Monday, August 27, 2007

Natural Selection

Natural Selection
By William Powers, National Journal
© National Journal Group Inc.

The latest media moan, heard this week wherever two or more newspaper lovers were gathered, was about the suddenly smaller New York Times. As of several days ago, the great daily is one and a half inches skinnier side to side, the same size as other previously downsized broadsheets, including The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

All the evidence points to newspapers heading down the fast track toward extinction. But are we really looking at all of the evidence?

It was another excuse for media people everywhere to wonder aloud: Are newspapers dying? A headline on the Editor & Publisher website captured the mood. "Today, A Smaller 'NYT': Tomorrow, None at All?"

All the evidence points to newspapers heading down the fast track toward extinction. But are we really looking at all of the evidence? A piece in the newly svelte paper suggests that maybe the herd is thinking about the past, present, and future of newspapers a bit too, well, narrowly.

On the front of The Times' science section was a story about Gregory Clark, an economic historian at the University of California (Davis), who has proposed a new solution to one of history's great puzzles: Why, beginning about 200 years ago, did some societies abandon centuries of subsistence farming and poverty -- starting the Industrial Revolution and, in the process, achieving "amazing affluence"?

As Times reporter Nicholas Wade cogently explained, Clark's core idea is a Darwinian one. In England, where industrialization began, poor people died in greater numbers than rich people and left behind fewer children. As the rich people's descendants multiplied, they filled various social and economic niches that the poor had previously filled. And as the descendants of the well-off fanned out, they took with them inherited traits and behaviors that had allowed their successful ancestors to thrive. Those abilities gave them the wherewithal to invent something new -- the hardworking, thrifty, upwardly mobile middle class. And the rest is history. At various points during the day that Wade's story was published, it was the most e-mailed piece on The Times' website.

This is just a theory, and it has nothing to do with newspapers per se, but bear with me. We know that people who habitually read newspapers are slowly dying off. And we know that the descendants of those people, younger folk, don't read newspapers nearly as much. Many view papers as a symbol of stodgy old ways of living and thinking. The Internet is where the action is. One might therefore hypothesize that human beings are evolving away from newspapers because we have discovered a new tool that is much more useful in the Darwinian struggle for success.

There's just one problem with that theory: The most successful people on the planet today, the equivalent of the rich people in the Clark study, still rely on the information that newspapers provide to rise and prosper. Up-to-date information is the coin of the realm, and it's rare to meet a successful person who doesn't follow the news. They may not get it from the hard-copy newspaper, but most online news originates in traditional newspapers and newspaper-related organs such as the Associated Press. In other words, the basic product the papers produce still helps the fittest to thrive.

We even have a recent case study of two separate human gene pools taking radically different approaches to the idea of newspapers. Rupert Murdoch, the 32nd-richest person in the richest nation on Earth, wanted to own a famous, and famously troubled, newspaper, The Wall Street Journal. The Bancroft family, which had owned the paper for decades and made a mess of it, didn't want to own it any more.

As a group, the Bancrofts were not thriving in the Darwinian sense the way that the Murdochs were, not by a long shot. They couldn't figure out how to make this tool work for them. The Murdochs looked at the same tool and were certain they knew exactly what to do with it. They would use it to get even richer.

So what's more reliable: the behavior of the Murdochs, the Sam Zells, and the other Darwinian alpha types who still see competitive advantages in newspapers, or a bunch of sad-sack journalists who claim that their profession is dying? You do believe in evolution, don't you?

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