You are here

May Membership Meeting Report - Mike Curtin and the News Revolution

UAPA Membership Meeting
May 22, 2012, 7pm,
Upper Arlington Public Library, Little Theater.

Speaker: Mike Curtin, former editor of the Columbus Dispatch

The second edition of my book The Ohio Politics Almanac is available. Please support Maureen Reedy for the 24th House District. I’m running for the 17th House District. It is a walking poster for redistricting reform. Redistricting is at the root of so many problems we have in this state.

When I spoke with Jim and Jody about a topic, we came up with the revolution in the news business and how it affects politics. I spent 38 years at the Dispatch. I’m an amateur historian. I spent most of my time trying to put the news into historical perspective. For most of our history, we have used newspapers to understand our politics. Ben Franklin’s older brother started publishing his newspaper 300 years ago, and newspapers ever since have rallied people to make change.

I was born in 1951, and I remember three papers coming to our doorstep. In the morning, the Ohio State Journal came. Then in the afternoon, the Columbus Dispatch and the Columbus Citizen. (The Ohio State Journal and the Columbus Citizen later merged to form the Columbus Citizen-Journal.) The first decade of this century has just been stunning in the number of newspapers lost. It has been so rapid that Walter Isaacson remarked, “it is now possible to contemplate a time when a major town will no longer have a newspaper.”

The 1920s was the heyday of American newspapers. The newspaper penetration rate was 123%. On average, each household took 1.23 newspapers. When I started carrying the Ohio State Journal, from 1962 to 1966, the newspaper penetration rate was about 100%. The advent of color television marked the point where it fell below 100%. In 2000, it was 53%. Today it is in the mid-high 30% range.

We ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The Internet is accelerating this trend. Among Americans aged 18-35, fewer than 18% read a newspaper. A representative sampling of 18-30 year olds found that only 8% will have read a newspaper in the past day. Advertising goes with eyeballs.

When Craigslist and eBay came along, it blew a hole in newspaper’s revenue base, and that money’s not coming back. According to Quill magazine [professional journalism journal], between 2008-2009, more than 300 newspapers ceased publication altogether. Newspaper staffing has gone down. Media analysts continue to predict the closure of further newspapers.

However, the demand for quality information, and quality opinion, is still there. There is still great demand, but newspapers have found no payment model. Essentially, websites have been taking information generated by news organizations and give it away for free. American newspapers struggle to stay relevant, when Americans feel that news ought to be free. The Pew research center at is a cornucopia of good research on the topics I’m speaking about tonight. They conducted a study of all the outlets from the Baltimore market. They found that sites that give out news, only produce 4% of their own news. The Pew Research center found that people are spending more time than before, 54 minutes a day, on news. When Americans are asked where they get their news, people have increased the ranking of the Internet from 15% to 34% over ten years. Newspapers have taken the brunt of that change. Newspaper readers are dying off and they’re not being replaced.

What do these patterns forecast for our political world? The days of loyalty to a particular source of news on a particular medium are gone. Nowadays, people are news grazers. They dip in and get news all day long. The loyalty of people to particular news programs is also going away. Websites are trying to keep current 24/7, and newspapers are as well. Destructive change can be constructive as long as the good stuff is there. The cornucopia of sites out there that can give you the best information you could ever want is amazing. However, the polarization of where people get their news is stunning. Today, 40% of Republicans say they get most of their news from Fox News. Favorability ratings of President Obama go from watchers of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow above 80% down to watchers of Hannity 7% and Limbaugh 9%. So people are choosing their media, and becoming more polarized.

One of my favorite quotes is “The hallmark of wisdom is that recognizing that everything you believe may be wrong.” I don’t think too many people have that written down on a piece of paper on their bedside table.

What do we need to do? We deal with this one human being at a time, one project at a time. First piece of advice, go for quality information. For budget information, go to the Concord Coalition ( ). It is run by a bunch of emeritus budget directors. Go to Pew for all media research. Two of my favorites to follow are E.J. Dionne on the left and David Brooks on the right. I feel both of these writers look at the evidence and take it where it goes.

I’m running for office because I want to continue my passion for public policy. The redistricting cut up Ted Celeste’s district, and I am working to take the new 17th district. I grew up in an Irish Catholic Democratic family. I voted as a Democrat until I became a political journalist, but did not vote in primaries the whole time I was working for the Dispatch. After I retired, I was able to vote again as a Democrat.


