Chris Powell doesn’t get his own industry

A small-town newspaper editor is blaming the demise of "traditional journalism" on poor people

The fact that newspapers are suffering in the digital age is old news. Media watchers have been discussing how to salvage them for years, casting the internet as both the source of newsprint’s declining revenues and as its potential savior. But Chris Powell, the managing editor of the Manchester, CT-based Journal Inquirer, apparently hasn’t been paying attention to the changes in his own industry.

In a column published Saturday that made the rounds online on Tuesday, Powell spent more than 300 words blaming the internet for the decline of “traditional journalism,” ignoring at the same time the actual factors that dismantled the newspaper revenue model, like the decline of classified ads.

Then, he brings the reader to the true culprit: apathetic, rent-cheating, itinerant welfare mothers. Who are sluts. He writes:

[N]ewspapers cannot sell themselves to households headed by single women who have several children by different fathers, survive on welfare stipends, can hardly speak or read English, move every few months to cheat their landlords, barely know what town they’re living in, and couldn’t afford a newspaper subscription even if they could read.

This welfare queen rhetoric rightfully raised eyebrows — Poynter and Romenesko posted the most damning bits with minimal analysis, leaving commenters to eviscerate the piece. At Slate, Amanda Hess pointed out that Powell’s assertions about poor people aren’t even true. She swiftly refuted Powell’s insistence on rising illiteracy levels — they’ve been stable for the last 10 years — and dismissed the rest of his unsubstantiated claims as absurd.

“Here’s an alternate theory: Nobody wants to read Chris Powell’s newspaper because it is the worst,” wrote Hess.

Powell’s not wrong to say that kids raised by single parents face certain challenges, though the way he makes his claims reveals an offensive, elitist lack of compassion for the poor.

But the larger problem with his argument is how outdated and out of touch it is. Powell’s atavism is clearest in his insistent conflation of journalism with the print newspaper. He sees the internet (and television and radio for goodness sake) not as a medium or method of distribution, but as a competitor:

Certainly the Internet has given journalism a powerful competitor for public attention, just as radio and then television did. The Internet is a far more powerful competitor because, unlike radio and TV, it allows people to indulge their particular interests at any hour of the day to the exclusion of everything else, to live always in the narrowest of worlds rather than in a broad one.

In Powell’s world, apparently, “the internet” and “journalism” are entirely separate entities. Tell that to the likes of ProPublica, BuzzFeed, and Inside Climate News.

Like many print journalists, Powell has many of his eggs in an increasingly marginalized basket, and that’s fine, if not the best business model. The print newspaper was a great way of delivering news and continues to hold onto a enough of a fanbase — and revenue, in the form of print ads and subscriptions — to remain in existence. Newspapers also hold a nostalgic charm, and they employ a decent number of people. What makes Powell a dinosaur (besides his bizarrely hostile attitude toward the poor) is his inability to recognize that journalism happens, too, outside the hallowed halls of the newspaper. He takes the print nostalgia and the fetishization of the newspaper to its extreme, and in doing so exposes his own irrelevance.

How To Fix Journalism has been a favorite conversation for over a decade now. A range of voices remains critical to the debate, but there comes a time when it’s best to leave tired perspectives by the wayside. Powell is sure to keep talking, but he may go hoarse trying to make himself heard from within his increasingly isolated, print-only bomb shelter.

Powell did not respond to requests for comment.

Update, October 2, 12pm: Powell replied via email:

Thanks for your note. I’m glad to try to respond to questions but when I write a column I always hope that it is clear enough to speak for itself. If you find that it’s not, ask away and I’ll try to explain.

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Noah Hurowitz is a CJR intern