’t imaging the people I work with taking much time for publicity though the press. Everybody is very attuned to the search for money, but the only reasons to give us money are because of the kinds of technical details that wouldn’t be allowed in a journalist’s report.

      3. Laura said,

        “What if there was a website that was a clearing house for academic ideas that provided a formula for academics to pitch their ideas? Journalists, foundations, and venture capitalists could skim through the material to look for ideas to promote or fund. So, I created a website yesterday just so I could get it out of my system. https://pubsandpromo.wordpress.com

        I think it’s absolutely brilliant.

  4. After the election, we went from subscribing to two publications to five or maybe six? I can’t keep track. Like BJ, we subscribe not because we can read it all but because we can afford to and feel an obligation.

    But I worry that the subscription model isn’t the answer. What does a world look like when a relatively affluent base supports media but the less affluent can only read what’s online for free and are even more vulnerable to Mercer/Koch/Murdoch funding and influence? What does the world look like with no local papers? How many publications can subscription money support? How long until Facebook and Google have sucked up all the ad money altogether (I work in digital media; Megan McArdle is, if anything, downplaying what’s happened in the last 24 months), making reporting even more dependent on donors, corporations and subscriptions?

  5. I am no fan of McMegan, but I did think that was a good Twitter thread on the economics of journalism today. So credit where it’s due.

    You know how I feel about the Wolf WHCD thing. I didn’t think Wolf was attacking her appearance, and I don’t even think there’s anything to attack about SHS’s appearance. But SHS is an ugly person on the inside, and I think we should be attacking that.

    1. Wolf certainly worked hard to remove any slightest doubt among the Trumpistas that they are despised by the chattering classes. The coarsening of public discourse we have seen in Trump has really flowered with Wolf. I don’t think this is good for national reconciliation – Wendy, maybe you don’t see that as a goal? What’s your alternative, kicking Trumpists in the face?

      1. Wolf certainly worked hard to remove any slightest doubt among the Trumpistas that they are despised by the chattering classes.

        I didn’t watch all nineteen minutes of Wolf’s speech, but in the part people are all up in arms over she doesn’t talk about Trump supporters at all. Rather, she merely points out that Sanders lies a lot. Which, to be fair, she does. The targets of her jibes were not Trump supporters, but rather Sanders (and her ilk) and also the rest of the media that seems fine with just letting her behavior go by uncommented upon, because go along to get along or something.

        Anyway, it is beyond dispute that Sanders, in her professional role, has a fraught relationship with facts, reality, and the truth and that she engages in this relationship on behalf of her boss. When, exactly, did it become out of bounds to point out this incontestable truth? And, Dave S., why do you and your Trumpista fellow travellers find it so offensive that this truth is pointed out?

        To the extent that this is a reflection on Trump supporters at all, it is that it says something telling about them and their character when they get upset about being confronted with this reality.

        I don’t think this is good for national reconciliation

        “National reconciliation” at what price? Is the only way to “reconcile” is to respect this alternate reality? No, never. To the extent that we need to “reconcile,” this can only be done within the bounds of decency. To demand that I kowtow to peddlers of falsehoods just to respect your feelings is indecent and unreasonable.

        I am of the opinion that the Munich metaphor is the most tired and overused of all metaphors, but, like a stopped clock being right twice a day, every so often it is the most appropriate one. Your insisting that we do anything to respect the feelings of Trumpista fragile flowers is the same as suggesting that we take a trip to 1938 Munich.

      2. “And, Dave S., why do you and your Trumpista fellow travellers find it so offensive that this truth is pointed out?”
        Land sakes, Jay, do you even bother to read me, or am I simply a target while you spout your bile about what you think someone who isn’t toeing your line must be thinking?

      3. Jay said,

        “Rather, she merely points out that Sanders lies a lot.”

        You must be new to politics.

        That’s what presidential press secretaries do for a living–and/or defending the indefensible. If you’re a press secretary, your boss screws up in some way, and you have to go out there and sell people on the idea that manure is actually lemonade. (Pardon the unpleasant analogy, but it’s accurate.) If the news were actually good, there’d be nothing for the press secretary to do.

        It’s a terrible job. I feel sorry for every press secretary, ever.

      4. That’s really reaching. In a normal presidency, “faked a medical report stating candidate was healthy” would be a huge scandal that a press secretary would have to bat away for weeks. It didn’t even manage to last the afternoon here because of bigger problems.

      5. Also, other presidents held many more press conferences themselves, taking some of the pressure themselves. Trump won’t do speak directly to the press.

      6. Land sakes, Jay, do you even bother to read me, or am I simply a target while you spout your bile about what you think someone who isn’t toeing your line must be thinking?

        Yes, I did read what you wrote. Did you read what *I* wrote?

        In a way, this exchange proves my point. Somehow, pointing out that Trump supporters are overwrought sensitive flowers if they perceive a comedian pointing out (pointedly, but accurately) that the press secretary lies a lot is somehow being “kicked in the face” is bilious.

        If they can’t accept people stating reality accurately without feeling insulted and slighted then that is their problem, not mine, and if you can’t accept this being pointed out without perceiving it as bile directed at you then that is *your* problem, not mine.

      7. You must be new to politics.

        No, actually I’m not.

