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"In 1978, You Could Afford To Be a Dull City Newspaper"
By Ed Driscoll · June 29, 2005 02:55 PM · Oh, That Liberal Media!

In his interview with John Hawkins, Mark Steyn has a great take on one of American newspapers' (many) ills--their bland liberal corporate dullness:

Well, there are two answers to that: the first is that it's true US newspapers are not exactly beating my door down. The second is that, when they do beat my door down, my loyal retainer sets the dogs on them and peppers their retreating posteriors with buckshot. I'll explain that second part first. I appear in newspapers in a lot of different countries, and the sad fact is that, mainly as a consequence of local newspaper monopolies, US syndication fees represent some of the lowest publication rates in the world - that's to say, to take one recent example, you'd earn more from a single reprint in a Fijian newspaper than one certain prominent US statewide daily was proposing to pay for my column for an entire year. The US syndication business is the publishing equivalent of vaudeville, and I don't particularly see why it's in my interests to fill up Gannett’s newspapers for free. If I'm going to give it away, I'd rather folks had to come to the website to see it, where there's a chance they'll hang around long enough to buy a book. So I've no interest in US syndication as a business model. We make exceptions for certain newspapers whose op-ed editors are genuinely eager to carry the column. But I have no great ambitions within US journalism.

But, to go back to your first point, the reason they're not exactly beating the door down is because I'm not a good fit for American monopoly dailies. In London, the most competitive newspaper market in the world, papers thrive by encouraging distinctive controversial voices. In America, the average Gannett or other monodaily prefers a tone of self-regarding dullness. As my friend John O'Sullivan put it, "They neither offend nor delight" - as a matter of policy. Yes, they're broadly “liberal,” but not in a lively virtuoso engaging way, only in a dreary J-school way. I think they're missing the point here. They don't realize that they do have competitors now, in new media. In 1978, having driven your print competitors out of business, you could afford to be a dull city newspaper. I don't believe you can now.

In the 1960s, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and other writers tried to use their "New Journalism" techniques to end-run that blandness. That was in an era where many American cities still had multiple, competing newspapers (Wolfe was with The New York Herald Tribune, Talese with the Times, for example.) But once newspapers became monopolies in most cities, as Steyn says, there was little need--at least at first--for that sort of exciting style.

The Blogosphere of course, changed all that. Beyond the news that the Blogosphere picks up that isn't thought to be of immediate interest by newspaper editors (see Rather, Dan; Durbin, Dick; and Soldier, Winter), a huge part of the Blogosphere's popularity is its lively collection of voices, and that it's a meritocracy.

That extends not just to which bloggers link to each other the most often, but also to which writers outside the Blogosphere get frequent favorable mention. To paraphrase Steyn's comment to Hawkins, while US newspapers are not exactly beating his door down, Bloggers happily link to him, as they do writers such as Victor Davis Hanson and James Lileks, neither of whom will be appearing in a New York Times op-ed soon, much to that paper's detriment.



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