What's Wrong with the American Press

Former "Financial Times" writer (now uber-blogger) Nick Denton has an interesting take on the state of American journalism.

"America's newspapers in particular are lazy monopolies," he writes.

"The US has many more daily newspapers, but each serves a local market, in which it is typically dominant." Britain, on the other hand, is one newspaper market, and so it has more competition, its journalists more bite. They’re not taught their craft in school, they’re taught it in the marketplace.

Monopoly has been the way of the American press for decades, cast into law through the 1970 Newspaper Preservation Act. The idea was to keep dissenting voices alive in local media. The result was to calcify the American press.

It’s time for the Act to go. But it’s also time for us to consider what a newspaper is, and what it should be. Because Denton, whose political blogs put him squarely in the center on the American political spectrum, sees great hope in the rise of Fox News and the Drudge Report.



"The political weblogs, like Fox News, talk radio and other insurgent media, lean to the right. More importantly, they often display a nose for the story that the traditional media has lost," he writes. "New news media is raucous, sloppy and amateurish. But it is at least, at its best, engaging."

So instead of thinking of your audience as consisting of people who live near you, how about thinking of it as people who think like you? This is what 19th century journalism was all about.

In the days when New York had dozens of newspapers, each one had their own ideological, sociological, religious, or ethnic axe to grind. There was news for every taste, each paper aiming squarely at bending events to suit the prejudices of its publishers, and the perceived prejudices of its readers.

It was only in the 20th century, with the rise of vast chains, that the American reporter became a "professional," someone whose job was to play things straight down the line, with inverted pyramids, an unbiased viewpoint…an officer of the people’s court.

That attitude is still alive. Why else would the Village Voice and New Times have to be forced by a court to compete in Los Angeles and Cleveland? Why not make both of them national weeklies, with inserts showing what’s playing locally, and some local barfly pieces. (That’s probably what they’re going to do anyway.)

No, Nick’s right. Throw out the NPA. And while you’re at it, let’s forget everything we were taught at Columbia, the Poynter school, even at my alma mater of Northwestern University’s Medill School.

We are not professionals. We are not doctors, we are not lawyers. We’re writers, hacks, entertainers, sweaty ink-stained wretches. Journalism is a trade, like cooking in a restaurant. It’s a harsh, nasty competitive business. Work hard, get drunk, and do it again.

Compete and win is the only way.

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