Everything I know about small town newspapers I learned reading The Last Juror and earning extra credit in 9th grade history finding errors in the El Dorado Daily News. But over the last few days, a lesson about what really dictates news content has been brought home. It's the audience, stupid.
The News Virginian, a Media General property that is included in the sale to Warren Buffet's group has demonstrated not only that news isn't always "man bites dog," but that the news that sells papers isn't always about the most important issues facing a community. While the ongoing budget struggle between the Waynesboro City Council and the School Board continued to steep, these were four of the front page above the fold headlines:
Then there are nuanced headlines like today's:
- Richmond Times Dispatch: "The war for women voters" while further west,
- The News Virginian: "The war for female voters"
Add to that the differences between the paper and digital headline versions for the same stories; again different audiences.
Those who cling to the belief that the mass media has an obligation to influence opinion and that Jeff Shapiro may be unleashed to enlighten all micro-markets of the former the Media General properties share the same delusion that Republicans in Hampton Roads hold about the Virginian-Pilot. These particular outlets have staked out their territory and responded to the audience in their markets. Not the other way around. They are selling advertising, not ideas, though that may frustrate some, that is what works for the bottom line and rewards the board room. The fact that Buffet's group favors "pay walls" reinforces the fact that the media exist first as businesses.
Over time, The Washington Post has focused too heavily on the demographic The Washington Times was designed to steal away. The Post attempted the impossible: appeal to the Times audience without alienating its own market base. The Post has done neither well, becoming something of a shadow of its former self. Buffet's team will not make that same mistake.
While there was a wave of hopeful optimism among those who are not on the same sheet of music as the Richmond Times Dispatch editorial staff that the sale meant something other than Buffet recognized an opportunity for financial gain, that sentiment will go unrewarded until those who buy the paper and its advertising change their opinions. Those are not going to change until the Democrats in Virginia develop a voice.
The Democratic Party of Virginia lacks leadership and any voice representing its values or that can rally the troops. It has literally and figuratively an inside voice; a very quiet one. It is not one that is going to sway opinion or build consensus across the state. So it is not a voice that is going to whet the appetite of the broader constituency to shift media attention. The Richmond Times Dispatch and its associated publications will continue to feed beast that is public opinion rather than shape it. And with Republican hegemony effectively the status quo in Virginia, there is no reason to believe the Media General sale indicates any change at all. Buffet's investors are in the business of selling advertising and papers, not ideas. So, without an audience for any specific point of view, don't expect it to be noticed by the new management.