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September 12, 2007

Frank James Explains It All For You

Frank James, National News Correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, took a look today at a new Media Matters study finding that conservative columnists get more space than progressives ones in papers nationwide. This isn't a shock to anyone who's spent time conscious in the past 100 years, but it's still useful to discuss. Kudos to James for providing an explanation that's exactly right:

There's one explanation for MM's results which has nothing to do with a nefarious conservative cabal running the newspaper industry...

Newspapers are generally in business to be profitable. That means, more often than not, providing consumers with products that reflect their tastes. Thus, more conservative syndicated columnists than not.

Most of a newspaper's revenue comes from advertisers, not subscribers. (And on the Tribune blog where James wrote this, the revenue comes 100% from advertisers.) Newspapers naturally want to keep their advertisers—ie, their consumers—happy. Advertisers tend to be conservative businesses. Hence, more conservative syndicated columnists.

Of course, I left out two sentences of what James wrote. Here's what he actually said:

There's one explanation for MM's results which has nothing to do with a nefarious conservative cabal running the newspaper industry.

Demographically, newspaper readers tend to be older than non-newspaper readers. An older audience is likely to be more conservative. Newspapers are generally in business to be profitable. That means, more often than not, providing consumers with products that reflect their tastes. Thus, more conservative syndicated columnists than not.

I'm sure James is being honest here: he truly doesn't understand that a newspaper's readers are its product, not its consumers. (They're sold to its actual consumers, the advertisers.) You might find it beyond belief someone could get to his position in the newspaper business and have no idea how it works, but in fact people like James rise to the top not in spite of, but because of their ability to completely miss what's right in front of their face. The consumers prefer it that way.

AND: Here's a table from the Tribune Co.'s 2006 annual report, showing the sources of revenue for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and Newsday:

As you see, in 2006, 79.7% of their revenue was from advertising, and just 14.1% was from readers. Gosh, I wonder whose tastes they tend to reflect?

Posted at September 12, 2007 09:16 PM | TrackBack

What, you expect journalists to have actually read something by Chomsky?

Posted by: Bill at September 13, 2007 12:09 AM

I've never seen this line of argument extended to an analysis of who the advertisers are trying to target, all those 24-50 year olds or whatever demographic, and how that impacts second order effects.

Posted by: buermann at September 13, 2007 01:04 AM

As you see, in 2006, 79.7% of their revenue was from advertising, and just 14.1% was from readers.

What readers pay for the paper is not really revenue, it's a proof to the advertisers that this quantity of readers really does exist and is being delivered to them.

In Internet terms it's the way they count the hits. If you're willing to pay for your paper - that's a hit. It could've been some kinda token instead of money, doesn't matter.

Posted by: abb1 at September 13, 2007 02:13 AM

I think you're really missing the boat here. As you point out, most of a newspaper's revenue comes from advertising. Obviously, the higher a paper's circulation, the higher the advertising rate that they can charge, and the more advertisers who will want access to that pool of eyeballs. All of this equates to more revenue, and hence more profit. It doesn't really have anything to do with the political leanings of some hypothetical set of advertisers whom the paper wants to please by publishing columns with similar political viewpoints, as the pool of potential advertisers is much larger than the current advertisers that are paying for ad space. If a paper thought it could double its circulation by publishing with a different slant, any advertisers who were unhappy with the change in readership demographics could easily be replaced by other businesses who sought to reach that new, larger demographic, and at a higher advertising rate to boot.

Of course, this effect can be somewhat offset by the nature of the demographic change. If the readership changed from a more affluent, older (and probably more conservative) one to a less affluent, younger (and more likely liberal) one, marketers of luxury items, who are willing to pay a premium to reach an affluent audience, would tend to be replaced by those selling more low-end products. If the increase in circulation was great enough, however, this effect would be more than offset.

Posted by: Mayor McFleas at September 13, 2007 03:35 AM

"An older audience is likely to be more conservative." and then "younger (and more likely liberal)"

Ok, can I just suggest that it's a little more complex than this?

E.g., Pew Research Poll, look at the detailed demographics tables at the bottom:

Support for the war is much higher among younger people (as was the case during Vietnam, actually, and probably every other little war in between).

