Requiem For A Newspaper, Part III: A Note To The Conservatives

I’ll start with a story.

There were two rival fisherman, Joe and Moe, who worked the fishing grounds of the Baltic Sea. They really, truly hated one another. Their crews would row in port, they’d cut each other’s buoys, they’d try to sabotage each other’s boats. It was that fierce a battle between them.

One day, while they were out in the fishing grounds, a mild weather system turned into a sudden gale, and then into a raging storm. Waves were suddenly forty feet high, tossing the fishing boats to and fro, making them shudder like an earthquake every time they fell off a crest and smacked into the trough below. Joe got word from the men below — the hull was breaching, and the bilge pumps weren’t keeping up with the water filling in belowdecks. It was clear the sea was going to take the ship. Suddenly, the radio cackled with a mayday. Moe’s ship had flipped clean over, men were overboard, and this was his last goodbye.

Joe immediately ran to the fridge and busted out all the beer, then started handing it to the men desperately working to try and prevent the boat’s demise — and theirs. “Drink up, men!” shouted Joe over the pounding sound of the ocean foreclosing on the ship. “That son of a bitch Moe is dead!”

“But we’re going to be dead soon too!” shouted back a bailing crewmember.

“Yes!” retorted Joe. “But we will die last!”

And that, in a nutshell, is why the conservatives’ chest-pumping over the demise of the P-I is ridiculous.

Yes, a number of liberal papers are in trouble. The New York Times is overleveraged and struggling to keep their empire running. The Austin American-Statesman, probably the closest thing in Texas you’ll find to a liberal paper, is listing. The Miami Herald has been up for sale for a while now, and it’s getting less looks from buyers than a Capitol Hill condo. The P-I, of course, is more than likely terminal.

But at the same time, it’s the center-right paper in Denver, the Rocky Mountain News, that will likely fold in the coming weeks, not the center-left Denver Post. The San Diego Union-Tribune, a staunchly conservative newspaper in a military town, has also been for sale for a while. The Tulsa World, which hasn’t endorsed a Democrat for president since FDR for his second term, just cut a large chunk of staff. It’s not wine and roses for conservative print media, and they’re doing no better than liberal papers.

And the big right-wing local dailies in this country — the New York Post and the Washington Times — are both run by deep-pocketed organizations with some questions of stability (the Post due to circulation rates, the Times because they’re ostensibly the house organ of the Unification Church, which has lost well over $1 billion on the venture).

But there’s still this prevailing belief that the P-I’s long history of left-wing politics is the reason for its demise. After all, the Times has been endorsing Republicans like Bush (in 2000) and Rossi (in both 2004 and 2008). Never mind the fact the Times has been losing money at a faster clip than the P-I, at least its circulation hasn’t contracted as much as the P-I’s, so surely it’s Republicans defecting from the Times that’s led to the demise of the P-I, right?

I would argue no. Being a liberal paper did not bring about the end of the P-I. Liberals themselves brought down the P-I. They were more willing to read the paper online and less willing to subscribe to the paper.

The P-I is now 90,000 behind the Times in total subscriptions. Yet on the web they’re ahead of the Times by over 100,000 uniques a month. They’ve had more eyes looking at their website for quite a while now.

That suggests the P-I’s problem isn’t that people are fleeing their leftist content. Quite the opposite, in fact. Their problem is that liberals are freeloaders. Conservatives are buying the Times because they’d rather read a paper. Liberals, first to embrace the web and used to the oodles of free content from newspapers and blogs, won’t pay for a subscription because it’s unnatural, and besides, it’s paper.

And that “first to embrace the web” part is also important. The socially networked, e-mail driven Obama campaign ran circles around McCain’s machine because they understood the technology and how to use it. The GOP struggled mightily in ’08 because the Democrats understood how to use the web as a tool to organize and electioneer. Democrats were younger and web-savvier. Republicans had internal battles between the older generation’s campaign methods and a younger generation unable to get through the lessons of electronic organization to that older generation.

How this plays out with media is this: Conservatives will increasingly dominate newspapers in the coming years, playing to an older clientele who want their paper on their doorstep every morning singing the virtues of kids getting off their lawn. But that clientele will age out of advertisers’ coveted demographics. And then the readers will die. Meanwhile, left-leaning publications, tracking with their younger readership, will keep building and expanding on the web until they reach saturation and start consolidating. They will have the coveted demographics advertisers love. And, eventually, they will work out the model that allows for online news media to prosper financially. By the time conservative media figures this out, they will have wasted years of time and money on trying to keep their own sinking fleet of newspapers afloat.

And that’s why triumphalism here doesn’t make sense. Yes, your hated liberal media has been vanquished, but like Joe The Fisherman, your own situation is precarious, too. The “liberal media” represented by the New York Times and the Seattle P-I may be dying, but the “liberal media” represented by and will keep right on going, while the “conservative media” remains cut between Fox News,, and the handful of grassroots GOP blogs out there like Red State. The battle moves online, and the Right is already outgunned and outmanned.

Enjoy the victory. But do read up on King Pyrrhus when you’re done with that champagne.

Tomorrow: Time for the Times.

3 Comments so far

  1. Jeff (jeffreyscott3007) on January 20th, 2009 @ 9:10 am

    Great piece Dylan and spot on.

  2. wesa on January 20th, 2009 @ 9:58 am

    The fishing story was funny, but scarily accurate.

  3. franktastic on January 20th, 2009 @ 10:22 am

    uhh, maybe the issue is that newspapers shouldn’t be "liberal" or "conservative"? I’d prefer a paper that demonstrated the full variety of intelligent opinions that exist out there to one that simple echoed my views on a daily basis. (I can no respect for anyone who only reads material to which they constantly nod their head…)

    It seems to me that newspapers became so self important about expressing THEIR voice that they lost a sense of what they should be to their customers.

    Also, I’m obviously an "outsider" to the media game, so maybe I’m just seeing it, but it doesn’t strike me that the Seattle Times is celebrating here. They’re taking it as an opportunity, which they should. Maybe I’m wrong…

    (i think the fishing story only works if you think the worst of anyone who isn’t a "liberal"… which I suppose may be 90% of this readership…)

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