Are Newspapers Surrendering News Coverage? The Big Impact of Online News

Today’s New York Times provided a clear illustration of an impact of the rise of online news and associated cable and satellite news coverage around the clock. Could it be true that newspapers have given up on trying to report breaking news?

Source: Wikipedia

Maybe this was a bad news day, but the front page of today’s 19 March 2017 Sunday New York Times had virtually no ‘news’ – only essays or stories on conservatives trying to change the judiciary, the risks associated with SWAT teams serving search warrants, the perks of Uber versus taxi services, healthcare, the damages done by Boko Haram, and an obituary for Chuck Berry. All are interesting and valuable stories, but not one story was what I would call hard or breaking news, as I understand news. The closest was Chuck Berry’s obituary. For example, there was no coverage of the US Secretary of State’s visits in East Asia, but an essay on page 10 about the dangerous options available vis-à-vis North Korea.

Most studies of the impact of online news focus on the declining revenues and advertising in the newspaper industry, and the decline of print newspapers as more move only online. However, the greatest impact might well be on what editors believe is fit to print in the newspaper. If they are inevitably scooped by online news, then why publish news that is a day old? So the editors shift increasingly to analysis and opinion pieces on the news, rather than even try to surface new news.

In academia, a similar impact is apparent in book publishing, where I have long argued that while more books are published year by year, it is important to look at the content of books to see the real impact. In my own case, why would I put material in a book that is already available online, or for which more up-to-date information will be online before any book goes into print? So, I think about what would have a longer shelf-life as a book, and focus on key arguments, and the potential to send readers online for more facts on a particular case or event.

Interestingly, while so much angst in the US and worldwide is focused on the rise of fake news, which I have argued as not that new, the real problem might be the more basic demise of hard news reporting. Televisions news coverage is shifting more and more to entertaining debates about the news, and less and less investment in coverage of breaking developments. Now print newspapers seem to be moving away from the reporting of real news to analysis of known developments, perhaps with some investigative reporting, but essentially the discussion of what is already known.

Of course, a valuable role of the reporter is to put facts into a larger and more meaningful context, and this is as aspect of what we see more of in the newspaper. But my worry is that they are moving closer to the role of news magazines, which themselves are challenged by the pace of online news developments.

I would like to learn of more systematic research on any changes in the content of the news, but with increasing worry about trust in the authenticity of the news, it strikes me as worrisome that newspapers might well be retreating from their traditional role in sourcing original and putting it into a broader context for their readers. Hopefully, my fears are not warranted. Instead of threats of fake news, we may be facing the threat of less if not no news from the sources we have relied on for decades.


The Electoral College as Seen from the Windows of the New York Times

It has been a long-standing joke that New Yorkers view most of the states that compose the United States as insignificant in relation to New York City. One of the famous images of this view was on the cover of the New Yorker in 1976. Well, it appears that the New York Times, in keeping with this myopic view of the USA, sees the Electoral College in an analogous way, leading it to conclude that the College is an anachronism – simply out of date and a less accurate representation of opinion that the national vote tally. steinberg_view_9th_ave_03291976

The editors seem to see the popular vote and the electoral vote as two indicators of the people’s will, with the electoral vote being less representative due to the weighting of state electoral votes by representation in Congress. They argue that the College is a vestige of slavery, but – news flash – the South did not win the war. And the editors worry that the College focuses attention on contests in ‘battleground states’, which are states in which the two major parties are most competitive. It is a shame (for the Times) that the lion’s share of the advertising dollars go to the media in the battleground states, but other than advertising revenues, winning the popular vote in states is the object of American Presidential elections.

The most basic point about the Electoral College is that it is anchored in the fact in these post-truth times that the United States is a federal system. The Electoral College is designed to support the principle of a federal system of government in which each state counts. So the rules are that the candidate that wins the popular vote in a state wins the electoral votes. This winner-take-all, state-by-state game punishes third parties, by not being a perfect reflection of the statewide popular vote, and ensuring that each state matters in the end, thus adhering to the federalist structure of the USA, where candidates should have an incentive to garner the support of all states. Our system rewards catch-all parties that cast a wide net and seek to appeal to voters across all states.

In my opinion, the New York Times doesn’t seem to understand the structure of American government, and the principles that underpin it. Instead, it takes a very utilitarian perspective based on the outcome of elections they did not like to argue that it is in every individual’s best interest to have a nationwide popular vote count to select the President and Vice President. That would certainly be in the interest of New York, California, and Texas, but not in the interest of most other states of our union. So the Times really does want to enshrine its myopic view of the United States into the rules of the most important game in America, the Presidential elections.

Rather than fighting the last election, it is important to keep more enduring principles in mind such as maintaining the decentralized and federal structure of the country. When you try to predict the electoral consequences of changing the rules of the game, such as would be the case with doing away with the Electoral College, you are inviting unintended and unanticipated consequences that unfold from changing a complex interdependent system. Most recently, urging Electors to vote their conscience a la Larry Lessig, led to more Electors defecting from Hillary Clinton than from Donald Trump. Not expected. So on the basis of principle and the inability to project the consequences of such changes in the electoral system, New Yorkers should not mess with the Electoral College.