Politics and the PressSaturday, March 22, 2014
Planes don’t vanish every day
For The Herald
The world will hardly see a greater story this year than the mystery surrounding Flight 370 since it went missing two weeks ago. Unfortunately for the media of this planet, there is plenty of news but few are as mass appealing as that one.
On more normal circumstances, journalists have to deal with stories that interest smaller crowds. As defined last year by the mayor of Buenos Aires, politics and economics rather belong to a smaller “red circle” of informed citizens who are still willing to pay for a sheet of printed stories every day.
The more specialized they get, the news of the day alienate the big public, turning public agendas into a matter for pseudo-experts to follow. A plane vanishing into thin air has in journalistic terms two great advantages: it is easy to understand and it bridges the knowledge gap between the talking heads so dear to the news and the general public: i.e. nobody has a clue what is going on.
The legend, however, goes that journalists know better than the public and should enlighten the masses with information and opinion. But what if the masses no longer wish to be enlightened?
What is true for the press is also true for politics. Political marketing has for decades sought to design messages able capture the voters’ imagination. Do leaders tell their following what they want to hear or what they need to hear? Journalists and news organizations, of course, have to be popular because they need to make a profit to survive. But they can also be populist.
Three of Spain’s main newspapers saw a leadership change in the past few weeks. La Vanguardia from Barcelona let José Antich go in December after 13 years running the paper. In Madrid in January, Pedro J. Ramírez left the helm of the conservative El Mundo he founded a quarter of a century ago. And last month, Javier Moreno was replaced as editor-in-chief of El País, arguably the most influential newspaper in the Spanish-speaking world. Moreno had been in charge of the daily since 2006.
While the three cases are different in nature, the common ground between the three gentlemen is that they were doing highly politicized journalism in the context of a severe economic crisis hitting Spain since the global financial crash of 2008. The press in Spain and in many other European countries lost its objectivity etiquette long before the press here. Sophisticated political debate is a luxury only prosperous societies can indulge in. When the goings gets tougher, the public looks for some more basic information to feed decision-making. In 2006, El País was selling roughly 350,000 papers a day. Last year, it averaged around 180,000. The new leaders of these three publications will have to concentrate on attracting younger audiences who hardly touch paper and ink rather than pleasing the bigwigs in the political party of their liking — or maybe both.
The Argentine press has also been over-political over the last few years, since the start of a fight to the finish between the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the local media behemoth, Grupo Clarín. In the meantime, money to finance the show kept coming in. As it was reported this week, for instance, government advertising on the media went up 45 percent in the first half of 2013 compared to the previous year.
The government has been rightfully called to order by judges and opponents alike for its discretional use of these funds, which now top one billion pesos a year. The novelty of the figures released this week (reported in detail by the Herald’s Federico Poore http://www.buenosairesherald.com/article/154724/gov%E2%80%99t-advertising-increases-4524-percent) is that pro and anti-government outlets alike saw their share increase substantially, even if the starting point of the comparison noticeably benefits the backers. The old news is that circulation for the dozen-plus newspapers printed in Buenos Aires every morning is not flourishing.
The underlying question is how the press will be financed if the government money dwindles and/or the economy falters (and thus consumption and private advertising). In Spain, for instance, the government has fielded a proposal to introduce a so-called “Google tax” on the use of fragments of “information, opinion and entertainment” by search engines. A similar tax was passed in Germany last year. Newspaper publishers in Spain said the bill would be “the most important decision for the protection of the press in the country.”
And yet there is something the press could do in order to protect itself and that is to keep its audiences. The gap between the journalistic and the public agendas seems to continuously widen, as it is explained in The News Gap.
When the Information Preferences of the Media and the Public Diverge, a book by Argentines researches Pablo Boczkowski and Eugenia Mitchelstein published by the MIT last year and scheduled to be presented in Buenos Aires next week. “An analysis of more than 50,000 stories from 20 leading news sites in seven different countries shows two clear and consistent patterns of information preferences among the public: a lower level of interest in public affairs news in comparison to what the media consider newsworthy,” says Boczkowski. There will (fortunately) not be planes going missing every day to make up for that.