        As MH pointed out, this is not normal, even by previously established standards. To believe this is to be naifish and to not believe it but say so anyway is intellectually dishonest.

        It’s a terrible job. I feel sorry for every press secretary, ever.

        Nobody has to do it.

        Accountant for the mob is a job as well. Nobody has to do it either.

        The only way to change this behavior is to shame it. Treating it as normal just guarantees more of the same.

      8. MH said,

        “That’s really reaching. In a normal presidency, “faked a medical report stating candidate was healthy” would be a huge scandal that a press secretary would have to bat away for weeks. It didn’t even manage to last the afternoon here because of bigger problems.”

        Doesn’t that demonstrate that I’m right and that Sanders has one of the worst jobs in the administration?

      9. I have no idea what it’s like for those behind the scenes in the administration. I suspect it isn’t pleasant.

      10. Jay said,

        “No, actually I’m not.”

        I was kidding–but what you said would make a lot more sense if you were unfamiliar with the standard job description of presidential press secretaries and how miserable they usually look, and how thankless the job is.

        You can see how rough the job is from the fact that Bill Clinton had 5 press secretaries over 8 years and GWB had 4. Donald Trump is on his second press secretary already, and he’s been in office under 16 months.

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_House_Press_Secretary

        It’s a job that burns people out very quickly.

        I predict that Trump is going to average about one a year.

        “The only way to change this behavior is to shame it. Treating it as normal just guarantees more of the same.”

        You’re right that nobody has to do it–but what you are complaining about is the nature of the job. And yes, it is normal, and pretending it’s not makes you look like a noob.

        I’m just as happy as anybody to make fun of press secretaries–but let’s not kid ourselves that Sanders is a particularly terrible human being, that this is new, or that it’s possible to perform this job with one’s dignity and integrity intact.

  6. Just as a side note, if you want to see a journalist motivated by pure passion and a rare interest for the minutiae of local issues, check out New Brunswick Today, which is basically a one-man operation. Charlie gets in the faces of local politicians and city employees who are accustomed to getting no critical news coverage or public scrutiny at all. I worry the guy is going to get whacked someday, but the guy is a hero; he makes most of those overpaid doofuses at the WHCD look horrendously useless.

  7. Thanks, Jeff S. I will definitely check out New Brunswick Today. One of the horrible thing about the demise of local newspapers is that they have been replaced with crazy-assed local blogs and Facebook pages, who stir up the mob. Right now, they are fighting about whether or not the Mayor is a Nazi.

    1. We’re remarkably well served by our local press, after years in what I call the ‘news shadow’ of DC when everyone read Washington Post and it mostly ignored Arlington. We have a very active local online paper, and a print paper with an online component. There is strife between different groups in local Dems (the Reeps are generally not a factor here in what is often referred to in the House of Delegates as ‘People’s Arlington’) and school construction is a big issue. This is supported mostly by local real estate brokers’ ads, in both the online and the print paper, and restaurant ads in the online paper. For whatever reason, it’s working.

  8. We’re currently at 6 news subscriptions, down from highs of around 12. I tend to cut things we’re not reading. I don’t think the paywall effort will go all that far, as long as newspapers rely upon online advertising clicks as a significant portion of their revenue.

    Right now, as I check out subscription rates, all-digital subscriptions to the papers I’d like to read cost _more_ than print & digital subscriptions.

    The trouble for the papers is, I’m not going to put up with paper clutter. I’ll subscribe to a competitor instead, or just pick up a paper now and then.

    We just cut the cord for our cable TV, which will put a dead stop on consumption of TV news, unless it’s available online. As I mention this to acquaintances, it seems many of them have already cut the cord.

  9. Cranberry said,

    “Right now, as I check out subscription rates, all-digital subscriptions to the papers I’d like to read cost _more_ than print & digital subscriptions.”

    !!!

    “The trouble for the papers is, I’m not going to put up with paper clutter.”

    Yeah.

  10. Laura said “Because there is no PR system for academic research. Universities and journals do not have the staff to do this.”

    This is not true. Universities do have PR staff intended to help researchers promote their work. My grad school advisor (and I) spent plenty of time with said staff and advisor told me that they are at every university he had ever worked for. He considered knowing how to work with the PR staff part of his advisees’ professional training.

    There used to be a blog called “Tightly Wound” (then bigarmwoman, then gone) written by a woman who was PR staff at a university.

    Journals do not seem to have staff, but inundate their authors (I am the recipient of a lot of this crap) with suggestions and advice on how to promote their articles. I recently received an email with the subject line “Promote Your Article.”

    If academics are not finding resources to promote their research, they are not looking. It is not a lack of information and advice. It is willful ignorance.

    1. I feel like I see a fair amount of academic research pushed out into the general audience, far more than was prevalent before the internet became such an important form of communication — most recently, a PR release by MIT on language learning that, I think, appeared on my FB page for some reason.

      I do think that writing/PR is only a small part of transfer from research to journalism. My expertise is, roughly, cognitive neuroscience. Good cognitive neuroscientists are in a state of perpetual ambivalence and skepticism. We know that there’s so much that we don’t know and we’ve seen many great ideas break in even the short history of the field. There’s real skepticism for those who tell simpler stories with firm conclusions.

      1. You’re just jealous because they have the secret to unlocking the 90% of the brain we normally don’t use.

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