December 26th 2009


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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: A reflection on Christmas

CANBERRA OBSERVED: The new Opposition team

ENVIRONMENT: Copenhagen summit ignores 'Climategate' scandal

FINANCIAL CRISIS: Can the world expect a sustainable recovery?

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: The challenge of China

HUMAN RIGHTS: Commonwealth's double standards over Sri Lanka, Fiji

CULTURE: The sexualisation of girlhood

IDEOLOGIES: Radical environmentalism: the new socialism

CIVILISATION: What now after the cultural revolution?

MEDIA: Why America's newspapers are dying

IDEAS: Why haven't more people heard of G.K. Chesterton?

OPINION: Paid maternity leave and the war against women

A new name for News Weekly? (letter)

Why the democracies should support Taiwan (letter)

BOOK REVIEW: BLOODY VICTORY: The Sacrifice on the Somme and the making of the Twentieth Century, by William Philpott

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Why America's newspapers are dying


by Jeffry Babb

News Weekly, December 26, 2009
Earlier this year, the Rocky Mountain News, based in Denver, Colorado, closed after 150 years of continuous publication. The Rocky Mountain News, or ‘The Rocky' as it was popularly known, was no ordinary paper. In the last decade, it had won four Pulitzer Prizes, the highest award an American newspaper can win.

The Rocky was one of two newspapers in Denver. The owner, the venerable E.W. Scripps Co., which has itself been in business for 130 years, tried to save the paper, by sharing facilities with the other local paper, the Denver Post. In the end, the city could not support two papers, the owners said.

Some columnists and cartoons will go to the Post, but the Rocky's closure will leave Scripps with US$130 million of debt. Revenues at the paper had been falling by 15-20 per cent a year, in common with many other US newspapers.

All over America, newspapers are closing and owners of the survivors are reeling from falling circulations and plummeting advertising revenues. It's not only stragglers that are closing down. Hearst, owner of the San Francisco Chronicle, says it is losing US$1 million a week. The Hearst company, founded by William Randolph Hearst, was immortalised by Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, held by many critics to be the best movie of all time.

To compare Hearst to Rupert Murdoch is to do a disservice to Hearst. He was far more powerful. Newspapers were the only mass media of the day.

But Murdoch, perhaps the last press baron in the old mould, is trying to save the newspaper. Murdoch controls the second biggest media company in the world, behind only the Walt Disney organisation. He has interests in film, book publishing, the Internet, television and sport, apart from newspapers. News Corporation is truly a global company. Rupert Murdoch is the most powerful living Australian, who cut his teeth on the loss-making News in Adelaide, about the only thing of value he inherited from his father, the legendary Sir Keith Murdoch.

But the heart of the Murdoch empire these days is the United States. Murdoch increased his exposure to newspapers by buying The Wall Street Journal, the Bible of American capitalism. A number things need to be said about The Wall Street Journal. For one thing, it's highly profitable. Most US newspapers aren't these days. Second, it's making money out of its online edition. Unlike other Murdoch papers, its online edition charges for the content it offers. But most importantly, it gives its readers what they want in both news and opinion. The Wall Street Journal's readers are conservative high-income earners. That attracts advertisers.

It's commonly held that the Internet is killing America's papers. Murdoch says that gathering news costs a lot of money, and on the Internet, ubiquitous as it is, news doesn't make money. In a ferocious attack on Google, the giant of the Internet search engines, Murdoch accused the Internet news services of stealing his product. Murdoch, earlier this year, said his newspapers would no longer offer Internet news for free.

But exactly how to charge for online news is the hard part. The newspaper I worked on in Taiwan for 20 years, the China Post, has a popular internet web site, which is read all over the world by people wanting news on Taiwan. When Jack Huang, publisher and editor in chief of the China Post, launched the site, I asked him how we were going to make money out of it. "We won't," he replied, "but everyone else has one, so we have to have one too." The China Post does have good advertisers now - many Australian educational suppliers and universities advertise on it.

If Rupert Murdoch can find out a way of making his online services pay, he will certainly save the newspaper. But his real secret is knowing that you have to give the readers what they want.

Take the Fox News channel in the US, for example. What's somewhat startling initially to the Australian viewer is that it's a conservative campaigning channel, and it's the toughest opponent that the Obama Administration faces. Even President Obama, the most powerful man in the world, can't ignore it. On the other hand, Americans can also opt to view CNN, which aims to be neutral, and another campaigning channel on the left.

Fox discovered an enormous, untapped market - the conservative consumer of news. One reason US papers are dying is that they are almost always left-liberal - not exactly socialists, but nonetheless on the Left. Take the New York Times, a much-overrated newspaper. For all its claims of factual accuracy and objectivity, it's definitely and unashamedly left-liberal. Many Republicans don't like that.

The internet is also taking over the news function. Bloggers are citizen-journalists. The Net is free of government, so bloggers can say what they like. Americans distrust big government, distrust Washington and many distrust Obama. The Net is not only stealing advertising. It's stealing eyeballs by giving Americans the news and opinion they want.




























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