Ten Years Ago in Grasping Reality: June 4, 2007
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Mergenthaler Google Search

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Karl Marx said somewhere that the hand-loom gives you the feudal lord and the power-loom gives you the industrial capitalist. So in 1884 Ottmar Mergenthaler gave us the traditional American twentieth-century newspaper journalism of Charles Foster Kane (and the broadcast TV spectrum allocation gave us Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkhite). The Mergenthaler gives you the power to deliver advertisements--classified advertisements, department store advertisements, movie advertisements, new car advertisements--to every household metro-wide for pennies.

But how do you get people to read the advertisements rather than simply throw them away or use them, unread, for birdcage liner? You mix the advertisements with news, and reviews, and sports, and opinion, and entertainment. You make the twentieth-century American newspaper.

Because the ads that are mixed with the best news (and reviews, and sports, and opinion, and entertainment) get read the most, there is pressure on the then new-media moguls--because daily newspapers were once new media in their day--to employ lots of good people and to pay them well.

Over time the business consolidates: papers fold or find their niches, and establish stable competitive positions. Now there are monopoly profits to be distributed--and some of them go to the people who write the news (and reviews, and sports, and opinion, and entertainment). Now there is often an owner who is a big wheel in at least local politics and celebrity, and is willing to pay some out of his pocket to buy a better newspaper to increase his relative status vis-a-vis his or her other power-elite peers. It is a golden age. And, indeed the public sphere, the civic discourse, the informed citizenry created by journalism is well worth its price in terms of the subsidy from advertising profits that high-quality journalism needs.

But without sufficient competition, people and organizations get lazy. William Greider has his off-the-record breakfasts with Reaganite OMB Director David Stockman, who tells Greider that the Reagan administration is lying through all thirty-two of its teeth. William Greider doesn't tell the reporters working for him "you can sharpen that criticism of the administration and it will still be accurate" or "that defense of the administration is substantively misleading" or "you've buried the lead."

And he's not alone: think of Clay Chandler or Jonathan Weisman or Sebastian Mallaby or Deborah Howell. All Washington Post reporters with temporary monopolies who have forgotten that their job is to inform their readers, and instead have fallen on their knees before their sources, their editors, their bosses, or the flacks leaving message after message on their answering machines.

And then, one day, the Mergenthaler's descendants are obsolete, and the necessary link between the ads and the news (and reviews, and sports, and opinion, and entertainment) delivered via the morning paper vanishes. And the pool of money that had subsidized the news dries up.

And then (to be continued)...

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