The newspaper is dying, hooray for democracy revisited -

The newspaper is dying, hooray for democracy revisited


There’s lots of blog chatter today about David Brooks’ latest column, reporting on a new study that debunks the myth of group polarization on the net. It’s a good column, reporting good news, namely, that Cass Sunstein’s fears that the death of newspapers and other mainstream media would have a negative impact on democracy have been greatly oversold. Forgive me, though, for not being as surprised as some people about this, since, well, since I told you so. Here’s what I wrote for Maclean’s in April 2008:

Nothing about how people consume media online suggests they are looking for confirmation of pre-existing biases. In fact, we have every reason to believe that as people migrate online, it will be to seek out sources of information that they perceive to be unbiased, and which give them news they can’t get anywhere else. The newspaper may be dying, but our democracy will be healthier for it.

Here’s Brooks today:

Gentzkow and Shapiro found that the Internet is actually more ideologically integrated than old-fashioned forms of face-to-face association — like meeting people at work, at church or through community groups. You’re more likely to overlap with political opponents online than in your own neighborhood.

This study suggests that Internet users are a bunch of ideological Jack Kerouacs. They’re not burrowing down into comforting nests. They’re cruising far and wide looking for adventure, information, combat and arousal.

Here’s the full column on this I wrote for the magazine:

The newspaper is dying — hooray for democracy: The same critics who decried mass-media bias blame the Web for killing newspapers
Mon Apr 7 2008
Page: 17

The Newspaper Audience Databank (NADbank) released its readership numbers for 2007 a couple of weeks ago, and for those of us in the industry it was grim reading: almost everywhere you look, circulation, ad revenues and page counts are down, which is why you can now fire a cannon through any given newsroom at midday and not have to worry about committing reportercide.

But unless you work in the business, is there any reason to be especially concerned? Each year may put another loop in the newspaper’s death spiral, but the overall consumption of news is on the rise, almost entirely thanks to the myriad online sources. The Internet is eating the newspaper’s lunch, but there’s plenty of food on the buffet table.

In certain quarters, though, there is growing concern that the demise of the newspaper is a threat to democracy itself. The argument goes something like this: the economic logic of mass circulation meant a newspaper had to try to appeal to as many potential readers as possible. To do so, it brought together in one package a diverse set of voices, presenting each reader with ideas and perspectives that he or she might not otherwise have seen or sought out. This fostered the democratic values of curiosity, enlightenment and toleration, and the worry is that if the newspaper declines, so might democracy.

The sharpest version of this argument comes from Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago. In a recent column in the Financial Times, Sunstein fusses about the rise of what he calls the Daily Me, the highly personalized and customized information feeds that will allow you to “include topics that interest you and screen out those that bore or anger you.” As Sunstein sees it, the Daily Me is the potential Achilles heel of democracy because of a phenomenon called group polarization: when like-minded people find themselves speaking only with one another, they get into a cycle of ideological reinforcement where they end up endorsing positions far more extreme than the ones they started with.

Group polarization is everywhere. It helps explain why, for example, humanities departments are so left-wing, why fraternities are so sexist, why journalists drink so much. But, for the most part, it isn’t a problem (for democracy anyway), since we routinely come into contact with so many people from so many different groups that the tendency toward polarization in one is at least somewhat tempered by our encounters with others.

Yet Sunstein is worried that group polarization on the Internet will prove far more pernicious. Why? Because of the image of the blogosphere as a series of echo chambers, where every viewpoint is repeated and amplified to a hysterical pitch. As our politics moves online, he thinks we’ll end up with a public sphere that is partisan and extreme, and as an example, he points out that 80 per cent of readers of the left-wing blog Daily Kos are Democrats, while fewer than one per cent are Republicans. The result, he claims, “will be serious obstacles not merely to civility but also to mutual understanding.”

As upside-down arguments go, this one is ingenious. For decades, progressive critics have complained about the anti-democratic influence of the mass media, and that newspapers present a selective and highly biased picture of the world, promoting pseudo-arguments that give the illusion of debate while preserving the status quo. (Remember that the villain in Manufacturing Consent, the film about Noam Chomsky, was — wait for it — the New York Times.) And now that the Internet is poised to cast these lumbering dinosaurs of black ink and dead trees into the pit of extinction, we’re supposed to say hang on, what about democracy?

