STATE OF THE UNION

STATE OF THE UNION - The US news business may be stodgy, but not for much longer. Digital cable systems and the internet have opened up the market.

by NICK DENTON, publisher of Gawker - www.nickdenton.org
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The US news business may be stodgy, but not for much longer. Digital cable systems and the internet have opened up the market.

Think of the American press, and what comes to mind? JJ Hunsecker, the ruthless gossip columnist of Sweet Smell of Success, maybe; Walter Matthau as the insanely competitive editor of The Front Page; or Woodward and Bernstein in All The President's Men, pursuing the story that brought down Richard Nixon.

In Hollywood's imagination, American journalists may be boisterous, impassioned and fearless. But this reputation does not stand up. Most newspapers in the US are lazy local monopolies; the television networks underbid each other for the lowest common denominator; and they commit the cardinal sin of journalism, boring the audience.

The evidence? Newspapers design headlines to bury the story. They are so laden with abstract nouns or the passive voice they could be spoofs.

Try this: 'Anger Raises Concern About Bush Run in '04' - from the New York Times, no less. Heaven forbid that an article be interesting enough to offend.

So slow-moving are US news businesses that they make their UK counterparts look entrepreneurial. Time Out beat the Village Voice in the New York city listings market. The newest magazine category, the lad's magazine, was pioneered by Maxim, a UK import. And even the homegrown success stories rely on borrowed talent. The hot magazine editor of the moment, Bonnie Fuller, is Canadian; Tina Brown, of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, was British. The New York Post, the greatest of American tabloids, is not all that American: the last two editors were respectively British and Australian.

No surprise that American media organizations are gerontocracies. The most prestigious current affairs show, Sixty Minutes, has not refreshed its staff in decades. The average age of its five reporters is over 70.

Piers Morgan was 28 when he took over the Daily Mirror; that would be inconceivable at any US newspaper.

Given that the US media market is the most lucrative in the world, why is the journalism not more vigorous? It depends whom you ask. The shrivelled intelligentsia bemoan the poverty of public-service broadcasting; liberals cite ownership by media conglomerates; conservatives blame liberal bias and political correctness; and hard-scrabble reporters the effects of ethics courses at journalism schools.

The underlying cause is prosaic. The US spans a continent, its population is more dispersed than that of the UK or France, and its media market is geographically fragmented. Britain is one national market, in which a dozen national newspapers compete furiously for readers, talent and scoops. There's powerful pressure to hype up the story, which makes for more interesting copy.

The US has many more daily newspapers, but each serves a local market, which it typically dominates. Even in cities with two titles, competition is usually constrained by 'joint operating agreements', under which they share printing and distribution.

There is hope. The US news business may be stodgy, but not for much longer.

For which thank technology, especially the introduction of digital cable systems and the internet, which have opened up the market to competitors with national reach.

The cable news networks - CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and CNBC - now attract more viewers in the course of a day than do the network news broadcasts.

Fox News, with fast-paced top-of-the-hour news and hard-hitting political talk shows such as O'Reilly, has displayed the most dramatic growth: founded by Rupert Murdoch in 1996, it has overtaken all its rivals.

It appeals even to viewers who reject its conservative political bent.

'Fox isn't in any conventional sense ideological media,' says Michael Wolff, the media commentator. 'It's just that being anti-Democrat, anti-Clinton, anti-yuppie, anti-wonk turns out to be great television.'

The experience of cable television has been mirrored in internet media.

In 1998, the story of Bill Clinton's affair broke on the Drudge Report, an internet news site now viewed more than five million times a day. Drudge has been joined by other guerrilla commentators writing on sites called weblogs.

The political weblogs, like Fox News, talk radio and other insurgent media, lean to the right, but they often display a nose for the story that the traditional media has lost.

When former Senate Republican leader Trent Lott went misty remembering the segregationist politics of his youth, it was criticism in the weblogs that kept the controversy alive, long enough to force the mainstream media to pay attention. The new news media is raucous, sloppy and amateurish, but it's engaging.

It took until the passage of civil rights legislation in the 1960s for the US to bring substance to the belief that all men are created equal.

And another element of the American constitution - a vigorous press - has been an empty letter. Until recently. US news media is catching up with the myth that surrounds it.

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