"I SURE HOPE you'll be out of a job soon," e-mails a friend, alluding to the Boston Globe's current excruciations. He really is a friend -- he has shown me and my family much warmth and kindness over the years -- and should I find myself without a job, I'm sure he would want to help in any way he could. But such is his antipathy to the Globe that he regards my potential unemployment as a price well worth paying for what he calls the "greater good" of the newspaper's demise.
My friend is a conservative, and he is not alone in his views. To many on the right, the increasingly dire straits in which newspapers find themselves are something to cheer, or at any rate nothing to regret. The industry, they believe, is merely reaping in falling revenues and fleeing subscribers what it sowed in left-wing bias and unbalanced news coverage.
"Good riddance to bad trash," crows one conservative blogger, linking gleefully to Warren Buffett's forecast of "nearly unending losses" for US newspapers, most of which the Omaha billionaire says he "would not buy at any price." "Good Riddance" is likewise James Srodes's message in the American Spectator, where he begins a column by "letting loose a small raspberry at the flood of handwringing going on over The Decline of the American Daily Newspaper." His disdain is echoed by readers, one of whom snorts: "Their pages are full of liberal tripe, lies about science and misbegotten theories of life. It's a wonder they sell any papers at all."
Conservatives often accuse liberals, with reason, of clinging to emotion-based fantasies even when they are contradicted by real-world facts and results -- of preferring to see what they believe, rather than believe what they see. But the right has its shibboleths too, and one of them is that liberal bias explains why so many newspapers are hurting.
"The newspaper industry is indeed failing before our eyes," writes Hugh Hewitt, a conservative activist and syndicated talk-show host who regularly inveighs against the liberal and Democratic agenda of the mainstream media, or MSM. "A great deal of that failure has to be because of the widespread and justified alienation of news consumers who do not trust the legions of 'journalists' working in MSM to be critical of the party of government. . . . Newspapers don't have to die. But suicide is the right term for continuing to try and package liberalism as news."
Yes, it's liberal. But that's not why it's in trouble
But if liberal media bias is the explanation, why are undeniably left-of-center papers like the Globe, The New York Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle attracting more readers than ever when visitors to their websites are taken into account? How does liberal bias explain the shutdown of Denver's more conservative Rocky Mountain News, but not the more liberal Denver Post? How does it explain the collapse of newspapers in lefty enclaves like Seattle and San Francisco? How does it explain why the great majority of Americans -- 60 percent, according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll -- get most of their news from television?
Newspapers are in extremis not because of their political agenda, but because the world around them has been transformed. The growth of the Internet has left the traditional newspaper business model, with its vast physical plant and armies of writers, editors, photographers, pressmen, mailers, truck drivers, and salesmen, in a shambles. Craigslist and its ilk have vaporized what used to be the top profit center at most newspapers: classified advertising. A decades-long trend of falling readership, brought on by the rise of television, has been accelerated to warp speed by the explosion of websites and blogs offering news and opinion on every conceivable subject, 24 hours a day -- and usually for free.
The culture has undergone a tectonic change. Only 15 percent of Americans younger than 40 now read a printed newspaper every day. It isn't political bias that keeps them away. Conservatives who insist otherwise are doing themselves no favors.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)