There’s a basic error here, paired with an equally basic misunderstanding of how the marketplace of ideas works. There is no reason at all to be concerned that 80 per cent of Daily Kos readers are Democrats, any more than to worry that 80 per cent of the visitors to McDonald’s like hamburgers. Given what each of these outlets is selling, it would be bizarre if it were otherwise. What would be worrisome was if four-fifths of Democrats read only the Daily Kos, but there is absolutely no evidence that is the case.

Earlier this month, the Project for Excellence in Journalism, a think tank sponsored by the Pew foundation, released its fifth annual report (at on the state of the news media. For the most part, its analysis of the newspaper business confirmed the trends of declining circulation, revenues and staff. But with respect to public attitudes, the PEJ found that most readers see their newspaper as increasingly biased, and 68 per cent say they prefer to get their news from sources that don’t have a point of view. The PEJ also found a substantial disconnect between the issues and events that dominate the news hole (e.g. the Iraq surge, the massacre at Virginia Tech) and what the public wants to see covered — issues such as education, transportation, religion and health. What this suggests, is, aside from some failings of newspapers, that readers go online in search of less bias, not the self-absorption of the Daily Me.

Nothing about how people consume media online suggests they are looking for confirmation of pre-existing biases. In fact, we have every reason to believe that as people migrate online, it will be to seek out sources of information that they perceive to be unbiased, and which give them news they can’t get anywhere else. The newspaper may be dying, but our democracy will be healthier for it.

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The newspaper is dying, hooray for democracy revisited

  1. "There's lots of blog chatter today…"

    Really? Where? I don't read blogs that bother with David Brooks, so I'm horribly out of the loop.

    • MacLean's Regular would be counter-example: someone who does not seek out articulate opposing points of view on the web.

      • Actually, he happens to be one of the most prolific blog frequenters in the entire country. You might know him better by his alter ego (starts with a 't')

        • Hon', if you're gonna stalk me, at least thumb me up. :)

          …whole whack of zeros, and I'm busting a gut here.


      • Just to add:

        "the counter-example: someone who does not seek out articulate opposing points of view on the web."

        Why do you think I come here? If I want elite opinion or authoritative, credible, research-based documentation on any given topic, I know where to find it. But democracy really is about what *most people* believe, especially with respect to issues of common and substantive import and this is one of the few places where I can stand to expose myself to what Canadian right wingers believe and most interestingly, how they interpret all the documented information they have at their fingertips in this, the Glorious Age of Information. It does matter to me and it's certainly not something I'm exposed to in the normal course of my day.

        It's interesting to read what the commenters under Bobo Brooks's columns have to say, by the way. I suspect he never reads them, though.

        • "… this is one of the few places where I can stand to expose myself to what Canadian right wingers believe …"

          Dude? There are hardly any "right wingers" around here. If you think you're exposing yourself to Canadian right-wingitude (?) at Macleans then all I can say is that your perspective is seriously distorted.

          • "There aren't even that many centrists – it's a pretty solidly left-leaning body of commenters on social issues and a slightly centre-left group on fiscal issues."

            That's the just the impression one gets when individuals are more reality based. I guess I should have worked in the word "rational" somewhere in my last comment.

            Anyway, MacLean's isn't where I started, lo those many years go, when I discovered, much to my horror, that a significant proportion of the population knew that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

          • In other words, Tiggy's idea of "centre-right" is Gaunilon's idea of "centre-left". Tiggy occasionally chastises some of the more prominent Liberals who post here for their learned helplessness, while Gaunilon would view the same individuals as dyed-in-the-wool leftists.

          • In any case, I've gotten a bit off-topic. My lack of enthusiasm for Potter's post stems from the fact that I don't feel the need to "celebrate" what we all mostly agree are objectively positive things (or at worst, the least of all possible evils): market economies, the Internet, democracy, motherhood etc. That those things function and likely will for the foreseeable future (?) isn't something I'm particularly worried about.

            What I need, as an optimist at heart is to be aware of the weaknesses of these particular things, hopefully far enough in advance to take remedial action. 9/11 and the economic collapse of 2008 are just two events that came after periods of unbridled and irrational exuberance and that is one trend in public mood that we should be constantly battling. When I need to be amused or entertained, I don't look to news and current affairs for that.

            There is still plenty of information to suggest that democracy and journalism (not newspapers), at least the American flavours of them, are failing, quite spectacularly in fact, and it behooves us to be attentive.and not be lulled into any false sense of security.

          • I think Wells has a rule about that.

