ADVERTISEMENT

This 1973 file photo shows New York Times publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger in his office in New York. Sulzberger has died at age 86.

Anthony Camerano, Associated Press

Media establishment presses on

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Star Tribune
  • October 5, 2012 - 8:40 PM

Two events over two recent days -- a new Pew news-consumption study, and the death of longtime New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger -- showed just how much the media environment has changed, and yet just how much the media establishment remains intact.

The study's title, "In Changing News Landscape, Even Television is Vulnerable," presupposes that previous bleak analyses of the wrenching changes challenging print and radio news are, well, old news. But the study's spirals and spikes are sure to spook mainstream media anew.

Over 21 years -- from 1991-2012 -- far fewer viewers, listeners and readers reached for the remote, the radio or the paper to get their news. Respondents were asked, "Where did you get news yesterday?" TV faded from 68 to 55 percent; radio dialed down from 54 to 33 percent, and newspapers fell from 56 to 29 percent (23 percent on a printed page, as opposed to online).

Conversely, the Internet's reach increased, from 24 percent in 2004 (1991 was B.C. -- before computers) to today's 39 percent. And in just two years, twice as many people turned to other people (or at least Facebook friends) for news: Social media soared from 9 percent in 2010 to 19 percent in 2012.

All of these trends varied with age. Despite, or perhaps because of, being wired, 18- to 29-year-olds spent less time overall with news -- an average of 45 minutes a day -- compared with people their parents' age (71 minutes for those 40 to 49 years old) and grandparents' age (83 minutes for those over 65). And it's not just the disappearing ink and iPods plaguing papers and radio: Even compared with 2006, far fewer Americans aged 18 to 29 "regularly watch" local TV news (from 42 percent to 28 percent) and even cable news (from 29 percent to 23 percent).

An even deeper divide -- an ideological one -- accompanies (or is accomplice to) the technological transformations. America's fragmented media mirrors its politics, and news consumers are choosing sides. In just one of many stark statistics, 73 percent of conservative Republicans and 70 percent of liberal Democrats say "there are a few news sources they trust more than others." Independents, by contrast, are more likely to believe "the news media are pretty much the same."

Sulzberger, the Times' publisher from 1963 to 1992, died on Sept. 29 at 86. His passing led many to recall a past era when an elite, eastern media establishment set the nation's news narrative -- especially 1971's Pentagon Papers showdown, in which Sulzberger bravely defied the Nixon administration and published the Pentagon's secret history of the war-turned-quagmire in Vietnam.

Back then, just as the "Big Three" dominated Detroit, the "Big Three" broadcasters dominated TV. The Wall Street Journal was the only true national newspaper. And today's infinite Internet universe was the stuff of science fiction.

Today, almost every industry, buffeted by transformative technologies, is inverted. Imports imploded Detroit's business model. IBM went from "Big Blue" to having the blues (now Apple is the bluest chip). Even TV's "Big Three" is now up against the little 300 channels chopping up cable viewing.

And yet, today, just as in 1971, the New York Times, along with the Wall Street Journal and a select few other news outlets, often still sets the nation's news agenda. The establishment presses on.

"I read the futurists who say print is already dead and irrelevant, and that brands are irrelevant," said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst and leader of news transformation at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank based in St. Petersburg, Fla. "The Pew study indicates brands are still relevant. By virtue of reputation built, cultivated and maintained over time, they [the establishment press] still retain that traditional place."

This doesn't mean there isn't diffusion of media influence and usage. But the transformation has been more about delivering news, not gathering and analyzing it.

"Even in this online environment, where we have all these blogs and all these various news sources, you still see the dominance in all these sources in much the same way as we would have in years past," said Dr. Natalie Stroud, author of "Niche News: The Politics of News Choice" and an assistant professor at the University of Texas. "So I think it is fair to say that we still have an establishment and there still are these sources that make up a typical American's concept of what the 'media' are. ... I don't mean to say the contemporary media environment is somehow identical to the past. There are new entrants alongside, but not part of the media establishment in the public's impression."

Just like the public, some of these "new entrants" seem to tacitly acknowledge the media establishment's durability.

On many cable and talk radio shows, conservatives contended that the media establishment was rigging the polls in favor of President Obama (well, at least until the same outlets' polls showed Mitt Romney as the decisive debate winner on Wednesday).

On the opposite end of the ideological spectrum, even WikiLeaks' Julian Assange -- the ultimate antiestablishment media figure -- chose the establishment Times (as well as London's Guardian) to publish a trove of explosive diplomatic cables and Pentagon documents.

And the august Times -- long nicknamed "the Gray Lady" -- had the third-youngest audience profile of the media outlets and programs Pew studied. Perhaps this is because, when people post or tweet stories, there actually has to be some journalism to go to.

And just maybe, some young people (and even some persistent critics) are acknowledging that even in -- indeed, especially in -- today's limitless landscape, Sulzberger's words about his paper, and to some degree, the establishment media, still ring true.

"You're not buying news when you buy the New York Times," he said. "You're buying judgment."

--------------------

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer.

© 2014 Star Tribune