What Drives the Political Slant of Daily Newspapers?

Title stolen directly from this article:

http://www.nber.org/digest/jul07/w12707.html

  1. There is media bias - in that it is impossible to be truly neutral. There is language used (per the article), there is also the facts left out (another discussion point in regards to media bias).

  2. The bias is NOT some grand consipiracy by those of a particular ilk - rather it is an attempt to sell as many newspapers as possible. If you are the New York Times, with an overhwhelmingly Liberal populace - you tend to the Left. If you are the Wall Street Journal targeting the Captains of Industry - you tend to the Right.

This would argue that Talk Radio is Right Wing because the audience for Talk Radio is Right Wing. Any attempt at using the “Fairness Doctrine” would serve no other purpose than to distort the marketplace.

Discuss / Debate / Ignore…

My guess would be that sensationalist news sells best, and the reporter who writes, “Megacorp fires thousands of workers!” is going to sell more copies than he reporter who writes, “Megacorp scales down workforce prior to seeking new markets.”

But then, of course, there is still a market for the latter so while most papers will collect reporters of the former type, a few will prefer the latter.

Well, the article doesn’t provide much info about which newspapers it studied, how the findings were weighted for circulation volumes etc, but the first counter-example that comes to mind is Murdoch - although it could be argued that he acquires newspapers based on their political slant rather than imposing his own. Newspapers I’m familiar with have a fairly strict separation between editorial, advertising and circulation, so to be fully convinced by the idea that the readers determine a paper’s editorial position, we’d need to see a concrete explanation of the feedback mechanism readers use to exercise influence over editorial policy. OTOH, the mechanism by which ownership can influence editorial policy seems fairly obvious.

Taking the readership influence tack, it could be argued that NYT for example, has flourished because its editorial policy matches NY readers, where other city papers through history have failed, but this assumes that readership even selects on the basis of ‘political orientation’, and that this orientation (both editorial and reader) is constant and consistent over a long enough time span for ‘survival of the fittest’ to take place. A newspaper’s success over time may ultimately have as much to do with financial management, advertising sales relationships, marketing/distribution/advertising strategies, logistics know-how, relationships with unions and regulatory bodies etc, as with adaptation to readership’s political slant.

Apart from the dubious cause/effect statement, it’s worth pointing out that newspaper ownership is in flux, so this may be a reflection of the time it takes to implement a new editorial policy. OTOH, that 20% figure almost seems to argue that no obvious factor explains a newspaper’s political slant - maybe it’s an unpredictable product of a long and chaotic series of hiring and editorial decisions, and who knows, maybe even some good sense !

Living as I do in Toledo, Ohio, I can tell you that the tone of the local daily, The (Toledo) Blade, is set by the owner, Mr. Block, also the owner of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. It’s difficult to peg Mr. Block as liberal or conservative, but he does have strongly held views and they get screamed out on the opinion page and in the general tone of the papers’ stories.

In the best papers, the editors’ politics are on the editorial pages, and the reporting is accurate and neutral. Up until now, the Wall Street Journal was one of those. The editors are very conservative, but you could depend on the actual news to have truth and integrity. I don’t expect it to continue that way. In the Murdoch style, the entire paper bends to the right.

As a current or former employee of one weekly and six daily newspapers, I feel I could contribute some insight here.
Answering the specific points made:

    • Yes, there is. So what? I’m always puzzled by people who loudly claim bias, as if newspapers, like any other entity, didn’t have a perfect right to be as biased and unfair as they wish. What do people think the First Amendment is for, anyway? It was intended to protect bias, not mandate fairness. In fact, preventing the government from mandating anything, even fairness, is what it’s all about.
    • True, as far as it goes. The NY Times since the days of its founding was intended for and marketed to the city’s cultural elite. Its articles are written about issues that affect New York’s upper-middle class, so much so that if you live west of New jersey you might find large swathes of the paper to be rather useless. But if you live in Manhattan, reading the paper makes you feel “in the know,” and that is part of good marketing.
      But it’s not as simple as saying “Times readers are liberals, Journal readers conservative.” Publications are created for specific audiences, but they are also (at least they were until relatively recently) created as individual businesses that reflected the idiosyncracies and quirks of their owners and employees, much more so than any other type of business. So, it’s not the whole truth to say papers are the way they are just to accumulate a lot of readers, because to hew to one side of the idealogical debate is to cut out all the readers who hew to the other side. The Wall Street Journal is also published in “liberal” New York, after all. A paper that really cared for nothing more than gaining readership would not reflect any particular ideological stance, it would have no regional flavor, it would have no particular point of view, it would provide no one with a reason to avoid reading it. Such a paper already exists, and is massively successful: USA Today.
  1. The “Fairness Doctrine” has been irrelevant as a matter of law since the 1980s, and with the popularization of the Internet, it is now culturally irrelevent as well.