I'm thinking marketers prefer younger demographics because we're more self-centered and less difficult to swindle, and as people grow out of it this negative influence on marketing success gets confused into nostrums about people trending "conservative". :P

Posted by: buermann at September 13, 2007 05:37 AM

There is also the fact that newspaper owners and senior editors tend to be both wealthy and conservative, and nobody ever got promoted by upsetting the boss. Simply ask yourself which of these positions is more likely to get you a raise:

1. My boss should pay more tax.
2. My boss should pay less tax.

Posted by: Dunc at September 13, 2007 06:57 AM

It may not make much difference whether the target audience is advertisers or readers, because both the publishers and the advertisers want readers that believe what they tell them. They don't want a mass audience of readers or TV watchers who distrust what they're told unless they can be persuaded to think that buying a particular product really will stick it to the man. And then there are ads that flatter ironic people who are too cool to be manipulated by the cruder sort of ad.

So you've got the cruder sort of media for the unsophisticated and then you've got the more sophisticated media for liberals who fancy themselves above being manipulated. There's also some faux concern for a better world --Archer Daniels Midland on the Lehrer Newshour seems to be working hard to save the planet; it's a wonder they have any time to make a profit--, and of course that appears on a show presumably watched by a bunch of moderate liberals who think that show represents responsible journalism at its finest. Then there's the NYT, which is the print version of the Lehrer Newshour in its appeal. There apparently are NYT readers who seem to hang on Tom Friedman's every word (somebody must be buying his stupid books) and it's probably not a coincidence that the NYT is also chockful of articles and ads aimed at upper class consumers. (Not that some Chomsky readers wouldn't want to indulge in some of that travel, eat at some of those restaurants, or enjoy living in those multimillion dollar lofts, but in general I don't think a paper that aimed at the Chomsky-reading audience would have so many articles on those subjects.)

So there may not be a conflict between keeping the advertisers happy and keeping the intended readers/TV watchers happy.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at September 13, 2007 08:00 AM

You aren't gonna give 'em social realism when all they want is LIFESTYLE.

Posted by: donescobar at September 13, 2007 08:16 AM

I think you do have the key to understanding newspapers. Or at least, a vitally important key. One thing that I find interesting is that, whether they are successfully wooing advertisers or not, their bottom line is still eroding- according to the graph at least.

Posted by: atheist at September 13, 2007 08:56 AM

So, I downloaded the PDF to examine the methodology to see whom the authors considered progressive, and I call "Bullshit!" Although I have not read all the columnists most of the progressives are centerists, and most of the centerists are what was called the right wing when I was a boy growing up in Michigan.

Posted by: coriolis at September 13, 2007 08:56 AM

That is really interesting. If the readers are the product, and the advertisers are the consumers, then that would totally explain the media behavior.

However, even according to this model, the media is still vulnerable to a populace that starts to distrust the media and tune them out. The problem is that, then the media has declining quality of product to sell their 'consumers', the advertisers.

Posted by: atheist at September 13, 2007 09:57 AM

I never understood the logic, here. Are all advertisers really that ideologically invested that they would want newspapers to DECREASE their readership by printing politically detestable viewpoints? I find it far more plausible that the advertisers want what the newspaper wants: increased circulation and readership. And advertisers are definitely going to look at the readership when deciding whether they want to buy space or not. I think the relevant fact is not "advertisers are conservative", but "rich people are conservative". By printing conservative columns, newspapers attract a better product.

Also, we should distinguish between breeds of "conservative". There is a neofascist kind that publishes here in the Boston Herald, which is almost tabloid-like in its level of appeal. It is definitely targeted at working-class conservatives. Compare to the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times, targeted to upper-class realpolitik-type conservatives, who demand to be informed correctly about the state of the world because they are running it. I would bet a review of advertisers in these two newspapers would indicate this differential.

Posted by: saurabh at September 13, 2007 10:44 AM

The question we keep ignoring, because I suspect the answer(s) would be too discomforting, is contained in Donald Johnson's referring to "faux concern for a better world." (Above)
When does the "faux" turn "real?" Letter to the editor? No. Posting on progressive website? No. Marching against war/social injustice/corporate greed/government fascism? No.
They go on, and we may march on, and nothing changes.
Reading Chomsky, Zinn et al only raises the frustration or helplessness level. Wait for the disaster and the new New Deal band aids.
Any better ideas?

Posted by: donescobar at September 13, 2007 10:59 AM

Don, maybe your looking for some lame advice like these?

Posted by: buermann at September 13, 2007 01:23 PM


Lame advice is the ambrosia of liberals.

No, but short of a severe disaster, blood in the streets or economic breakdown, the boys and girls on K Street and Wall Street and in the corporate corridors and country clubs in Connecticut and California and in the $3.9M condos on the Upper East Side have nothing to worry about. We can talk and write and march and talk and write and march and...

Posted by: donescobar at September 13, 2007 01:59 PM
Wait for the disaster and the new New Deal band aids.

