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Newspapers, blogs and partisanship

- February 25, 2009

Paul Starr writes a “New Republic piece”:http://www.tnr.com/story_print.html?id=a4e2aafc-cc92-4e79-90d1-db3946a6d119 on the poor prospects for the newspaper trade, and quotes real, live political science.

bq. In the early decades of television up to the 1970s, as Prior reminds us in his book _Post-Broadcast Democracy,_ the three networks virtually had a captive audience when they broadcast the evening news at the same time. Although many people coming home from work might have preferred entertainment, they watched the national news with Walter Cronkite or Chet Huntley and David Brinkley and they learned something about politics and world events. As cable and then satellite television developed, however, viewers were able to make choices that corresponded more closely to their preferences. According to Prior, a large group, perhaps three out of ten viewers, fled the news for entertainment programs, while a smaller number, perhaps one of every ten, began watching more news and political discussion now that they had access to Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC.

bq. The result, Prior’s data shows, has been an increased disparity in political knowledge between the news drop-outs and the news junkies. Moreover, the character of the public changed. The viewers who gave up news for entertainment tended to have little or no attachment to party, while the news junkies tended to be strong partisans–and so the audience for news has become more partisan than it used to be. Cable news programs with a sharp ideological slant have responded to this shift, and perhaps contributed to it.

and then speculates:

bq. The decline of newspapers and the growth of the Internet as a source of news may have a similar impact. On the one hand, there is likely to be less incidental learning among those with low political interest. …On the other hand, just as more partisan viewers have more to watch on cable than on network television, so partisans have more to read and to discuss online than in the typical local newspaper. As a result, to the extent that the Internet replaces newspapers as a source of news, it may add to the tendencies that Prior has identified–greater disparities in knowledge between news dropouts and news junkies, as well as greater ideological polarization in both the news-attentive public and the news media.

As regular readers will know, John, Eric Lawrence and myself have written a paper “on just this topic”:https://themonkeycage.org/blogpaper.pdf. We don’t have much to say about disparities in knowledge (although I would lay phenomenally large amounts of money that any findings would support Starr’s contentions here), but we find _emphatic_ evidence of greater polarization among blog readers (the best proxy I can think of for Starr’s online political news junkies) than among non-readers or indeed among consumers of cable news shows.

We don’t write (although our findings are surely relevant) about the ways in which this might change the media landscape over time. The most obvious prediction would be that political news will increasingly be delivered in ways that partisans want it to be delivered. That suggests more horse-race politics, more ideologically tinged analysis of politics, and sharper distinctions between media catering to politics junkies (which will be all politics, all the time) and other media catering for apathetic moderates (little political reporting, except for a few weeks of the campaign period). While a specialized media catering to elites who _need_ dispassionate analysis of political events (the Wall Street Journal sans editorial pages and the _Financial Times_ ) will remain important, everyday consumers are likely to find themselves either absorbing political information through partisan sites (or perhaps at a pinch, fast-forward-horserace-all-the-time sites like _Politico_ ) or not at all.