Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Rupert and the Gray Lady More proof this week of the fundamental changes taking place in the newspaper business. David Carr, a media commentator for The New York Times - the Gray Lady of American journalism -gives voice to what many media traditionalists have either observed first-hand or expected would happen. Stop the presses: Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal - another great American newspaper - has turned to the right in its news and analysis. At least that is Carr's assessment. The response from the Journal is fascinating. The dueling statements from editors Robert Thomson of the WSJ and Bill Keller of the NYT read like the transcript for a Fox News shout down. Here is the important point, I think, and the accelerating trend: the news business is fragmenting into a range of providers of "content" built around distinctive perspectives - political, social, economic. If the Journal has become the national conservative newspaper, there are those who would argue that the Times has long been the nation's liberal paper. Perhaps both papers should just admit the obvious. Of course, a press baron like Murdoch, schooled in the tough, partisan style of British journalism, is going to put his conservative mark on the Journal. If Murdoch understands anything, he understands market segmentation. He knows there is a vast audience for point-of-view news and he will get there first with the most. He is increasingly serving up British-style journalism for an American market. Fifty to 75 years ago, papers like the Chicago Tribune, published by the isolationist, Republican Colonel Robert McCormick - the publisher modestly dubbed the Trib "the World's Greatest Newspaper" - and New York's short-lived PM, a left of center paper bankrolled by the millionaire Marshall Field, were unabashedly point-of-view. These papers reported favorably on their friends and assaulted their enemies, often in front page editorials. Once, after a Tribune story spoke favorably of a U.S. Senator McCormick disliked, the publisher cabled - no email in the 1930's - his Washington bureau asking if reporters there intended to continue to serve as press agents for the Senator. They didn't. We may be inevitably headed back to a much earlier day in American journalism when every newspaper was partisan and all the "news" came with a distinct point of view. Alexander Hamilton had his own newspaper, so did Jefferson, and everyone in the 1930's knew that McCormick's Tribune was anti-Roosevelt. It was his point of view. Was it always fair? No. Was it entertaining? Absolutely. Did it sell papers? McCormick created a media empire built on his personal perspective and his skill as a innovator in the delivery of information. Like Rupert Murdoch, the Colonel understood his market. Murdoch, as with many things, may just be ahead of the pack as American newspapers go back to the future. In fact, having a distinct point of view may be the salvation of print journalism in the digital age.