            Maybe it just seems like there are because they comment so often….

          • who? I quit reading his non articles when he behaved poorly and disrespected his readers. until the headline reads "I'm sorry I acted poorly" I'm not going to be reading anything he says. I use the word poorly as any other adjective I use gets my whole post removed by the moderators…

          • And yet, it is interesting to read responses coming either out of left or right field. Part of my interest in Macleans blog is to gauge the responses to certain blog topics. I then try and figure out what may have drivenn a particular response. I find it immensly interesting to switch over from personal encounters in the flesh (being able to read body language while discussions take place) to personal encounters in word only. This sort of contact calls out for new modes of evaluating human relationships.

            It is interesting to learn how the self reads into others in this new format of the Internet

      • I'm afraid that says something about Macleans.

        I'm too clever by half.

        I just think it's a little early for Potter to be congratulating himself so ebulliently.

  2. I think the bigger question is what happens to fact-checking if newspapers die off and we have nothing left but web yammer.

    I'm encouraged by things the iPad which can display a full magazine page or newspaper page, which will be the new medium for serious journalism. And if Steve Jobs has to become richer than God to get there, well so be it!

    • "I think the bigger question is what happens to fact-checking if newspapers die off and we have nothing left but web yammer. "

      HA HA HA! I almost peed myself with that one! Fact checking………yeah right!
      These "jounalists" can't be unemployed soon enough………just leave us the sport pages!

    • Newspapers? Fact-checking? What?

  3. Well our local newspaper is certainly not dying. It's dong very well. I read new on the net and in the paper because the paper is the best source for local news, and besides, we might lose our local TV station.

    I do wonder who fact checks things on wetsites (excluding the netsites of reputable publications).

    Plus, I like to read things in print – it's easier. Heck,, I even read magzines with real articles – there are a few still extant.

    Newspapers are not dead yet, and I'm glad

  4. And yet Tiggy doesn't read blogs that would feature David Brooks? That means he's prolifically frequenting one side of the blog spectrum.

  5. You're right Potter. But that won't stop the leftists who think everything must be regulated, the fairness doctrine and all that (another phrase meaning leftist mind control).
    The internet is a god-send for those seeking a wide range of views. It has certainly allowed me to broaden my perspectives. I'm pleased I don't have to resort to the Globe and Mail or any other single newspaper every day.

    • Very true. Intellectually it's the Wild West – and that is a very pleasant change from the tightly-controlled narrative put forward by the MSM throughout the latter half of the 20th century.

    • "another phrase meaning leftist mind control"

      You truly are certifiable.

  6. Somewhere near the end, Brooks touches on a important point, "It could be people spend a lot of time at their home sites and then go off on forays looking for things to hate." Very true and it is often a direct result of links at the home sites. There is nothing bloggers like better than to link to an article they hate for the sole purpose of ripping apart the column. Readers may disagree with the opposing message but at least they had the opportunity to view it.

  7. Dan Gardner also tried to claim that he "scooped" this on his blog. It's the nature of the internet that people will seek out more information and educate themselves as best they can.

  8. I'm prepared to listen to another view, but it better not waste my time.

  9. Thank you, Andrew Potter, for posting both pieces, his and yours. I think the topic you choose for blog posting is an interesting one since the subject under discussion effects all of us and democracy.

    Now, could you expand on the article by trying to explain why "journalists drink so much"?

    I would be very interested in reading more about that "kind of stuff"…..:)


    • Actually, I'm not kidding

  10. I am not convinced that cross-ideological debate necessarily reduces partisanship. People may get their information from one place and their "arousal" elsewhere. Moreover, nobody ever backs down from the positions they stake out in online debates. Rather, if they want to continue the argument, they may seek out additional evidence that confirms their position – something that heightens their commitment.

    The problem is not, and never has been the presence of a dearth of information. The problem is TOO MUCH INFORMATION (and too little fact-checking). There is so much out there that anybody can find reasonable arguments or some data to support a position they already hold.

    The other big issue involves how news aggregators filter the news. For instance it is worth asking whether the Jaffer-Guergis story have been as big as it is without "friendly fire" from Bourque (something that is not the ordinary state of affairs).

    • I hadn’t thought of this angle, but you are right. It is incredible how long and how big the Jaffer-Guergis story has become. And now Bourque has dragged Jim Prentice into it as he continues to drive a story that is monopolizing the political discourse. Friendly fire, indeed.