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The Stink War

 “The ink war.” That is how Tom Dudchik of Capitol Report styled the controversy between Chis Powell, the icon busting editor of the Journal Inquirer, and, following a rebuttal editorial in the Hartford Courant, pretty much everyone else manning the barricades on the left who ever lifted a pen or pounded a keyboard in defense of the liberal view of the decline of print media.

The controversial pieces are printed here as they appeared, in chronological sequence; first, Mr. Powell’s initial column; then the Courant’s editorial rebuttal; then, an interview with Jim Romenesko; then Mr. Powell’s response to what he regards as the distortions of his critics; and finally a Courant rebuttal accusing Mr. Powell of having defended the indefensible – namely, himself.

Unprinted here are a slew of editorials and commentary pieces, all more or less bearing the same message: that Mr. Powell has attacked all single parent moms; that he is a holdover from those glorious days of yore when print media enjoyed a monopoly on dispensing information; that he has failed to understand properly the regrettable inroads made on the monopoly by the internet and the loss of advertising that has impoverished many newspapers; that he is a closet misogynist who has unjustly denigrated the poor.

The whips and scorns many on he left are so eager to brandish have been left out of this account for space reasons.

In the good old days of print journalism – when, for instance, George Bernard Shaw and G. K. Chesterton were pulling each other’s hair in British papers – newspaper editors thought it proper to print in full both the newspaper’s points on some controversy of the day and hearty rebuttals written by controversialists who asserted an opposing point of view.

This is no longer done. Instead, editorialists and commentators generally summarize whatever points they wish to demolish in print, running in full only their own invaluable opinions.

In a bow to old and perhaps more just journalistic processes long abandoned, the remarks of Mr. Powell and some of his critics are here published in full – without additional remarks.   

Journalism's problem may not be the Internet 

By Chris Powell

Journalism is hailing the acquisition of The Washington Post by Internet retailing entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, figuring that he has both the genius and wealth to develop a new self-sustaining model of journalism. This may be a bit presumptuous.

For as much as Bezos' company, Amazon, has done remarkable things, its decisive business strategy was only sales tax evasion, an advantage that seems to be coming to an end as Congress prepares to enact legislation allowing states to collect sales taxes on Internet purchases. If the future of journalism rests with the Internet rather than with the old business models of declining profitability -- newsprint and the broadcast airwaves -- the Internet model of profitable journalism still hasn't been invented yet. And if such a model was even close at hand, the Post under its longtime owners, the Graham family, could have well afforded to undertake it without any help from Bezos.

Further, while the decline of journalism coincides with the rise of the Internet, the Internet may not be the primary cause at all.

Certainly the Internet has given journalism a powerful competitor for public attention, just as radio and then television did. The Internet is a far more powerful competitor because, unlike radio and TV, it allows people to indulge their particular interests at any hour of the day to the exclusion of everything else, to live always in the narrowest of worlds rather than in a broad one. For example, thanks to the Internet someone well might know nearly everything about the Boston Red Sox, Miley Cyrus, and sunspots and yet be unaware that an airplane had just crashed a few streets away, that the governor had just been sent to prison for corruption, and that town government had just raised property taxes again.

That is, traditional journalism, especially newspaper journalism, remains indispensable for conveying local and state news and providing some understanding of public policy, there being few exclusively Internet-based sources of information about those things. But do local and state news and some understanding of public policy remain indispensable to most people?

Even in a supposedly prosperous and well-educated state like Connecticut, how strong can demand for those things be now that half the children are being raised without two parents at home and thus acquiring developmental handicaps; 70 percent of community college and state university freshmen have not mastered what used to be considered basic high school skills; poverty has risen steadily even as government appropriations in the name of remediating poverty have risen steadily; and democracy has sunk so much that half the eligible population isn't voting in presidential elections, 65 percent isn't voting in state elections, and 85 percent isn't voting in municipal elections?

This social disintegration and decline in civic engagement coincide with the decline of traditional journalism just as much as the rise of the Internet does.

Indeed, newspapers still can sell themselves to traditional households -- two-parent families involved with their children, schools, churches, sports, civic groups, and such. But newspapers cannot sell themselves to households headed by single women who have several children by different fathers, survive on welfare stipends, can hardly speak or read English, move every few months to cheat their landlords, barely know what town they're living in, and couldn't afford a newspaper subscription even if they could read. And such households constitute a rising share of the population.

These days in Connecticut if you want to know what's happening in your geographic community -- your town and your state -- rather than just your virtual community, the Internet is of little help; you still have to read newspapers or their Internet sites.

