At a lecture at the Yale School of Management on Tuesday, Wall Street Journal columnist and Deputy Washington Bureau Chief David Wessel said better technology and new “pseudo”-media outlets allow members of the public to self-select news spin that suits their biases.
Wessel presented a lecture titled “Can Newspaper Journalism Survive Blogs, Fox News and Karl Rove?” before an audience of about 75 people. He discussed the impact of politics and technology on the media and the way that economic constraints shape the content of reported news.
“Technology and the proliferation of pseudo-news outlets has made it possible for people to choose their news,” Wessel said. “If you don’t like the facts the way the mainstream press is offering them, you can go get the facts you want somewhere else.”
Wessel, a New Haven native, said the influences of technology, political polarization and the way politicians use the press are changing the nature of today’s news media. As competition in the media increases, Wessel said, media outlets have begun to cater to specific interest groups, making Fox News the conservative news outlet and CNN the liberal one.
“While we’re trying to portray information as honestly as we can, other people are able to practice a different kind of journalism, which gets a lot of attention,” Wessel said.
Politically motivated news is not a new phenomenon, Wessel said, and he said media at the turn of the 20th century can illustrate this point. In 1870, more than half of the major city newspapers were partisan, he said, but by 1920 the growing profitability and demand for newspapers allowed for competition. This competition forced newspapers to be more objective, Wessel said, since stories of political corruption would emerge, provided that at least one paper exposed corruption.
“We got to the point that the Wall Street Journal thought it was a good idea to be fair and balanced,” he said.
While Wessel’s historical references highlighted the impact of political and economic pressures on the perception of good journalism, audience members said the influences that are coming together now are unlike those of the past.
“I think that his comments were insightful, but I think the problems the media is wrestling with now are unique, and I think he understands this,” said Will Kletter, a high-school senior from Los Angeles who was attending the lecture as part of Bulldog Days.
Wessel said that today the Wall Street Journal has 1.75 million paper subscribers and 750,000 online subscribers, of whom less than half also receive the print paper. But because news outlets cannot charge as much for Internet ads as they would for print ads, they must sacrifice a portion of their revenue, he said. In order to survive, Wessel said, print media may have to change its business plan.
“There’s too many people who want the information we have and too many clever people in the industry, so I think we can make this work,” Wessel said.
Susan Froetschel, an assistant editor of YaleGlobal, said that although Wessel’s concerns about the new media wave are legitimate, there are ways more traditional news outlets can work with growing change.
“I think there is a lot of cooperation between new and old media,” she said. “Our publication reprints a lot, and I think that a number of good opportunities exist online.”
In the end, Wessel said, working as a reporter continues to have its rewards despite increasing competition in the field.
“I ask myself a question: ‘Is there some story in the Wall Street Journal today that wouldn’t be here if I didn’t work here?’ As long as I can help the Wall Street Journal, then I can still do it,” Wessel said. “And as long as I can still have fun doing it, it’s still a job worth doing.”
Wessel’s presentation was part of the Yale School of Management’s R. Peter Strauss ’44 Distinguished Lecture Series.