All those lost subscribers just might have a point
I think we agree that the economic problems newspapers face these days are largely driven by the rise of the Internet, which allows new competition without barriers to entry. I know of no magic solution for keeping a bloated monopoly at pre-competition staffing levels -- and evidently, neither does The Times.
So is The Times just a hapless victim of circumstance? Not hardly.
In March, local blogger Kevin Roderick reported , that "the Los Angeles Times has lost more subscribers in the past four years than any U.S. newspaper and it isn't even close." Why have subscribers fled this paper more than they have any other? Maybe, just maybe, the answer has to do with a perception that the paper is agenda-driven and smugly dismissive of its readers' views.
In the single biggest reader bloodletting at The Times in recent memory, the paper lost 10,000 subscribers after publishing a story in 2003 about then-gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger's groping tendencies. It was certainly news, but there was a widespread feeling that the paper had timed the story to influence the course of an election, and the paper paid a heavy price in canceled subscriptions.
It is possible that 10,000 people had a point? Not if you listened to the editors and columnists, who circled the wagons in classic dinosaur media fashion. Former Editor John Carroll called criticism of the story's timing "journalistic pornography." Columnist Steve Lopez labeled all 10,000 former subscribers as "apologists" for Schwarzenegger. Former Editor Dean Baquet figured they'd come back. Well, they haven't. And more have fled, including me and many of my readers.
I subscribed for 13 years but canceled in 2006 in protest after the newspaper irresponsibly published details of the legal, effective and classified SWIFT anti-terrorism program. (I still read the paper online, mainly so I can bash it on my blog. But I won't pay it one red cent.) Similarly, many of my readers tell me they canceled after subscribing for years because they genuinely believe the paper doesn't have the regard for facts that it should.
New York University journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen has argued that The Times lacks a loyal base of subscribers in part because it fails to give readers a voice. When readers feel the paper has acted badly, they see no recourse other than cancellation. Rosen has a point.
The Readers' representative is the interface between the paper and disgruntled readers. Although she has a blog with comments, many critical comments have not been approved for publication even when they have been polite. Marc, this is a metaphor for everything that is wrong with big media. The editors claim they want feedback from readers -- but they apparently want it only on their own terms.
Valuable feedback can come from bloggers, who are, after all, among the paper's more engaged readers. But the paper's dismissive attitude toward bloggers is so supercilious, it's comical.
Times business columnist David Lazarus once contrasted the virtues of "the much-respected, widely esteemed news outlet you're currently enjoying" -- no arrogance there! -- with blogs, which, according to Lazarus, "continue sprouting like crab grass throughout the electronic ether." The late David Shaw called blogs a "solipsistic, self-aggrandizing journalist-wannabe genre." Every time I catch the paper in yet another embarrassing error, my readers fondly recall Shaw's pompous pronouncement that his columns were superior because they were reviewed by "four experienced Times editors."
Does The Times still have four editors reviewing every piece it publishes? I doubt it. How could it, with round after round of layoffs?
Yes, this newspaper is indeed covered with self-inflicted wounds. And as we watch it collapse, seemingly in its death throes, The Times continues to inflict them.
Patrick Frey blogs at patterico.com.
Sleepwalking through the information revolution