Newspapers in mid-sized cities across America are hurting, and TV stations are headed that way, too. That’s not news anymore.

But the unstoppable vicious cycle destroying the mainstream media business model should not be construed as a threat to democracy — no matter what journalists tell you. Their brand of “unbiased” news will die right alongside them, and that’s OK.

The metropolitan newspapers that dominate the media landscape in most markets are a relic of an unusual economic era. Their heydey — from the 1950s until roughly 2006 — was a period of U.S. history that’s never been seen before, and never will be seen again.

The “unbiased news” ethos they developed should be understood as a business decision made for that era that no longer makes sense, not as a prerequisite of journalistic ethics.

We’re headed to a new era of journalism that looks a lot more similar to how news has been consumed in America for the majority of its history. The political news outlets of the near future will command smaller audiences and be honest about their point of view. Unless you’re a grumpy, insecure newspaper journalist, this is not a bad thing.

There’s never been such thing as “unbiased” news.

Don’t bemoan the decline of unbiased news. This has always been a myth.

Unless you’re looking at a transcript, it is absolutely impossible for a news article to be unbiased. Articles are still written by humans, and these humans have their own preferences, beliefs, ideals and blind spots. Even if they tried, they could not completely erase these from their writing.

This inherent bias affects what information is included in a news piece, what’s left out, what questions are asked and what stories are pursued. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s part of being a human being.

Despite this reality, newspapers still developed a journalistic ethic that stressed being unbiased. Why? Having this plausible deniability was key to the newspaper business model.

The post-war American economy was one of mass media and mass consumption. The massive cost of buying a printing press or building a TV station made competition difficult, and fewer and fewer cities could support more than one publication. At the same time, department stores were seeking the mass consumer, and there was no way to reach them other than the metro newspaper.

To reach the widest possible audience and sell the most ads, newspapers needed to avoid alienating any segment of the population. They became, in essence, the department stores of media — inoffensive and with broad appeal. They needed to be able to assuage readers and ad customers that they were for everybody. And readers had few other options to stay connected to their community.

Despite this, readers have always been smart enough to detect a news outlet’s bias. With all due respect, even Walter Cronkite wasn’t the universally beloved figure he’s often made out to be today (and he certainly wasn’t unbiased).

But in today’s world, this whole model has been upended. Bland prose simply doesn’t stand out on the internet, and journalists have gotten less careful about appearing unbiased. The 24/7 nature of the news cycle and social media has let reporters’ true biases slip at a greater rate.

And readers can now vote with their clicks, seeking out information filtered through the lens of their choosing. There’s less tolerance for the charade of being unbiased.

Readers know the reporters are biased. Everyone is, and that’s OK. Mainstream journalists are just trying to hide it.

Now to be fair: Journalists, by and large, are not partisan hacks. They are trying to tell the truth the best they see fit. They are mostly biased toward conflict, sensationalism and recency, though they are predominantly liberal in their politics.

The First Amendment was not intended to protect metropolitan newspapers.

This isn’t a tragedy. The same people who argue that the Second Amendment was written in the time of muskets instead of semi-automatic rifles fail to also consider the historical context of the amendment that precedes it.

You may have heard the infamous Thomas Jefferson quote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

But the newspapers that Thomas Jefferson cited were not the milquetoast metro newspapers of the 21st century. They were decidedly partisan, full of spunk, and competed in cities with many different options (of course, Jefferson also hated much of the press coverage he got and ranted constantly about the media).

From the dawn of the United States until the early 20th century, political parties dominated American newspapers. In this “party press” era, every political body would have its own organ that printed and disseminated news. People would choose which newspaper to take based on their political affiliation and preferences.

The legends of newspaper history mostly fell into this category. Horace Greely’s New York Tribune was a Whig party newspaper. Joseph Pulitzer was even a Democratic congressman from New York.

Josephus Daniels unabashedly made The News & Observer in Raleigh a Democratic Party newspaper and served as Secretary of War in the Wilson administration.

Frank Knox, publisher of the Chicago Daily News, was the vice presidential candidate in 1936.

This isn’t to say this era of newspapering was ideal. These newspapers had their issues, with support for white supremacy chief among them. But the First Amendment was designed to protect this type of publication — partisan, opinionated, and yes, biased.

United States Capitol. Photo by Doug Kerr via Flickr (Creative Commons).

The news won’t go away. It will just look different.

Expect the media environment to return to that arrangement as metro newspapers die out.

Political news has a built-in funding source and highly engaged readers. Campaigns and parties spend hundreds of millions each year on palm cards, mailers and TV ads. News sites are the next frontier.

You will likely see news outlets that appeal to particular political parties, headed by talented journalists who play an outsize role in their party.

A different but related principle will be at work in other categories of news. The billions of dollars that have poured into public relations teams that pitch “mainstream” news outlets and answer questions will continue to evolve into journalistic outlets in their own right. Why try to get a newspaper reporter to write about you when you can write about yourself?

This will apply to philanthropic endeavors as well. Nonprofits will hire reporters to advance their causes. And civic-minded volunteers will fill in the gaps.

  • A homelessness-oriented nonprofit might hire someone with reportorial skills to shine the light on living conditions on a city’s streets.
  • PETA could fund journalism on animal issues across the country.
  • The local symphony might credential bloggers to review their performances.

Complaining about “fragmented media” is misguided.

Most of the time, people who bemoan the decline of the news oligopoly are just mad that not everybody shares their views.

The New York Times will be fine. But the future of state and local journalism lies with publications that are upfront about their biases and point of view. Partisan dollars will subsidize them, instead of corporate interests.

And that’s OK.

Cover image of a newspaper press by Marion Doss via Flickr (Creative Commons).


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