Another example: banking stories in newspapers typically take the perspective of bank owners, even though few readers own banks or even bank stocks, while nearly everyone has a bank account. Subprime-mortgage stories focus more on whether companies that make loans and guarantee them will fail than on their customers. Many reporters do write about soured mortgages, but few reporters examine why 20 percent of subprime loans were made to people who qualified for cheaper prime mortgages, a story rich with opportunities to engage readers about price gouging, deceptive sales practices, and regulatory failings. Journalists rarely cover increases in bank fees, such as the stiff 3 percent charge that one of Warren Buffett’s banks, M&T, recently added to purchases made outside the United States, a fee that is on top of existing transaction and currency exchange fees. Likewise, changes in rules that give banking customers fewer rights—by reducing their time to complain about errors or making it harder to obtain copies of documents, or otherwise tilting the table—rarely attract coverage.
Perhaps no clearer example of narrow perspective that focuses on the smallest possible audience instead of the largest is found in the routine annual stories about how much money casinos win from slots and table games. Readers who gamble far outnumber those who own or even work in casinos. So why are these numbers reported as how much casinos won instead of how much money players lost?
One of the most powerful and enduring raps on mainstream media is that it identifies too much with the people and institutions it covers and too little with the readers who pay good money for subscriptions. Readers (and listeners and viewers) expect and deserve information that serves their interests, information that ever larger legions of publicity agents are paid to direct reporters away from, and toward what the business or government agency prefers.
Consider an example of this subtle bias toward sources, shown in a July report by Martin Foster in the International Herald Tribune about how four Japanese electronic giants—Sony, Matsushita, Hitachi, and Toshiba—are starting to work together instead of competing. Foster wrote: “As many as 10 major Japanese electronics companies have continued to vie for market share across a range of business lines. That results in duplication, waste, and excessive fragmentation of the market, ultimately hurting customers, analysts say.”
Analysts no doubt say that, but what they are describing is profoundly at odds with the theory of market capitalism and the idea of competitive markets. Businesses always hope to avoid the rigors of the market by artificially eliminating competition so they can raise prices, as Adam Smith warned when he broke the news about the benefits of competitive markets in 1776, news that evidently did not reach Foster or his editors.
Journalists need to understand both the economic damage the Internet does and the new benefits it confers. The Web is the kind of technology that changes everything. The economist Joseph Schumpeter called this process “creative destruction,” to explain both its harm and its benefits.
The Internet damage is on the business side, where it is steadily destroying the economic model that for two centuries sustained newspapers, created many vast fortunes, and financed generations of journalists. Much thinking needs to be done about this, of course. At the same time, it is important to understand that the Internet is not destroying the audience for newspapers. In fact, the Internet is growing the audience for news. It is also changing audience expectations, as bloggers and others, not bound by newsroom traditions, explore new ways to report facts and imbue them with meaning. The old pyramid style of news reports that facilitated logical last minute trims in the days of cold type, as well as the more recent story style, which often sacrifices substance and details to narrative, do not appear to translate all that well to the digital environment.