Not having participated in The Washington Post's recent and not entirely felicitous attempt at getting acquainted with their readers, I was puzzled by what seemed like an excessive reaction on their part to reader comments. Was it just thin journalistic skin, or was there something more to it? So, I provisionally accepted the Washington Post's claim that it had been hit with a torrent of abusive blog postings, a claim repeated just today
by Yuki Noguchi:
Both the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, for example, have aborted projects that invited open critiques of their editorial content after being deluged with crude comments.
After spending a lot more time than I should have believing the Washington Post, I determined that:
1. There were no posts threatening harm or posts that included racial or religious insults.
2. Posts that could in any way be regarded as obscene or genuinely abusive accounted for fewer than 2% by the WaPo's own accounting.
3. Of those posts, perhaps 6 called Deborah Howell a "whore," but clearly in the sense of "a venal person," with no sexual overtones or, alternatively, a "b-tch," in the sense of "posted by someone with no class whatsover." The remaining posts using a word frowned on by the Disney channel were substantive criticisms, with the word "sh-t" applying to the writing rather than the writer.
So, why are they continuing to make a huge
deal out of this?
After long reflection, I realized that this is business. Again and again I read in industry publications that newspapers are facing a desperate future of decline, and that their principal competitors are... blogs.
Take for example this comment by American Journalism Review
It's a bear market for newspapers, in any case. Since the news of Sherman's raid on Knight Ridder, financial analysts have wondered aloud why anyone would want to buy a newspaper company. A writer for Fortune magazine asked rhetorically how Sherman had gotten himself "mired in newspapers, a business that seems destined for dreary decline." Conrad Fink, a former journalist who teaches newspaper management at the University of Georgia, says he's never seen such panic over newspaper stocks before. The pessimism is mainly due to shrinking circulation and a strong fear of advertisers defecting to the Internet.
Also, consider this, from the Newspaper Association
Newspapers “first choice” media of only 3.2% of 18 to 34 year olds vs. Internet at 45.6% (OPA, 9/04)...
2004 circulation scandals (Chicago Sun-Times, Dallas Morning News, Newsday) reflect pressure...
Online siphoning revenues: e.g., Craigslist = lost revenues of $50 million annually in the SF Bay Area...
BB [Broadband] users the most desirable consumers
And the fact that the one area where online newspapers could grab revenue is in targeted political advertising, in which it competes against blogs (an NAA link I have mislaid), and suddenly it sounds as if we are asking the wrong question. Not, "Are newspapers politically motivated in attacking blogs?" but "Are newspapers financially
motivated in attacking blogs?"
There is a confluence of politics and finance. The investor listed as being on the attack against Knight Ridder (coincidentally one of the only media outlets to ask any questions of Our Dear Leader) is Bruce S. Sherman, of Naples, Florida. That would be the following person:
SHERMAN, BRUCE MR NAPLES,FL 34108 PRIVATE CAPITAL MANAGEMENT/CEO 4/8/2004 $25,000 Republican National Cmte
SHERMAN, BRUCE S NAPLES,FL 34108 PRIVATE CAPITAL MANAGEMENT/C.E.O. 1/21/2004 $500 Mack, Connie
SHERMAN, BRUCE S MR NAPLES,FL 34108 PRIVATE CAPITAL MANAGEMENT/CEO 11/6/2003 $2,000 Bush, George W
The Bruce S. Sherman who very oddly invested in newspapers looking for a 20% return in a business that has been consolidating for 40 years and is demanding that Knight Ridder liquidate because, according to AJR, he has promised his clients more than he can deliver.
If I had invested through Bruce Sherman, I would be talking to my lawyer about how best to get a clear explanation from Mr. Sherman as to why he was expecting such an implausible return and, indeed, had committed a full 14% (!) of the portfolio to newspapers
. Isn't lesson #1 of investing, "Diversify"?