This is a really bad idea. The first New Deal didn't happen just because of the depression -- it happened because of decades and decades of effort before the depression. The depression was necessary for the changes to occur, but by no means sufficient. And without the previous decades of effort, we could have ended up with changes in a very negative direction, as other countries experienced at the time.

So it may be that nothing will change much until the next disaster, but by doing nothing now we're almost guaranteeing that the disaster's consequences will be unpleasant rather than nice.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at September 13, 2007 02:13 PM

One problem with this model -- it assumes that most people read the newspaper for the news or commentary. It may be true for a handful of newspapers -- NYT, WaPost, etc. -- and it may be true that the readers of this blog are intently studying the national/world news and the columnists.

But most of the time, people get the newspaper more for the local forecast, funeral notices and last night's scores than for what George Will said today. There's a reason USA Today runs the weather on a huge color back page, why there are more ads in the sports section than the commentary section, and why entertainment gets its own section while opinion gets two pages.

Posted by: Whistler Blue at September 13, 2007 02:15 PM

As somebody who worked in the publishing biz for a while, I wanted to chip in a bit here.

1) The vast majority of print publications--newspapers and magazines--are sold for less than it costs to print, ship, and distribute them. If you're going to make a profit, it's going to come from advertisers. This makes their voice more powerful than readers'.

2) It's always easier to justify displeasure on the part of readers than advertisers. If you have 10,000,000 daily readers (5,000,000 that actually pay for it, and a rate-base of 8,500,000) and 2,000 advertisers, it's easier and cheaper to replace 100, 1,000, or even 10,000 readers than x dollars of ad contracts. And their logic is correct. How many of us still deliver our eyeballs to--or even pay for--the NYT, after Judith Miller? Sure it made us mad, but we still read.

3) Advertiser displeasure is felt immediately and goes straight to the bottom line: "Mr. DeBeers is on line four and he's hopping mad about the article on diamond-mining." Reader displeasure is felt mostly in retrospect: "Dear Sirs, I was deeply dismayed to read your irresponsible and one-sided blah-blah-blah..." "Well, we've gotten twenty of these. Maybe we should consider running an Ombudsman feature." "Ahh, don't worry about it--they'll find something else to complain about tomorrow."

4) What each advertiser provides is significant and concrete--x dollars of business--while what each reader provides is variable, miniscule, and difficult to quantify. I would imagine that a publication gets its circ audited no more than twice a year, and smaller publications even less frequently. If you run something that an advertiser doesn't like, you lose money today, and you know exactly how much you lose. If you run something a reader doesn't like, perhaps they write a letter; and perhaps they stop reading. But unless they also convince 100 of their friends to stop reading, the impact is vanishingly small. And even when it's not infinitesimal (rare), and can be tied definitively to x or y article (difficult), there is the assumption with a mass-market product that 100 readers paying 75 cents can be replaced a lot more cheaply and easily than an advertiser that pulls $100,000 worth of ads. Losing readers only costs you money if its significant enough to drop below your rate-base (which is usually lower than your readership, to give advertisers a good deal). A single article cannot lose you 1% of your circ, but it can cost you 1% of your advertising. If you're going to err, you err on the side of pissing off readers, not advertisers.

The proliferation of purely advertiser-supported venues since 1950 has made print much more susceptible to advertiser pressure. The lag time between cause and effect makes advertiser pressure much more immediate, targeted, and painful than reader discomfort. And the short-term nature of capitalism (and any publicly traded business) only increases these effects.

To be blunt--and with all due respect to anybody who disagrees--to believe that readers exert anywhere near the pressure that advertisers do, shows merely that the speaker has never been the editor or publisher of anything. But people WANT to believe this, because they're used to getting the Sunday NYT for cheap.

If you want a publication to be independent, you must be willing to pay the freight. Publications are not magically exempted from the rules of capitalism just because we wish they were.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at September 13, 2007 02:36 PM
But most of the time, people get the newspaper more for the local forecast, funeral notices and last night's scores than for what George Will said today.

Yes, that's exactly right, but in fact it means the advertisers will have even more sway than readers.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at September 13, 2007 02:39 PM


Yes, but what?
As to your last phrase: "...unpleasant rather than nice," you do know:
"Nett sein ist noch kein Programm."


Posted by: donescobar at September 13, 2007 02:41 PM

In fairness, readers probably account for a good bit of classified ad income. But saurabh has a good point there, as does Mike of Angle.

Posted by: hf at September 13, 2007 03:20 PM

As to your last phrase: "...unpleasant rather than nice," you do know:
"Nett sein ist noch kein Programm."

OK Don. You are officially more disgusted by the state of the world than we are. You win. You can stop now.

Posted by: atheist at September 14, 2007 06:14 AM