Backstory: Inside the Business of News By Ken Auletta, Penguin, 296 pages, $24.95
All the News That's Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News By James T. Hamilton, Princeton University Press, 342 pages, $35.00
There's a lot of muttering nowadays about the future of a minor, almost wholly owned subsidiary of the entertainment conglomerates that nevertheless fascinates and irritates most readers of this magazine: the news business. With most American newspapers stuck with slowly ebbing circulations during most recent years, and television news stagnant or worse in quality while inflating in quantity, there are plenty of reasons to mutter. Indeed, no one grumbles more than journalists themselves about the dumbing down of the news or what the French charmingly call "cretinization" -- catch-all terms for the consequences of the infotainment boom and the foreign-news bust (despite the post-September 11 boomlet); the rise of 24-7 cable, the fall of the networks; the rise of the bean counters, the fall of the journalists. A Martian descending to inspect the civilization of Earth's Sole Remaining Superpower would surely wring all his, her, or its hands at the spectacle of what passes for public information in the age of the proliferating Dean Scream, the FOX Knocks, and the Drudge Sludge. Two new books illuminate the process, and neither brings much good news.
Ken Auletta is the best reporter presently scouting out America's media backstage. Now at The New Yorker, where all but two of the pieces in Backstory first saw the light of day, Auletta has for more than a decade prowled the boardrooms and corner offices of the media string-pullers. When he was starting out on the media beat, he was too often distracted by buzz and dazzled by wardrobe and menus. Perhaps he was overly impressed by the rich and famous then, or overly influenced by the Tom-Wolfe-in-chic-clothing style of fashion reportage doubling as journalism. A decade of watching the Rupert Murdochs and Gerald Levins do their things, though, has concentrated his mind on mogul thinking, and Auletta's eye has never been keener or more selective than in his new book.
On the education of The New York Times' Arthur Ochs Sulzberger and the hauteur of the meteorically flamed out Howell Raines; on the synergies and journalistic flatness of Chicago's successful Tribune Company; on the Los Angeles Times' demolition of the famous wall that is supposed to separate business and editorial functions; on FOX News' formula for profitability (on which subject, I suppose I should disclose, I am briefly one of Auletta's talking heads); on the hype that inflated the value of an Internet bubble called Inside.com before it crashed and popped; and, perhaps most consequentially, on the "fee speech" that enriched many of TV news' biggest names on the strength of their celebrity appearances (aka "lectures") at corporate conventions, Auletta is the go-to guy for detail and atmosphere, a sort of pictorialization of corporate states of mind.
Although he scores some little reportorial coups along the way, Auletta is more drawn to mind-sets than gotcha moments. This is a net plus, though sometimes this reader wishes for more attention to the content of the journalism itself. When, in 1997, the Chicago Tribune's managing editor orders up "a story on the actual military and terrorist threat posed by Saddam Hussein," inquiring minds want to know how that reporting holds up in the light of later developments. When, in 1993, a young Arthur Sulzberger Jr. tells Auletta that he doesn't read any magazine regularly and no newspaper but the Times itself, what does that mean? How might such insularity be reflected -- or not -- in the paper itself?
The patient reader in search of a more thorough explanation of what is happening to news should turn to Duke University's public-policy professor and economist James T. Hamilton, who combines number-crunching thoroughness with economic acumen to develop a rather convincing model of why newspaper publishers and TV news managers do what they do. As in his earlier book Channeling Violence, on the economic logic of violent TV, markets rule. It's the demographics, stupid.
To compress an intricate argument festooned with dozens of tables, Hamilton applies to news decisions what he calls the "5 Ws" model: What determines which information in the world is going to become news depends on the market's answer to five questions. "Who cares about a particular piece of information?" Hamilton asks. "What are they willing to pay to find it, or what are others willing to pay to reach them? Where can media outlets or advertisers reach these people? When is it profitable to provide the information? Why is this profitable?" The answers to these questions, Hamilton claims, "dictate the content of the news."
