Saturday, March 16, 2013

Article Summary: Baughman, "Wounded But Not Slain"

In "Wounded But Not Slain: The Orderly Retreat of the American Newspaper," James Baughman traces the popularity of newspaper reading and the economics of the daily newspaper industry from the mid-1940s (post-World War II) to the present day. The chapter is a broad synthetic history that measures the cultural importance of American newspapers primarily through circulation and survey data. According to Baughman, newspaper reading was a widely shared daily ritual throughout the first half of the 20th century, up through the mid-1950s: most families consumed at least one daily newspaper, and even as radio and then television began to compete for people's attention, newspapers were still most Americans' primary news source. Indeed, he argues that most newspaper owners did not consider radio or television a serious threat to their business, to the point that many publishers entered into broadcasting too.

Newspaper readership did begin to drop from the 1960s on, however - a slide that became especially pronounced in the 1990s and 2000s. The habit of reading multiple daily newspapers decreased considerably. But Baughman points out that radio and, in particular, television were still not the newspaper-killers that many people presume. At least, television was not a major news source early on; well into the 1980s, half of American adults still read newspapers and continued to rely on print media for serious news. Even if they regularly viewed television newscasts, they still read a daily newspaper too. Where television did have a significant impact on newspapers, however, was in the broader battle for consumers' attention. That is, more and more people simply stopped consuming news, and instead watched entertainment television or listened to music or read special interest magazines, et al. In Baughman's assessment, America became a pop culture-obsessed "nation of hobbyists" (p. 131), fragmented along the lines of niche tastes and removed from the larger community. He argues that this was generational in nature: the Baby Boomers, followed by their kids and grand-kids (Gen X and the Millennials), were successively indifferent to news, more and more interested in niche television programming, new and more fragmented media like the Internet, celebrities and show business, et al. What they didn't care about was news, at least "news" in terms of politics, foreign affairs, and the like. Those damned kids today...

Baughman notes that despite the declines in readership and cultural status, daily newspaper publishing remained a very profitable business up through the end of the century. Here, he ties together a number of shifts in newspaper ownership and production. For starters, as previously noted, newspapers retained a solid core of readers despite the attrition. And more importantly, newspapers continued to provide a level of reporting, especially in terms of local coverage, that broadcast media could not match. Beginning in the 1950s, the challenging, "stenographic" style of newspaper reporting gave way to more readable and in-depth reporting, which included a trend toward investigative journalism and more analytical perspectives. This move had various benefits, including reducing self-censorship and allowing in diverse perspectives to what was formerly an almost all white male world, including employing and giving voice to women and racial/ethnic minorities. At the same time, this less "objective" style came to place an emphasis on opinion over fact. Also, in order to try and appeal to the more fragmented, pop culture-driven audience, newspapers began to cut international and national reportage, and even reportage of state and local government, in favor of lengthier features and coverage of specialized topics like arts and culture, dining and diets, et al. This also led to an increasing focus on the needs and interests of suburban and middle-class audiences, which disenfranchised working class readers.

Lastly, Baughman links these shifts in the audience and style of newspapers to ownership. Early on, newspapers emphasized local stories and as institutions they were themselves a significant part of any city's power structure. Most urban areas had competing daily papers. However, beginning as early as the 1940s, newspapers began to consolidate; they were bought up by large newspaper chains and even many large cities were reduced to being one-newspaper towns. Corporate conglomeration eventually led to cost-cutting, which shrunk the size of papers as well as their staffs. Local reportage was often the first to go. These cost-cutting measures were largely responsible for the trend toward "less serious - and more provincial" coverage described above (p. 124). Daily newspapers were still profitable, but often at the expense of providing what Baughman seems to consider well-rounded, serious news coverage. Wall Street is the real villain here, according to Baughman, interested only in the bottom-line and not the newspapers' editorial product or public service mission. Also, in the 1980s and 1990s, competition for both readers and, even more importantly, advertising came not only from local television and niche magazines but also from alternative weekly newspapers and radio talk shows. Newspapers had lost their monopoly on information and they were no longer the "mass" medium they had long been. The Internet only magnified these problems. Ending right at the start of the 2008-9 economic recession, Baughman hints at new business models that were emerging within newspaper publishing, specifically "hyperlocalism" and "citizen journalism" - he points out were actually central parts of American newspapers dating back to the 1700s (p. 133-34).

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