Comedian Bill Maher likes to portray Republicans as being in a "bubble," a bubble that isolates them from the realities of the world. It's a frequent feature of his Friday night HBO series.
But bubbles are everywhere. Not too long ago, real estate was in a bubble that popped with disastrous results. And the daily newspaper industry has been drifting along in a great big bubble for quite some time.
Most recent example: This week's stunning announcement that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was buying the Washington Post -- home of the fabled though somewhat long-in-the-tooth Woodward-Bernstein team -- for $250 million cash, a mere pittance in Big Media terms.
Over the weekend, The New York Times sold the Boston Globe for $70 million, about 6 percent of the $1.1 billion it paid to buy the newspaper in 1993. Investor Warren Buffet has been buying newspaper companies by the armful for prices that amount to less than 10 percent what they were worth just a few years ago.
The same trend was seen earlier in the music, magazine and local radio business. Companies that have been around so long they seem like institutions collapse virtually overnight and are sold for a song, or are simply wafted away like a leaf in the breeze.
Shock and awe
What's perhaps saddest about all this is that it's so surprising to the executives and corporate officers who for years have been drawing six- and seven-figure salaries to keep their businesses healthy. There are expressions of shock, concern and outrage when board chairs and CEOs discover what everyone else already knew.
Over on 15th Street, NW, the Washington Post has for the last few years bemoaned the falling advertising rates that have left its bottom line on the wrong side of zero. But it's not just ad rates and Craigslist that dragged down the Post. Circulation fell from 800,000 to around 400,000 in a decade.
Readers went elsewhere.
Was it because of the Internet? Or could it have been the free weeklies, The Washington Times, NewsChannel 8, Politico and all the other new news sources that nibbled away at the Post's grip on Washington? Could it have been the Post's stubborn concentration on the relatively tiny city of Washington (population about 500,000) while relegating the Virginia and Maryland suburbs (with about five times as much population) to the inside pages?
Post Company chairman Donald Graham not long ago derided coverage of consumer news as nothing more than a way to hype the ratings. Thanks, Don.
Could it have been that the New York Times and Wall Street Journal somehow managed to deliver their printed newspapers to Washington-area subscribers without a hitch while the Post's independent distributors went out of their way to antagonize customers and throw their papers in the ditch or simply not deliver them at all?
No one knows, because no one has much cared, certainly not the Post's Circulation Department. It's likely, though, that Jeff Bezos, fabled for his concentration on customer experience, will find out.
Business as usual
Meanwhile, back at other Old Media watering holes, it's pretty much business as usual, as illustrated by the current unseemly battle between CBS and Time Warner.
Time Warner CEO Glenn Britt and CBS CEO Les Moonves have been fighting to see who can gouge their customers most effectively and, failing to agree, are taking it out on those very same customers.
Time Warner subscribers in New York, Los Angeles and other mega-markets have been locked out of watching CBS the last few nights as the media titans squabble over how they should share the spoils. The battle has featured all the usual weapons -- dueling TV and newspaper ads, Internet petitions, social media postings and media pitches from p.r. agents.
But while Britt and Moonves are arguing over splitting the take, consumers are finding more and more ways around Time Warner and CBS. There's Dish Network and even the quaint Old World practice of hanging an antenna out the window. Netflix and Amazon, which just a few years ago mostly recycled old movies and TV series, are now producing high-quality original series. YouTube is developing endless channels of new content and a little company called Aereo is making CBS and other broadcast channels available over the Internet.
Tellingly, when Aereo first came on the scene, the networks threatened to take themselves off the air and force consumers to pay their cable systems to watch network shows. The empty boast was met with the ridicule it deserved.
Not paying enough
We haven't heard the networks threatening to go dark much lately, although we still hear them complaining that consumers aren't paying enough for their priceless programming.
Someone should point out to Moonves & Co. that that's the exact same song the newspapers were singing a few years ago, when they complained that consumers were not sufficiently eager to pay for news on the Internet. Papers raced to throw up paywalls to lock out the freeloaders who might otherwise see the stories and, not coincidentally, the ads that local businesses were paying to put on the newspapers' web sites.
The paywalls worked out fairly well for the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, which actually produce world-class content, but not so well for the Mulkeytown Messenger. There's a lesson in that for broadcasters and cable systems.
Punishing the customer by throwing the paper in the ditch and building paywalls -- or taking the signal off the air -- well, it might feel good at the time but like scratching a mosquito bite, it only makes matters worse.
You listening, Glenn and Les? Consumers are paying big bucks for cable. Unseemly squabbles like this simply make them determined to look elsewhere. And there are plenty of elsewheres out there.