They do so historically, they do so today, and they anticipate the future. Not that government decisions are unimportant -- in fact, a great deal about the shape of the American market for news can be traced to an early governmental decision: to subsidize newspaper and magazine circulation via the post office's reduced rates. But once the essential infrastructure of news was up and running, the road to Murdoch, as well as to the Sulzbergers, was already under construction. If you want to know why newspapers abandoned partisanship during the 19th century, why local TV stations owned by corporate groups run less hard news than independents, or why the editorial positions of newspapers don't affect the tone of political coverage, Hamilton can explain it to you: Follow the markets.
Thus, in television, news directors take for granted that the regular audience for news is disproportionately over 50. The value-added eyeballs they hunt for, the better to impress advertisers, consist primarily of women 18 to 49. These irregular viewers have softer interests: health and celebrity stories and the like. They also tilt relatively liberal, which accounts for such "news bias" as exists. (At least the viewers who think there is a bias think it's a liberal one -- a dubious conclusion, as Eric Alterman has recently demonstrated.) Advertising-rate figures confirm that sponsors are willing to spend much more to address these viewers than they are to attract the equivalent number of elders. Television news therefore bends over backward to soften the news at the margins. Newspapers are different, however, because they can attract multiple audiences simultaneously -- people can jump around newspapers sampling their favorite subjects (you can turn to sports while skipping the front page) without having to sit through the whole sequence. So rational profit-seeking newspapers will accommodate more hard news than TV.
Hamilton is a demon researcher who excavates much fascinating data but sometimes (see liberal bias, above) leaves too much skepticism at home. He deploys number-crunching software and various ingenious measures of what local markets will bear to explain why, say, viewers like crime news that exaggerates how much crime there is. He explains the economic logic that has raised an anchor's salary to the equivalent of 28 ads per year for Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor in 1976 to 149 ads for Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw in 1999, even as the share of TV viewers watching the evening news has declined dramatically over the same period. (It's branding, branding, branding. The more competition, the greater the value of product differentiation.) Hamilton considers not only newspapers, television, and radio but also the Internet, concluding (on the basis of data from 2000, too soon for blogs or Howard Dean to have had their chance to move the numbers) that the Net does indeed bring a dispersed population into the express game, but observes that "people are much more likely to search the Net for information about entertainment figures than political issues."
Sometimes Hamilton is naive, overlooking some pregnant questions. He notes, for example, that "once the Fairness Doctrine was removed, radio stations were much more willing to offer programming that discussed public affairs" -- without pointing out that the resulting "discussion" leaned way right. Sometimes his methodology leads him to odd conclusions -- which is no intellectual sin at all, but he should still reckon with counterarguments. For example, his software for measuring various qualities of the vocabulary used by pundits registers the conclusion that "conservatives are more likely [than liberals] to use phrases that reflect ambivalence/uncertainty" -- precisely the opposite of the conclusion reached by Jeffrey Scheuer in The Sound Bite Society. This needs a second look, but Hamilton doesn't supply it.
Still, Hamilton deserves credit for boldly endorsing the counterintuitive if that is where his data lead him. For example, "[I]ncreased concentration can in some markets lead to more diversity since sellers in a concentrated market may offer products aimed at attracting additional customers to the market rather than aimed at stealing customers from already offered varieties." Again, though, one wishes him to go further. Which markets? Under what conditions? If concentration might indeed produce some variations in radio music playlists, why doesn't it produce diversity in the news? For that matter, what would happen if Hamilton applied his model to news systems in other countries? Doctoral students, start your engines.
Hamilton is aware that economic calculation, conscious or not, can't explain everything, let alone serve democratic values. He notes that benefits of various decisions and policies are harder to assess than costs. He doesn't note, however, that ostensibly rational corporate chiefs make huge assumptions they don't always trouble to justify. It's unclear, for example, that advertisers are rational when they invest far more in attracting the younger and more female than the older and more male. Is it really true, or only mythological, that younger viewers flex their product tastes and their consumer preferences but turn to stone once they cross the fossilizing half-century line?
In any event, this reader has no doubt that most of the people who run the news business think the way Hamilton infers they think. Nor will Auletta's readers. And that's the bottom line.