Get a clue, Michael

The fate of newspapers is cause for concern, not gloating

Tim McGarry is a writer from Los Angeles.

Find video on Michael Moore’s assertion that capitalism killed the newspaper industry here.

Is Michael Moore the Ann Coulter of the left, a grenade-happy polemicist more concerned with getting a reaction than getting at the truth?

For me, the director of Capitalism: A Love Story burnished his crank credentials to a new and gaudier level in remarks on the decline of newspapers delivered on September 14 to press and film critics at the Toronto International Film Festival.

As cameras flashed and clicked, Moore led off with the claim that American newspapers sold their souls when they became more dependent on revenue from advertising than on revenue from circulation.

“Anytime you say that the people who read your newspaper are secondary to the business community,” he intoned, “you’ve lost and you’re not going to survive.”

Moore then began to bounce like a skipper in a pond. Newspapers are dying because we have too many illiterates. Illiteracy comes from assigning too low a priority to education. This low priority is the fault of Republicans. Yet in 14 out of 17 elections since 1940, the majority of newspaper publishers have endorsed Republican candidates.

“It would be like General Motors funding candidates who promised to get rid of driver education,” said Moore to rising laughter. Then he delivered the dismissive conclusion: Newspapers have effectively slit their own throats, so “Good riddance!”

What is wrong with this picture?

Talk of readers becoming secondary to advertisers ignores the basic dynamic of publishing. Circulation is what draws advertisers. Historically, it was by giving readers what they wanted that newspapers created the audience that advertisers craved.

Do changes in literacy rates track with changes in newspaper circulation rates? If Moore knows, he’s not telling. Is education in America resource-starved? Perhaps, but in a nation that spends more per student on primary-through-college education than every other, it takes more than assertions to make that case. I agree with Moore that Democrats are better at education policy, but so what?

The biggest problem with Moore’s arguments is that they are simply beside the point. What’s really hurting newspapers is the fact that they are losing their audience to the Internet. Readers no longer need a newspaper dropped on the doorstep every morning to get the news—they simply Google stories up.

No wonder, then, that newspaper advertising fell 13 percent last year, to $54 billion. At the same time, according to a separate survey, Internet ad revenues grew nearly 11 percent, to $23 billion. Expect these trends to continue.

To me, however, Moore saved his worst for last—the dismissive “good riddance” at the end. American newspapers are hardly beyond criticism, but it was advertising-supported print journalism that exposed the folly of Vietnam, the high crimes of Watergate and the deceptions and disasters in Iraq. From a liberal point of view, the demise of print and what comes next is a cause for concern, not gloating.

Lob your grenades elsewhere, Michael.