SADOW: It’s Nice When The Newspapers Disagree About Stories They Cover

Isn’t it just swell that New Orleans and Baton Rouge have sort-of turned into two two-newspaper towns? It increases the chances of readers to receive multiple perspectives – and provides the opportunity of the legacy media to reverse its diminished influence in state politics.

As it has begun doing in recent months, the Legislative Fiscal Office released its internal publication (and no doubt one it paid huge sums to consultants to name) “Focus on the Fisc,” wherein staff members take state fiscal topics, shoot out some information, and mix in a little opinion to produce analyses of varying qualities. The latest edition, among many other fascinating topics (as opposed to the previous one, between this set of parentheses is content not facetious; most of the newsletters’ content is pretty interesting to me, but, as my bachelor’s degree is in public administration, my masters’ is in business administration, and then there’s the doctorate in political science, consider the source), discussed the state’s forecast tax revenue performance and whether the state may have to chip in more money to pay for medical expenses.

The New Orleans/Baton Rouge Times-Picayune took the glass half-full approach. Its story about the latest issue concentrated on the slowly but surely brightening state revenue picture that produced a $175 million actual surplus to forecast for the Fiscal Year 2013, which the newsletter typified as “seems to be more good news than bad news” and then went out on a limb to argue that “cautions are not immaterial” that could serve to squelch the “optimism for only modest improvement.”

By contrast, the Baton Rouge/New Orleans Advocate went for the glass half-empty tack. It reported on a section that claimed the state would come up short in money to pay for health care obligations under the Fiscal Year 2014 budget, almost $14 million, which would cause administrative and legislative peregrinations to put right.

The differing story selections from the same document fascinate as much as the choice of topics that the LFO makes in reporting. Those who support Gov. Bobby Jindal and the general direction the Legislature has taken over the past six years no doubt experience good cheer over the T-P story, as much of that period has consisted of a budget under fiscal pressure even as, given both the LFO’s and Division of Administration’s recent forecasting records that overshoot revenues in times of decline and undershoot them in times of expansion, what wisdom appeared in the article probably doesn’t amount to much more than a crapshoot (as to some degree its plentitude of hedging language admits).

And for those who know that Jindal believes that 2+2=4 and therefore they must tell the world long and loud that 2+2=5, they likely seize on the Advocate story to reinforce their constipated worldview of the Moloch-like quality of Jindal’s reign, regardless that the newsletter probably misses the mark here as well. This is because the LFO does not have access to all the documentation concerning the latest expenditures and revenues that first comes to DOA, such as in this case where the administration estimates it actually will be over $6 million to the good (echoing a similar situation from a couple of months previous).

In any event, the differing news outlets chose from the same newsletter different aspects to emphasize, to the benefit of readers in their similar markets. This certainly helps legacy newspapers in that the more and varying content out there, the more potential readers might perk up to consume them. It’s no accident that as the newspaper industry increasingly consolidated throughout the latter part of the 20th century, homogenizing the story choices presented, that in the aggregate it continued to lose consumers to other media not just because those production costs declined at a faster rate, but also because they challenged the monopoly in story choices in a nation where all but a handful of areas ended up with just one daily newspaper. And it has been this monopoly that has led to declining readership precisely because critical consumers found alternative outlets willing to provide fact-based information that ran counter to or was absent from the print industry’s deliveries.

Worse for the newspaper industry, these trends empowered, from a political perspective, political elements decidedly not part of the existing media landscape. For example, despite widespread (if generally kept obscured from the public) hostility that most print media writers in the state have for Jindal, he won two elections in part because he cut the print media out of his campaigns. He refused to let them define his candidacy uncontested, and ran campaigns designed to circulate information about him independently of whatever the media reported, enabled by changing and facilitating technology.

Although members of the media are loath to admit it, this is to the benefit of voters, the public, and democracy. The more information the better by which the polis may make decisions, and if candidates are willing to provide more of it than the media will allow through their gates, hear, hear. Consumers win, but so can the print media if they engage in some introspection and, through willingness to provide full and impartial information in running all newsworthy stories, seek to provide comprehensiveness that attracts consumers.

Because if they don’t, some other entity will and further their readership will decline. Which only hastens the diminution of their relevance in the state’s political world. The question is, whether they have the will to progress beyond their ideological comfort zones to their and their readers’ benefits.

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