Love, hate, and the daily
On hating the Yankees, the economics of a good natural monopoly, and the worrisome state of indifference towards institutions that used to matter a great deal
Institutions can withstand a lot of hate: no amount of contempt from the rest of the baseball-loving world has yet brought down the New York Yankees. But institutions really cannot survive if the predominant feeling about them is mere indifference.
■ People have to care about institutions for them to survive, and one of the worrisome developments that should have Americans alarmed about the condition of our civic health is the long drift towards deep indifference about institutions like news publications.
■ For a long time, the daily metropolitan newspaper occupied a special place in American communities. Protected by economic conditions that tended to drive them towards natural monopolies and by a Constitution that puts freedom of the press first among the amendments, newspapers had it very good.
■ But good economics tend to attract consolidators, and that certainly happened within newspapering. Where family ownership once was a dominant model, shareholder-driven corporate ownership became ascendant in the late part of the 20th Century and into the 21st.
■ Corporate ownership isn't an intrinsically bad thing, but shareholder ownership isn't often conducive to the same sense of mission and purpose that can be instilled by a visible, identifiable owner (or family of owners). One reason the New York Times distinguishes itself yet today is that we can still see the imprint of Sulzberger-Ochs family ownership on the institution's decisions.
■ For most of the rest of the metropolitan newspaper universe, the shift to shareholder ownership coincided with an unfortunate deterioration in economics. The natural monopoly of times past derived from the newspaper's special status as the best way to reach the largest spread of a community at once. The Internet has demolished that advantage in most places.
■ Weakening economics combined with a depletion of institutional vigor have brought about a wicked case of indifference. When newspapers had large institutional personalities, people could love them or hate them -- but they often had strong opinions about them. It is hard to read the catastrophic decline in circulation as a symptom of anything other than massive indifference.
■ Thus, when Gannett, the largest newspaper chain in the country, lays off hundreds of staff members from coast to coast and mandatory unpaid leave for everyone who's left, what in the past might have stirred angry protests is today met with little more than a passive shrug from most of the public.
■ That's unfortunate. We should be able to love and hate institutions (like newspapers) within some normal bounds -- like loving or hating a baseball team. But when people become addicted to highly polarized "news" coverage on the Internet and elsewhere because it gives them good tribal sensations, things risk turning sour.
■ And when the public grows indifferent to the goings-on at what were once mainstream arbiters of local information, taste, and opinion (read often even by those who "hated" them, again within normal bounds), then we face some real troubles if nothing else moves in to fill that old role.
■ Americans still need to yell at one another (in good faith) across the public square. The more the forums wither and die where that good kind of shouting once took place, the less of the healthy conflict we have, and the more indifference risks corroding into contempt.