Eating Their Seed Corn

From the New York Times comes word this week of big changes looming at one of the country’s oldest newsweeklies.  “Newsweek,” they say, “is planning a redesign and some shifts in content to fashion an opinionated take on events, aimed at a much smaller, and wealthier, readership.”

In truth it doesn’t come as a surprise.  In many ways it isn’t even news.  But it’s disappointing all the same to see one of the country’s mainstream media outlets consciously, and proudly, abandon the time-honored journalistic standard of objectivity.

Nobody’s going to run off and join the circus in consequence of this development because, as seen during last year’s election campaign, virtually all of the mainstream media have demonstrated an ability to abandon objectivity whenever it pleases them.

As mentioned here before, nowhere was this more lamentable than in the coverage of the presidential candidates’ take on economic issues.  When this point was made in an earlier blog, some people took it to be a partisan observation.  But it wasn’t, and isn’t.

Even if the media had done a credible, and objective, job of pressing both candidates on their plans for the economy, Obama would still have won.  Maybe even by a larger margin.  This, because no matter how little Obama may know about economics, John McCain knows even less.

But look how much better off we’d be if the press had challenged Obama to give more than lip service to these kinds of issues.  In addition to a better informed public, we might also have an economic stimulus plan that reflected more of the thinking of the president than of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid.

The political and societal ramifications aside, there is another downside to the media’s embrace of opinion over objectivity: It’s unlikely to work, online or off.

As evidence consider what one supposes is a model of future Newsweek reportage, a story by Jon Meacham and Evan Thomas.  Provocatively titled “We Are All Socialists Now,” the piece purports to document a profound shift in our collective view of the correct form of government.

What’s striking about the article, however, is that it is about 90 percent opinion, with little or nothing of substance to it.  There’s no there there; nothing that informs, analyzes, or even segues.  Just a kind of fluffy amalgam of the pedestrian and superficial, in which most of the intellectual energy seems to have gone into the title.

A good exercise in times such as these is to ask oneself how much you would  be willing to pay for a thing if you had to pay to receive it.  The question can be asked of all kinds of things.  Were it asked of this Newsweek article, the guess here is that few people would offer to pay anything.

A few months ago a Microsoft executive gave a speech to some online publishers in London in which he said that publishers’ decisions to give their online content away for free had been a disastrous mistake.  And now we have the first, but undoubtedly not the last, of the mainstream media to openly embrace opinion journalism as a model for the future.

The question not yet answered is what – after they have surrendered first their content and then their journalistic patrimony – the media will do if all this fails to halt the slide?