Q: Newspaper revenues?

A: Newspapers are hemorrhaging money across the nation. Fortunately for the Dispatch, it has always run on income, not on debt. It also has a lot of outside income diversity, so it could weather not cutting staff as much as other newspapers have done.


Q: Why is news so redundant?

A: We’ve had those discussions for a long time at the paper. The two things the Dispatch has going for it is the Statehouse coverage. The Dispatch has 6 full time reporters on the Statehouse beat. The second advantage the Dispatch has is Ohio State sports. People can’t get enough. Back when we first started our Internet presence, we could measure how many hits were getting and what they were accessing. People came from all over the globe, and they viewed #1 Ohio State Football and #2 Obituaries.


Q: Ohio Public Records changes?

A: Every session of the legislature has one act or another to cut back on public records. I credit Mike DeWine with holding up Public Records. Public records are good, because bad stuff always happens in the dark.


Q: Dan Guerrino of the Dispatch just went to war with AEP on the rate case and covering the PUCO.

A: There was an attempt to hide PUCO records and Mike DeWine let them know that he would side with the Dispatch.


Q: What does your district look like?

A: The district I’m running for has Marble Cliff, takes Trabue out to 270, and follows 270 down to 23, and follows a 23 corridor down to Pike County, plus takes southern Columbus. The 17th is a tossup the way it’s drawn. Mike Stinziano’s district is like a barbell, from Bexley to Grandview. It has a 75% Democratic rating.


Q: What about the Dispatch’s headline writing? A news item can be favorable to Democrats, and the headline will turn it around to favor the Republican, even tangentially related to the story.

A: I would respectfully disagree. That’s a subjective game. A team of editors meets twice a day to decide what should be above the fold. The way it comes out is the way it comes out. There’s almost never interference from upstairs. I would challenge you to quantify that. Send it down to the editor if you find it.


Q: What about the NYT?

A: I’ve never been at the NYT news meeting. Their perspective is, “Is it historic?” The NYT is predictably and reliably Democratic on the editorial page. But in terms of what they choose to write. For example, they had a front page above the fold story on Mitt Romney this Sunday, and I urge you to read it. It was about his Mormonism, and how that affects his politics.


Q: Supposedly the Dispatch has a 250 word maximum, but 500 word letters seem to be what they publish.

A: I never had anything to do with that part of the paper.


Q: I grew up reading the Dispatch and I miss the old Republicans. Is the technology not happening fast enough for you guys to go to the iPad?

A: There is an iPad version and a Kindle version. 


Q: Is there new talent coming up the pipeline?

A: I always tell students who ask me for advice, is to get a double major. As a person hiring journalists, I look for added value. Who knows a foreign language? Who also knows economics?


Q: What about the ethical standards of journalism?

A: I don’t worry about the ethics of journalists. The gold standard for Journalism is the Poynter Institute. On the Dispatch we often consulted with them--what would you do in a case like that? The major newspapers are one strike and you’re out, as far as plagiarism. What I worry about isn’t journalists, it’s about the pseudo-journalists and bloggers.


Q: What is considered news by the older generation and the younger generation?

A: What draws ratings is gossip and semi-nude women. Anybody care to guess what the viewership of PBS or NPR is? It’s 2%.


Q: Aren’t young people getting their news from bloggers?

A: Hopefully crowdsourcing will create a marketplace for quality.


Q: You’re running for office. How will run your campaign to differentiate yourself?

A: It’s Hilltop, Valleyview, this district is quite a poor district. I grew up on West 3rd Ave. My wife and I belong to St. Margaret’s on Hague Ave. My kids went to Bishop Ready. I want to bring whatever knowledge I have to bring the resources I can to that area. I think that’s a valuable role for any politician. I hope to be a part of true reapportionment reform. I’d like to see term-limit reform. Having an 8 year term decapitates people’s careers before they figure out what is going on. If you took the 132 members and gave them a 10 question quiz on the fundamentals on the Ohio Constitution, I don’t think they’d do too well. More people with gray hair have to serve. I look to Jack Gilligan, who after he retired from teaching, served two terms on the school board in his home town. He’s a role model. I don’t have his intellect or expertise, but I do know something about public policy because I’ve studied it for darn near 40 years. I’d like to be one voice and one vote to counter the hyper-partisanship.



Theme by Danetsoft and Danang Probo Sayekti inspired by Maksimer