11 April, 2009

Media Elite: This Whole 'Competition' Thing is a Bad Idea

Since this came out over the weekend, I haven't seen too many people link to this yet, but the Atlantic and the National Journal put out the results of a poll of media elites yesterday that asks them whether the rise of the internet is a net positive or negative for the news. And guess what - they all hate it! Well, 65% of them, at least, say that the internet has hurt journalism more than helped it. Well, the good people over at Politico aren't going to take this lying down. Michael Calderone, for one, offers a ringing defense of his primary medium by venturing that " I think the Internet offers the potential to enhance journalism" (emphasis mine).

These claims seem incredible to me, the avid consumer of news. The idea that readers were better served ten, twenty or thirty years ago I find laughable. The range of options available to the interested individual -- at a moments notice I can find a Cuban dissident blogger, local analysis of Indian politics, lengthy conversations between interesting and brilliant people, etc etc -- are so much broader, so much better, and so much easier to access than traditional print or television journalism product that I think you have to be in pretty steep denial to not realize the leap forward we've taken. But of course for the producers or beneficiaries of an outdated, shitty product (and the people interviewed were by and large not even reporters, but editors and talking heads, so they are themselves not even the producers, but just the middlepeople) are going to squeal at the rise of a medium whose structure leads to more dynamism and competition.

Take the claim about the internet that

It has blurred the line between opinion and fact and created a dynamic in which extreme thought flourishes while balanced judgment is imperiled.

To begin with, I tend towards the opinion that "balance" - at least in political reporting - is at best an empty feel-good bullshit mantra, and at worst a cover for malicious intent. (For instance, climate change denialism's political strategy is clearly predicated on the understanding that if they produce someone with a Ph.D. to make their case, the media will, for balance's sake, give them equal time and credulity.) And anyway, how can these doucheburgers make this claim about "the line between opinion and fact" with a straight face as the Washington Post proudly publishes George Will's blatant lies, and then, when called on it - by, ahem, the blogosphere - they can't even bring themselves to offer a correction. We're supposed to look to Mark Halperin and David Brooks and who knows what other clowns for "balanced judgement" on the issues of the day? Please. I am far, far better informed by the ongoing, often partisan debate between the likes of Paul Krugman, Brad Delong, Tyler Cowen, and other full-time experts/part-time journalists - that is, I feel I have more real balance in my thinking due to being able to hear and judge many different voices from many different perspectives - than if I were to rely on the aristocratic monkeys of the traditional media to create some sort of artificially "balanced" take.

Then theres the claim that

The Internet trains readers to consume news in ever-smaller bites. This is a disaster for newspapers and magazines.

Maybe this is true generally. But, anecdotally, its the opposite for me. Sure, I read more small bites of news - but this is because my total consumption has expanded dramatically. I also now read long essays in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books, because they are cheaper and more convenient to access than before, and many of the blogs I read link to them for their arguments. Sure, I watch short, stupid clips on YouTube. But I also watch full-length speeches or lectures or documentaries. The above phrase sounds like a bitter euphamism for "the Internet trains readers to consume news online because it is cheaper, faster, and more integrated with many other sources of valuable information, and that threatens me."

There is a real concern here hidden amongst the self-important smokescreens. And that is if online news sources destroy the old news-gathering apparati before developing their own effective mechanisms of newsgathering, a vacuum could be created:

But the cost to the business model (R.I.P. Seattle P-I) and the inability of the business model to monetize the Internet means that there is a disturbing net cost to newsgathering. If you're not covering your state delegation in D.C., or the state legislature back home, or the city council, bad things are going to happen, undiscovered.”

This is true. The traditional media - especially at the state level - has played a critical role in providing investigative journalism, and a world without that kind of journalism would be worse off. But I'm not sure why the internet-based media won't evolve to perform this function. Outfits like the Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo are examples of online media producing, and not just commenting on, the news. FiveThirtyEight, with its two guys, provided better on-the-ground reporting and analysis of the past elections than, say, Newsweek, or, god forbid, cable news. And state level publications like WisPolitics.com are growing up to cover all the turf that the dailies cover, and more.

Long story short, thinking that the internet has been a net negative for journalism is pretty much crazy talk and says more about the blinders of the media barons than anything else. But rather than seeing this as some sort of battle to the death, its better to think about it as a re-equilibration: many traditional outlets will die, but some will survive, likely becoming hybrid print-online resources, like the New Yorker or the Atlantic, which are pleasures to read on the glossy page while sitting on the porch sipping your coffee, but which also host a broad array of online content.


spencer said...

Nice rant. This is a good example of how dying industries resort to more and more ridiculous arguments to justify their continued existence. But the government dole does not yet appear to be forthcoming in the case of the mainstream media, unlike, say, the auto industry. Why is Detroit getting a bailout and not the MSM? Maybe because car manufacturers are located primarily in Michigan and so have two senators at their disposal?

Eremita said...

I agree completely that it is ridiculous to assume that the internet will kill the journalism industry. It will change journalism, like it has changed anything, and with some careful guidance by consumers, the internet will change the media for the better.

I can't resist commenting, however, on the claims about balanced journalism. I know this will be a rehashing of my old arguments about this, but I do think there is something to be valued about objective journalism. I don't think that is at all the same thing as "balanced" journalism, which is just a cheap way to play lip-service to the idea of objective journalism while undermining it.

