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Thursday, November 6, 2008

In the Bag

Posted By on Thu, Nov 6, 2008 at 8:57 AM

I guess now that the election is over, we can look at that notorious Post-Gazette bag wrapper with a bit more detachment.

I'm talking, of course, about the "Defend Freedom/Defeat Obama" message the National Rifle Association paid to have plastered on the  P-G's Nov. 3 delivery bags. 

As we all know, City Paper is in no position to second-guess the ads other people accept. I mean, we once ran an ad of a squirrel with a scrotum Photoshopped on it. Anyway, other folks have already denounced the Post-Gazette's decision, and I know some inside the P-G newsroom were bummed out by it as well.  As a handful of letters in today's edition point out, this advertisement comes on the heels of two other controversial ads: a copy of the New Testament and an over-the-top DVD warning of the dangers of Islamic terrorism.

So, yeah, the trend is disturbing. But here are some things to consider.

First, the P-G had few good options here. Had it not accepted the ad, it would arguably have advanced the NRA's message even more. Suddenly the air would be filled with complaints about how the "liberal media" refused to accept a pro-gun message. And we're not talking about some disgruntled bloggers or subscribers: We're talking crazy right-wing talk show hosts from coast to coast. The NRA message would have gone a lot further then it did, and it would have been amplified with a bunch of other conservative complaints.

Second, since the GOP insists we're all headed toward a socialist utopia now that Obama has won, a quote from Lenin seems appropriate: "The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them." The Post-Gazette's critics contend the paper sold out its credibility for the sake of an ad -- forgoing the moral clarity of its Obama endorsement for the sake of a few bucks. That is one way to look at it. But another way would be to say the P-G got the NRA to help to bankroll its mostly pro-gun-control editorials and columnists.

Of course, both things are true. The NRA and the Post-Gazette used each other. But that's the genius of capitalism, my friends. And that is the real issue here.

The most important point in this debate was raised by a chance remark made over at a Burgh Report post linked to above: "Fortunately fewer and fewer people are reading your print edition these days." I've heard similar statements expressed by a lot of lefties around town: "Oh, I just look at the paper online, so I didn't even SEE that bag," and so on.

I'm going to submit that this is precisely the problem. It may even help to explain why the P-G accepted the ad in the first place. 

Newspaper revenues are in decline because, while readers are flocking to the internet, advertising revenue isn't following. That's the most important thing to understand about the newspaper business right now. There are a ton of implications for that, but only one need concern us here: If you're reading a paper online only, your reading habits are being subsidized by those who advertise in, and subscribe to, the print edition.

Which means you aren't innocent in all this. Your ability to read the P-G depends to some extent on its ability to sell access to deranged right-wingers.

Thanks to the Internet, we have the luxury of being able to consider canceling our subscriptions without giving up access to the information. Thanks to the Internet, we're enjoying the best of both worlds -- information provided by professionals whose services we don't have to pay for. But the only reason we can do that is because of old geezers (and throwbacks like me) who do continue to subscribe. It's no accident that right-wing fearmongers are using the print edition as a vehicle for their message. Fears about terrorism and gun control play especially welll with older folks: The NRA slaps its ads on newspaper bags for the same reason Viagra advertises on the evening news.

The larger question -- for Pittsburgh and the rest of the world, really -- is this: How are we going to pay for information in the brave new world? The internet has essentially severed the connection between those who pay for information and those who consume it. A new model will be necessary, and I have no idea what that will be. Setting up public-radio-style subscriber campaigns? Dramatically hiking subscription rates, and going for an upscale-only market? Simply giving up and turning over the keys to an army of online citizen-journalists?

But I think a good start is to have some sympathy for the plight newspapers find themselves in. If we're going to denounce the P-G for taking the NRA's money, fine. The ad was as brainless as it was ineffective, and like I say -- P-G folks hated it too. But if you feel like you feel that its reporters and editors are a valuable part of our community, maybe give some thought to how they should be getting paid. In any case, canceling your subscription, as some have threatened, seems like exactly the wrong way to go. 

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