If you don't want to know or couldn't care less, that's your right, but then the problem is much bigger than journalism.

Chris Powell Can't Pin Newspaper Woes On Welfare Moms

6:07 p.m. EDT, October 2, 2013

It is no secret that print journalism faces enormous challenges today, but we don't think these challenges were brought about by welfare moms. That puts us at odds with the Manchester Journal Inquirer's managing editor, Chris Powell.

Many students of the industry ascribe the decline in print journalism to the rise of the Internet and the migration of classified advertising to sites like Craigslist. In a column that's getting a lot of attention online, Mr. Powell instead proposes that the real villain is a breakdown of the social fabric, epitomized by rent-cheating, barely literate welfare mothers.

Mr. Powell says, and here we agree, that newspapers are still indispensable for conveying local and state news and providing understanding of public policy. But he seems to think many people cannot comprehend this information "now that half the children are being raised without two parents at home and thus acquiring developmental handicaps." He's wrong: Nearly 70 percent of Connecticut children live with two married parents and have since 2008, according to the Census Bureau. We couldn't substantiate his claim about developmental handicaps.

He says newspapers can still market themselves to "traditional households — two-parent families involved with their children." But newspapers "cannot sell themselves to households headed by single women who have several children by different fathers, survive on welfare stipends, can hardly speak or read English, move every few months to cheat their landlords, barely know what town they're living in, and couldn't afford a newspaper subscription even if they could read."

Aside from his stereotyping, and general nastiness, newspapers never relied on people who couldn't afford to buy the paper, and fortunately there aren't many such people. Mr. Powell says such families are increasing, but the numbers say otherwise. There are 28 percent fewer households getting welfare today than a decade ago. Many of them are headed by grandparents, not single women, and many recipients are working, according to the state Department of Social Services.

And journalism readership is greater than ever. More readers saw Mr. Powell's column online than in print, and that includes caring single moms.

The challenge for the industry is to create a business model that supports quality journalism, however delivered. We're working on it.

The challenge is also to chronicle and change with the times, not hearken back to supposed good old days. Journalism needs to evolve, be dynamic, embrace the future, not run to a mythic past, while insulting people and getting facts wrong to boot.

The media's job is to portray the world as it is, not as Ronald Reagan might have seen it. Mr. Powell often is an effective provocateur and commentator, but this rant is unworthy of responsible journalism. 

Controversial Journal Inquirer Editor: “If My Opinion Is So Wacky, Why Bother With It?

October 4, 2013

Manchester (Conn.) Journal Inquirer managing editor Chris Powell was blasted earlier this week after he wrote that “newspapers cannot sell themselves to households headed by single women who have several children by different fathers, survive on welfare stipends, can hardly speak or read English, move every few months to cheat their landlords, barely know what town they’re living in, and couldn’t afford a newspaper subscription even if they could read.”

The Hartford Courant said “this rant is unworthy of responsible journalism.” It’s “off-base on many levels,” added Matt DeRienzo.

Will Bunch put Powell down “as Exhibit A for exactly how NOT to save newsrooms.”

Kirsten Lambertsen ‏nominated the managing editor “for @WhiteWhine of the month. Make that, the year.”

What does Powell have to say about his critics and the online reaction to his column?

“Well, for starters, I was surprised to find myself becoming so important,” he tells Romenesko readers. “After all, the world is full of opinions, including wacky ones, so what makes the opinion of an editor in Connecticut who is of no particular renown so deserving of criticism nationally? If my opinion is so wacky, why bother with it? Hell, the federal government has just been incapacitated. Aren’t there a few more important things to upset commentators?”

He says he never blamed welfare mothers for the decline of the newspaper business.

Rather, I correlated the decline of the newspaper business — the decline of the news business generally, really — with the social disintegration all around us, and cited quite a few examples, including the collapse of public education and participation in elections. The disintegration represented by childbearing outside marriage, a frequent topic in my writing, was a prominent example because it underlies so much of the social disintegration generally, as it is child abuse and neglect. Even the liberal-originating social science has been confirming this lately.

Many single mothers took the now-infamous paragraph of criticism about welfare mothers as an attack on them, but the paragraph criticized only WELFARE mothers in some VERY SPECIFIC CIRCUMSTANCES.

Powell says he’s not surprised by the “abusive” emails and calls that the Journal Inquirer received after his column went viral. “That’s always the case when there’s controversy and when people don’t have to identify themselves,” he writes in an email. “More disappointing to me is the continuing general refusal to recognize the social disintegration.”

