The Greatest Newspaper Market In The World

Paul Krugman’s off on one again, good on him. But I think that on this occasion, he’s been reading a bit too much of the output of well-meaning American liberals like the inexplicably popular Eric Alterman (no don’t tell me how good he is, I don’t like Springsteen either). His latest column is doing a big deal on why it is that European media seem, from the perspective of the USA, to be doing a lot more in the way of neutral coverage, and a lot less in the way of mindless warmongering than the domestic US news. The irritating thing is, that Krugman gets within a cuticle’s distance of the real answer, then decides to copy a wrong one out of Alterman’s book instead. He notes that the cross-Atlantic reality gap is actually not all that wide when one compares newspaper coverage; most US print coverage, while a little bit rightwing for my taste, is still quite clearly sane. But, as PK correctly points out, most people get their news from TV, not print, and the US TV stations are doing their usual diabolical job of informing their customers about the world. So far, so spiffing. But he muffs it right in the final para.

There are two possible explanations for the great trans-Atlantic media divide. One is that European media have a pervasive anti-American bias that leads them to distort the news, even in countries like the U.K. where the leaders of both major parties are pro-Bush and support an attack on Iraq. The other is that some U.S. media outlets � operating in an environment in which anyone who questions the administration’s foreign policy is accused of being unpatriotic � have taken it as their assignment to sell the war, not to present a mix of information that might call the justification for war into question.

Whenever someone says that there are two possible explanations, I always find myself thinking of about a dozen more, and this time round is no exception. The real reason is the one that PK identified; that this is a problem of American TV specifically, not one of American “media” in general. It’s also, I think, a US versus UK phenomenon rather than a US versus Europe one; as far as I can tell, the French media are as mindlessly anti-war as the US are mindlessly pro-war; I don’t read any German blatts other than the English online version of Frankfurter Allgemeine and occasionally that, but it’s so dull and predictable on every other issue that I’m pretty sure it will be on this one. But anyway, I digress. This is the question of explaining the difference between the BBC’s coverage of the issues with US TV, without getting into utterly moronic beeb-bashing of the sort that even Normal Tebbit can’t be bothered with these days (although, obviously, Mark Steyn and Andrew Sullivan can). And the root of the problem is this: in the UK, newspapers set the agenda for TV news, and in the US they don’t.

The root cause of this is that the USA doesn’t have any really good national newspapers, by which I mean newspapers which have as their readership a really material proportion of the thinking class of the country. The New York Times has a (paid, print) circulation of around a million copies. That’s only the same as the Daily Telegraph, and about twice as much as the Guardian, in a national market about five times as big. The largest selling daily in the American market is USA Today, and that only sells about 2.2 million, which would put it a pretty poor fourth in the UK market1.

This is an important difference. In a market where there are a few big newspapers, you have to pay attention to them; you’re talking to large groups of people with a worldview, and you can’t go around saying things that are going to appear to them to be either false or dotty. Quite apart from anything else, if you’re a news editor for the BBC or ITN or even Sky, and the editor of a major newspaper thinks you’re a nut, that’s going to come back to you in your professional life (or even in your social life). Newspaper editors (those people whose task it is, in the immortal phrase, to publish as many of the proprietor’s prejudices as the advertisers will tolerate) are just more important people in a concentrated newspaper market. In a market where the newspaper market is fragmented, each individual newspaper is less important, and furthermore, they tend to cancel each other out. So, there is no Athenian hand of considered, intelligent newspaper opinion to stay the rush of the Romans of broadcast news and counteract their natural tendency to oversimplify everything and go for whatever angle will give them the chance to put a flag, an explosion or a pretty girl on the screen.

On some future date, I will discourse on why the British newspaper market is the Greatest In The World, why British tabloid writers are the best in the world, and why Rupert Murdoch is a substantially greater businessman than Bill Gates, but I suspect that it’s a different issue. But for the moment, note that “concentration” is a very complicated concept in industrial economics, highly dependent on how you define your markets, and that there are often positive network externalities in the consumption of the same good by large numbers of people.

1Don’t you mean “third”, idiot? No, I dont. The “Daily Record” has its figures broken down separately, but it is fundamentally the Scottish edition of the Daily Mirror for commercial purposes and for all editorial purposes not related to Scottish politics. The Sun also publishes a Scottish edition, and has in the past taken an entirely different editorial line in that edition (basically, right wing politics are sales poison North of the border). In many ways, Scotland is an even better newspaper market than England, because you get all the English papers, plus the excellent Scotsman and Glasgow Herald).

Update: See, told you I was right. Even den Beste is getting his news from the Glasgow Herald these days. Today’s summary:

  • The French are losing the diplomatic battle, apparently.

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