BUT, there is still a value there, in the idea of objective journalism. Yes, there are major grey areas, and yes, we want analysis sources that are biased, that is the point of them - they have a viewpoint. Still, I want to hold some news sources accountable, and to demand that news sources that claim to be comprehensive report news even when they don't think they can spin it to their viewpoint.

Right now, we as consumers have allowed news sources to make more money by ignoring this value - so not only do they spin the news they do report, but they feel free to fail to report anything that doesn't fit in their spin machine. We ought to feel there are some news sources that don't do this, or at least value doing less of this.

I think the only thing we can do as consumers to effect this change is to demand this kind of reporting from some of our news sources. This means we have to train ourselves to value FULLY REPORTED NEWS over "balanced" news and over news sources that claim to give us all we need to know, but don't.

spencer said...

I would be interested to know what current news sources provide fully reported news.

Eremita said...

None, that's why we have to demand it as consumers.

Although...I am willing to admit it's not completely possible to do or monitor, and so we might have to settle for news sources that we think convincingly seem to try. That kind of standard isn't perfect, but it will weed out the worse offenders. I'd be willing to put the BBC out there as one that tries.

Elliot said...

I think news consumers have felt what Eremita articulates for a long time. The key point, however, is that before there was no mechanism to hold the traditional news sources accountable in the way that she wants. Because of the very high cost of entry to starting your own newspaper or, even worse, television or radio station, alternatives were few, and consumers had little leverage. If you were a crazy rich guy like Rupert Murdoch and you thought the conservative viewpoint was underreported, then you could start your own news channel, but the rest of us were out of luck.

The internet, I think a bit ironically, is that paradigm shift that allows us to push for more objective journalism. It allows for the range of options necessary for consumers to exercise a meaningful choice. Whatever your definition or opinion of objectivity in journalism, there really wasn't anything you could do to enforce or influence it, as a consumer, before the advent of the internet.

And while I was stating my frustration with artificial balance in the strongest possible terms, I do agree there is a place for "straight" reporting and analysis of events that seeks simply to transmit the what, where, when, how, and background context with the self-conscious intention of presented a balanced, disinterested portrait of the story. I think I square that by arguing that for that model to work, it needs constant watchdogging by the independent, partisan media on all sides - which couldn't really exist before the internet. So in that sense, its a symbiotic relationship, and the rise of the internet provides a crucial, and previously non-existent, lever of accountability over the "objective" media.

Eremita said...

Exactly, sounds like Elliot is articulating well what I meant to say. The internet affords the individual consumer a much increased ability to effectively demand certain kinds of news, or certain ethics behind the reporting of the news. I think there is obvious value to be seen in demanding "objectively" reported news as well as other kinds of news, and the internet is built to accommodate both demands.

Optimistically speaking, the success of the internet and more effective consumer demand might help save giant news companies. If consumers demand (reasonably) "objective" full news sources AND (biased) analysis (blogs), big news companies might be able to say that they are uniquely positioned to provide full news. They'd have to change their product of course, but they might survive. I think that would be an overall good. (While thinking it is an overall but unnecessary good, I am thinking about the NYTimes, not really about Fox, though the same thing might save them both.)

spencer said...

I don't see the breakdown of the market mechanism that both Eremita and Elliot are claiming. It's not that most consumers are secretly pining away for more objective, intelligent journalism, while having infotainment and talking points forced down their throats by Rupert Murdoch. They like what they have! The mechanism is simple--if you don't like what's on, you can watch something else. TV networks are paid by advertisers based on how many people are watching. So there's a clear incentive to give people what they want--and based on Fox News' ratings, it appears that people want infotainment and talking points.

So I am not optimistic that new mechanisms like the Internet are going to allow most consumers to "effectively demand" the news they want--they already have it. However, the Internet is a big boon for people like us: high-information, educated, urban, arugula-eating news snobs who want objectivity and thoughtful analysis. We can use the ability of the Internet to create niche markets and get exactly what we want. But for people who care less about news and current affairs (i.e. most people) or people who just want to plop on the couch after a long day of work, Bill O'Reilly and Keith Olbermann are just fine.

I don't mean to sound overly cynical, but I do think that we cannot just rely on consumers to "effectively demand" what we want is not enough. I think we need to see changes in institutions--the rules that govern the system--if we want to spread the virtues of objectivity to the proles. It's interesting that your one example of a potentially "full" news source is the BBC--a government-owned network! Let's not jump to conclusions and nationalize CNN, but some government intervention, if not government funding of news divisions, may be necessary.

Eremita said...

Of course consumers are partially to blame for the abysmal news system because they willingly demand (that is consume) infotainment. But it is foolish to think that the only thing worth discussing is what we want, and not what we want to want, or what we should want. Especially foolish for anyone who admits the power of demand.

The rise of a new industry, media, etc. gives us a unique opportunity to have a public conversation about what we should be demanding. The spread of the internet and its effect on the news industry is one of these opportunities. It would be a waste for the public to be happy with the internet being a news tool of the arugula-eaters, when - with some thoughtful exercise of demand - a multi-dimensional and dynamic industry could be incubated.

spencer said...

I don't think anyone is to blame for the state of the media, exactly. I don't think you can blame people for doing what's best given the incentives they face. I think what we have is a big collective action problem. Maybe everyone would be better off if we had an objective and careful media. But no single individual can do much to change this, and so watching PBS instead of Fox isn't really worth it--except for the people who actually prefer PBS (of whom there are few). This is why just trying to convince people to demand, through the market, a better media isn't going to help much and perhaps government intervention is required. I guess I don't admit the power of demand in situations like these.