WSJ Down, NYT Up, FT Wins

In my line of work, knowing who owns the media one is reading is critical: it is the only way to assess bias accurately.  As an example, because I do a lot of predicting in the technology world, and because I care about (and measure) accuracy of these predictions, I literally never read the one thing everyone else in my world reads: the “trades.”  Why not?  Because they generally are PR releases once removed from the authors.  Invariably, it is better to read the releases raw (which we now offer online at our sites), and assign the appropriate known bias to the story, than to read something re-chewed.

In the U.S., as elsewhere, newspapers are having a tough time.  The grand era of great independent newspapers, owned by generations of family dynasties committed over decades to free speech and other patriotic issues, is coming to a close.  With each sell out, even though the circumstances were dire, and therefore understandable, the reality of the real sell out hits home harder.  Whether its the Tribune empire falling apart after the Wrigleys’ sale to Sam Zell (now bankrupt), or the Chandlers selling out of the LA Times to the Tribune folks in 2000, or the comic Dallas-style screwup of the Bancroft family, unable to manage the strongest asset in the newspaper world, selling out to Rupert Murdoch with a no-interference promise that didn’t last the ink-drying test.

Today the WSJ seems to be in limbo.  Murdoch started firing editors long before his contract allowed, and even though gossip has him moving more to the center after a life selling sports, breasts and right-wing propaganda, the ongoing and truly unbelievable theatrics and disinformation put out through his Fox TV belie any such thing.  Rather, his Fox Business channel now seems doomed to failure, FoxTV has become a laughing-stock to anyone under 55 with a high school education, and the WSJ is what’s left.

I used to read the Wall St. Journal every day, strictly for the purpose of making sure I caught all of the meaningful news in the world, regardless of Street spin.  But that was under the conservative but ineffective Bancrofts.  Our readers, at SNS, would reply to surveys at that time by saying, “I read the WSJ, but NOT the op-ed page.”

It now seems as though the WSJ is basically done.  Has Rupert’s touch begun to turn his toys into stone instead of gold?  I continue to wonder whether a large part of the problem faced by print media today is not the media, but the six reactionary old white men who insist on pushing their plain-wrong ideas (Saddam was al quaeda, Syria has the hidden WMDs) onto a younger audience that, at best, laughs.  Of course, what they really do, today, is turn to the Comedy Central channel on cable, where most of them get their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

USAToday, which was a joke when Gannett launched it as the first full-color national organ, today is made to look pretty good, if not prescient, by its use of graphics and continued decent stories.  There is nothing that really matters there, but at least no one gets hurt reading it.  Given what can happen to you reading the WSJ , the Hippocratic idea of First Do No Harm seems to apply directly to publishers.

On the U.S. side, this leaves the NYT, with the Sulzbergers slowing losing out to the machinations (financial assistance) of Carlos Slim Helu.  Wow, that would be interesting, no?  Carlos slim running the NYT?  And then, thank goodness, we have one paper that still has legs, the Graham family’s Washington Post.  And no, one need not mention that the real cash flow keeping that operation alive comes from Kaplan online learning, although it’s a marriage between education and news that bears much more serious thought than others seem to have given to date.

With the WSJ out of the running, and the NYT unlikely to last under current ownership, and the Post mostly an Inside Beltway story, the U.S. is suddenly about to find itself out of newspapers that matter.  Perhaps the San Jose Mercury, or the Boston Globe (owned, and about to be dumped by, the NYT), or —?

Which brings up an interesting, and not trivial question: why is the U.S. , home of no anti-trust enforcement during the last eight years, home of raw capitalism, supposed home of competition, about to be without a single decent source of unbiased news?   And why is Britain, socialist leader among English-speaking peoples, suddenly the Keeper of the Realm when it comes to objective news reporting?  Who wouldn’t take the BBC over the U.S.’ National Public Radio?  Who wouldn’t take the Financial Times over the WSJ?  Or the Guardian over the NYT?

The British have not lost the ability to be “fair and balanced,” the self-mocking theme of Fox TV, although Rupert has certainly taken out a lot of the competition.

Why is it, for instance, that the best programs on U.S. politics, the Kennedy assassination, global warming, and even Israel – South African nuclear cooperation, have all come  out of Britain?  Why can they tell our news stories better than we can?  Mostly, I think, they are just neutral.  There is something strong in the British psyche that still believes in telling the truth, that still sees the news as news, and not as advertising conveyor belt.  The U.S. has totally lost this view, with the exceptions noted above, and in some small papers, although many of those have gone their own sad, ad-driven route.

Indeed, in a time when owners are pointing to a lack of ads to support their product, I think they are missing the whole point: they are losing subscribers, and the ads are following.

Today, I read the FT religiously, the NYT increasingly, and the WSJ almost not at all.  I’m not alone; several friends have recently canceled their WSJ subscriptions, so fed up are they with Murdoch’s machinations.  I don’t see how the WSJ can survive, being a Murdoch bauble, even if he sees it as the crown jewel.  What he thinks doeesn’t matter, or worse, matteres and is morally wrong, as advertisers on Fox have proven lately by dropping the Beck show like a stone.

Is the WSJ over?

(In full disclosure, we compete with them in the conference world, although in the one year when they put their “D” show on top of our “FiRe” conference, every news story favored FiRe; they never did that again.  And we use the Dow Jones Newswire service for press release distribution, and for press release sharing online. )

I think it is.  I hope the Post can hang on to give us political news about our own country.  For everything else, I now turn to the FT, which gives the most balanced accounts on an international basis I’ve seen.  And their U.S. version, targeted at the WSJ’s heart, seems to be perfectly aimed.

It is the end of an era.  It had become an era of bigots forcing their opinions through an oligopoly keyhole that got sidetracked by the British, and the Internet, at the same time.  Other than angry old white guys over 55, who needs them?