Will he address his critics in a future column?

There’s a possibility, he says, “but I can live with letting the column speak for itself. ….Besides, while criticism can sting, my 15 minutes of fame will be up today or tomorrow.”

So social disintegration isn't a problem for news?

By Chris Powell

Journalists from Bangor to Salt Lake City and from Philadelphia to Miami have launched themselves into smug ridicule in recent days, their headlines proclaiming that an editor in Connecticut had blamed single mothers for the decline of the newspaper industry. It seems to be the national journalistic pile-on of the month, overshadowing even the shutdown of the federal government.

It is also a distortion.

Rather, that editor -- this writer -- wrote in a column that the decline of newspapers and the news business generally may correlate less with the rise of the Internet than with social disintegration, as represented by the collapse of public education and voter participation, the failure of government to alleviate poverty, and the growth in welfare-dependent households, particularly those headed by unmarried, unskilled, and largely illiterate women who have several children by different men.

It was the latter example that set everyone off.

It was said to be an attack on all single women, all single women with children, and all households with unconventional parenting. But the column criticized an entirely different group.

It was said to be "misogynist," as if in the era of women's equality certain women are not to be held responsible for their anti-social behavior.

It was said to be "racist," as if the inability of much of the population to speak and read the national language does not impugn immigration policy and risk disunity.

Some critics disputed the column's assertion that half the children in Connecticut are being raised in households without two parents. The figure is arguable but the Washington-based research group Child Trends reported last year that more than half of children nationally born to women under 30 are now born outside marriage. Meanwhile the fatherlessness rate approaches 90 percent in Connecticut's cities and exceeds 50 percent in many public schools in inner suburbs, dragging education down.

So why argue the exact percentage if not to suggest that this phenomenon is not a problem? And if it is not a problem, why is Connecticut spending $800 million a year on its Department of Children and Families?

For many years now even the liberal social science research has reported that childbearing outside marriage is far more than a problem -- that it is a society-wide catastrophe.

Poverty and the ignorance it imposes are not environments for selling newspapers or any news -- nor for preserving democracy.

Disputing the column, the Hartford Courant said welfare rolls are down. But food stamps, government disability benefits rolls, and earned income tax credits are way up. Indeed, as National Public Radio reported in March, disability is the new welfare.

The Courant's dismissal of the relevance of all this to civic life and journalism is refuted by the newspaper's own circulation figures, its long having had more home-delivered subscribers in suburban West Hartford than in Hartford itself though Hartford has a far larger population -- one far more dependent on welfare.

The Courant also faulted the column for "general nastiness," as if the newspaper's own premier columnists, Colin McEnroe, Kevin Rennie, and Jim Shea, have achieved their audiences with a devotion to subtlety.

The challenge to the news industry, the Courant says, "is to create a business model that supports quality journalism, however delivered." But there can be no such model if society keeps impoverishing itself.

The news industry, the Courant adds, should "embrace the future, not run to a mythic past." But of course for the Courant's parent company, Tribune, which is selling its newspapers, the future is television -- a future without any need for literacy. And there was nothing mythic about a past where Americans were educated, read, participated, and voted.

Chris Powell Doubles Down On Blaming Poor Moms

Journal Inquirer Editor Bemoans 'Distortion' Of Earlier Column, But Message Seems The Same

5:57 p.m. EDT, October 7, 2013

Chris Powell, managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, seems intent on finding a fall girl for the woes of newspapers. Once again he's blaming women.

He wrote in a Sept. 28 column, "Journalism's Problem May Not Be The Internet," that newspapers' real problem was "single women who have several children by different fathers, survive on welfare stipends, can hardly speak or read English, move every few months to cheat their landlords, barely know what town they're living in, and couldn't afford a newspaper subscription even if they could read."

This bizarre theory was trounced nationwide. We'd hoped it had been put to rest.

But now it comes again.

In his latest column, Mr. Powell accuses critics of "distortion." He says he was really saying the culprit for newspaper woes is "social disintegration," as represented by a host of ills, including "the growth in welfare-dependent households, particularly those headed by unmarried, unskilled, and largely illiterate women who have several children by different men."

Sounds like the same argument.

There are some worrying socioeconomic trends in the U.S. But unwed and welfare-dependent mothers aren't responsible for newspapers' fate. The rise of online journalism is. Rather than bemoan this, journalists have to jump on the jet.

Mr. Powell has been a zealous advocate for open government and other worthy causes. If only he could harness that energy toward engaging in the future of the news industry rather than blaming the blameless.


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