Fox News’ Paper Tiger

Reporters are losing their jobs left and right, and Bill O’Reilly seems to be enjoying it just a bit too much. Anybody who’s been following the media business of late knows that, as the Great Recession deepens, traditional journalism is getting buried.

Newspapers are bearing the worst of it and newsroom staffs have been shredded across the country. Colorado recently lost The Rocky Mountain News, while The Boston Globe just barely staved off the grim reaper. As a result, legions of excellent unemployed journalists out there are chasing the very few jobs to be had.

Yet during his top-rated Fox News show The O’Reilly Factor, and in his syndicated newspaper column, the bombastic O’Reilly has been cheerleading the downfall of the business. A few months ago, he reacted with glee when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was forced to go Web only. More recently in his column, O’Reilly similarly wisecracked about The New York Times’ financial woes.

This is interesting for a few reasons. For one, O’Reilly’s theory for why these publications are in such deep trouble is because they have suddenly shifted radically left in their coverage, and readers are rejecting it. That’s why he’s happy.

That theory doesn’t sync with the thinking of most sensible people in the media who understand the industry is going through massive macro changes, and that many Americans—particularly the young—are permanently changing their reading habits away from newspapers and magazines. Not because of political leanings, mind you, but because the generally free technology of the Web trumps the tradition of carbon-based, physically distributed media every time.

There’s clear evidence to back this theory up. While most major papers’ circulations are in decline, nearly every big newspaper’s Web site has seen its audience grow. Per Nielsen Online, NYTimes.com’s unique user base climbed from 17.2 million unique users in December 2007 to 18.2 million users last December. Similarly, USAtoday.com’s audience climbed by 15 percent, Washingtonpost.com grew 12 percent, and Latimes.com rose 73 percent. Even left-of-center San Francisco Chronicle’s site jumped 26 percent.

In my opinion, double-digit audience growth is not a sign of massive audience rejection. The problem is that Web ads simply command much lower rates than print ads do, at least for now. But O’Reilly seems to gloss over these facts, writing in his column that “The spin from [Times publisher] Sulzberger is that the Internet is strangling the newspaper industry, and there is some truth to that…But other papers are not suffering nearly as much as the Times, so there must be more to it.”

Well, I can think of another paper that is suffering too: The conservative (and terrific, I might add) Wall Street Journal, which Fox News’ parent company News Corp. purchased in 2007. Earlier this year News Corp. was forced to take an $8.4 billion write down on Dow Jones. And in its first-quarter earnings report, the company’s operating income from newspapers plummeted from $216 million a year ago to just $7 million this year.

Somehow, this hasn’t made it into O’Reilly’s analysis. (By the way, the Journal’s Web audience is up too.) Could knowledge of the Journal’s woes have escaped O’Reilly’s attention, being that he’s part of the same media conglomerate? It’s doubtful that O’Reilly knows the media business as well as, say, an analyst at eMarketer. But we also know he’s a smart guy. Could it be that Mr. No Spin Zone is engaging in some spinning of his own?

There’s another interesting aspect to O’Reilly’s anti-newspaper diatribe. During this horrid economic cycle, when millions of Americans are out of jobs and terrified about their future employment prospects, rooting for American businesses to go under seems way out of touch to me, especially for a commentator who’s constantly talking about sticking up for regular “folks.” It kind of sounds, well, un-American. But in O’Reilly’s view, this is the liberal elite getting what it deserves. The thing is, it’s pretty hard to be elite when you’re on unemployment or raising a family on a salary that’s been cut by 10 percent.

Bill, I’m suggesting you rethink your position here. You may not love the management at the SPI or the Times. You may even have a point regarding treatment of President Bush vs. President Obama. But was the guy who covered the Mariners for the SPI really a lefty communist who deserved to get canned? Were the junior reporters, and photo editors who worked at the Baltimore Sun, which just lost a third of its newsroom, too liberal in your estimation to participate in freedom of the press?

You are painting the media with a pretty broad brush here, and as someone who knows several out-of-work reporters, I find your attacks downright offensive. Plus, you still haven’t explained to me clearly why it’s not OK for a publication to lean left, if that’s what its readers want. Should grungy, crunchy Seattle have only a hard-right newspaper?

Fox News clearly leans toward the conservative point of view, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. In fact, the network’s tremendous success proves that news organizations have missed a huge opportunity to serve this audience for years. So what if The New York Times’ political coverage leans left? Point it out. Disagree with it. But root for its destruction?

What other American industries do you want to die because their politics are not to your liking, or that of your boss, Roger Ailes? Who else do you want to see tossed out on the street?

Mediaweek senior editor Mike Shields covers digital media.