Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Where Newspapers Thrive

P.J. O’Rourke wants in on the bailout. In today’s Australian, he has a typically mordant piece, in which he asks the government to rescue print journalism:

The Government is bailing out Wall Street for being evil and the car companies for being stupid. But print journalism brings you Paul Krugman and Anna Quindlen. Also, in 1898 Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World and William Randolph Hearst of the New York Journal started the Spanish-American War. All of the Lehman Brothers put together couldn’t cause as much evil stupidity as that.

True enough. But O’Rourke might like to know that newspapers aren’t in their death throes everywhere. At Minyanville, Justin Rohrlich draws our attention to a little known fact:

. . . the price of newsprint reached a high of $751.31 a metric ton in November, up 34% from a year earlier. If no one’s reading papers anymore, how does one account for that 34% rise? Where’s the demand coming from?

While American and European circulation is dropping like a stone, it’s rising exponentially in India, where 99 million newspapers are sold every day, which are read by more than 150 million people (compared with 97 million in the US).

Why is this? Rohrlich cites India’s climbing literacy rate and lack of Internet access, but his third reason is the most interesting:

Cachet. Yes, in India, newspapers are status symbols, “reserved for those with a greater education; people who receive the newspaper are thought of as intelligent and are sought for advice in important matters.”

Raju Narisetti, editor of Mint, a business daily published by India’s HT Media in association with the Wall Street Journal, agrees. “Newspapers here, unlike in the West, remain fairly aspirational,” he said. “People want to be seen reading newspapers. So there’s not only a functional value, but also a social value.”

Where markets are becoming freer, as in India, unique demands produce unique dynamics. Supposedly dying industries find new life in new customer bases. The newspaper goes from vital news source to status symbol. But where markets are increasingly fettered and clumsily co-opted by the state, as in the U.S., dying industries die slower and block the paths of innovating forces (social or technological) that would have made good capitalist use of pre-existing phenomena.

But the crisis in America today is different, we’re told. An unscrupulous few infected the healthy market with deception and greed, and now the system is sick. People talk about the artificial circumstances behind the credit and derivatives disaster as if illusory security were something outside of free markets, a contagion against which only the government can inoculate the private sector. Nonsense. Fictions and delusions are intrinsic to free markets. Recall the unwarranted hype of the dotcom bubble. Yet, had Washington swept in when it burst, you’d be waiting 15 minutes for this page to load.

Which, come to think of it, would have helped O’Rourke in making his case.