As I have had the privilege to experience, there still exists these 19th century things called "editorial boards," in which up to a dozen (though usually more like half that) wiseacres and a couple of dames sit around, listen to grandees, and between the lot of them write maybe 1,000 words a day of grave, unsigned, top-down wisdom about the State of the Union address (Hey! I wrote one of those!), or the latest fighting in Gaza. The opinion journalist Michael Kinsley, a man I once disdained but grew to have enormous respect for after learning what he tried to do with the L.A. Times opinion page, once wrote the world's most brutal (and ultimately self-defeating) memo on the insane economics of editorial boardsâ€¦I can't find a public copy of it right now, but you can see a few of his similar sentiments here.
Suffice it to say, as one who is familiar with the numbers, you could probably print at least three Reason magazines (complete with website, blog, the whole nine yards) for the cost of one elite-newspaper opinion section, with its 14 pages a week. Are the elites three times better? You tell me.A snapshot of the New York Times editorial board is here. Kinsley's memo is worth reading, for this familiar scene:
Think of those economicsâ€”and of the fact that not one single ballyhooed newspaper poll organization added as much value to this year's presidential race as a lone Internet baseball geek named Nate Silverâ€”the next time you see some politician push for government assistance to our endangered newspapers, or read some columnist confuse her own job security with the very health of the nation. Mark my words: This will not be the last time you hear about newspaper bailouts. Not if journalists have anything to say about it.
[Bailing Out One of the 20th Century's Best Business Models: What's black and white and red all over? Newspapers looking for a handout, that's what!,By Matt Welch, Reason Magazine, January 8, 2009]
AT A STARBUCKS in Claremont recently, I watched the ceremony performed every day throughout the world, but in its most extreme version on Sundays in Southern California. People lined up to exchange cash for a pile of newsprint so thick and heavy it has to be tied with a string. They then lugged it to a flat surface, sorted it out, and threw about 80% of it away. I asked one person if I could have her Opinion section. She was willing to give it up (depressing) but couldnâ€™t find it in the pile (even more depressing).The New York Times has sought various subsidies from the US Government, but their most recent plea for money was answered by Mexican mogul Carlos Slim, who gave them $250 million. We, by contrast, would be happy if our readers could send us a check the approximate size of the one they write to their local theater or art gallery.
Trees chopped down, logs trucked to paper factories, huge rolls of newsprint trucked from paper plants to printing plants, where more trucks await to distribute the printed product throughout a huge metropolitan area, so that people can throw away most of it without a glance. In the age of the Internet, with information (meaning data bits, but also meaning news) zapping into peopleâ€™s houses at many times the speed and an infinitesimal fraction of the cost, the process that gets a fat newspaper to my front door every day seems insaneâ€”and doomed.