Friday, April 27, 2007

Losing the Independent Press and the Price We Pay

Bill Moyers made waves this week with his special report on the role of the press in the run up to the war in Iraq. His story dovetails nicely with PBS Frontline's ongoing series of reports on the state of the press. Both are available online, and well worth watching. I would start with with Part III of the Frontline series, followed by Moyers's Buying the War.

Moyers has few true revelations and little new information, but it is well worth going back and seeing how badly the press got this war wrong, and revisiting some of the more egregious false claims of the pundits. Those pundits, as Moyers points out, are alive and well in American journalism. Many have been promoted. No one has been called to account.

The Frontline report helps to illustrate why American journalism is failing. No one does real reporting anymore, save a few national newspapers, and even they are cutting back. The newspapers are still highly profitable, but their readership and their revenue is in steady decline, and so sacrifices must be made for them to maintain their high margins and keep the corporate overlords happy. This was very much my concern while researching the media ownership rules last summer. Maintaining the prohibition on TV-newspaper crossownership has long been a central goal of the Democrats with respect to the media ownership rules. While I certainly see the value in that policy, for me the financial well-being of our newspapers has to be the top concern. I'm frankly not sure whether they would be helped or hindered by relaxing the cross-ownership rule. But I think we have to be willing to try anything that might preserve our last bastions of actual journalism.

Of course, the Moyers piece illustrates that even when newspapers have the resources to perform serious research they can fail to use them when caught up in the political conventional wisdom (as was the case of the New York Times and the Washington Post with Iraq). The conventional wisdom is created in part by the efforts of political actors (the White House in particular), but also by the media itself when it parrots the lines fed to them by those political actors. When real journalism is a small slice of the news media universe it seems that it is easily cowed by the overwhelming majority of the press for whom statements issued by the White House define reality. There needs to be a critical mass of independent press for news outlets to gain the courage of numbers to be willing to take risks.

Neither of these two pieces paints the whole picture on its own, the business of the news and the politics of the press, but together I think they give us a good look at what has gone wrong. The newspapers have a long way to go before they can recoup their lost hard-copy profits through their online presence. Given how much the internet has shaken up other industries, it's not clear they ever will. If they don't we can look forward to further setbacks to the quality of journalism in the US. We need to start to consider the degree to which quality reporting is a public good. In my opinion, in a democratically governed nation, journalism is the highest order of public good. The public cannot make informed choices if there is no one to inform them. If the market is unable to provide what we need, we will have to explore other avenues.


Henry said...

As I've said many times, I believe that the issue is much more one of demand than one of supply. I think there are still many good journalists, freelance reporters, etc. There just isn't an audience to listen to them (or rather that audience is more on a scale to support blogs than televison networks).

If the consumers demanded independent investigative journalism the major media companies would be crawling over each other for fresh stories. The reality is that a network that offers marginally more informative content does not gain viewers relative to one that offers marginally more entertaining content.

Unless we are going to remove the entertaining distractions, or mandate that all citizens read/watch some government approved media source, no amount of subsidization of quality news will be able to prevent people from ignoring it.

Joe said...

There's some truth in that, however, as far as I can tell the shift in news content and newsroom staffing has been supply-driven rather than demand-driven. It's not the people really asked for infotainment, it's that it is orders of magnitude cheaper to provide it than serious reporting. It has been a cost-cutting maneuver more than anything. It may be the case that viewers don't mind or don't care. I think it would be extraordinarily difficult to mine the data to make that determination in any conclusive sense. Certainly the primary news vehicles of 30 years go (network news, local TV news, metro newspapers) are in steady decline. But there are so many factors involved in that, it would be hard to break any one out. But I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that people are just as happy with the reporting they get now. It could very well be that the audience has tuned out due to newsroom cost-cutting, but not in large enough numbers to offset the financial benefits of the cuts.

The Frontline program discusses a little bit about how the networks, in the early days, didn't even think of their news departments as profit-making parts of the business. They were run for the public benefit, primarily in order to keep regulators at the FCC happy with letting the networks use the public RF spectrum. In essence it was a public news subsidy. When the FCC stopped caring, so did the networks, and we got infotainment. Given the history it seems plain to me that regulatory action can make a difference in this sphere.

Joe said...

Additionally, I think there is something of a market failure occuring in the newspaper business. The online news world (bloggers and news aggregators and the like) are heavily dependent on newspapers as inputs. Without the papers' original reporting, there's be little for the secondary news digesters to chew on. And while the newspapers are unable to make much money online, the secondary news digesters are doing great.

In theory when the newspapers go under some other market structure could emerge to continue to serve as an input for secondary news digesters. But I don't see how it would work. The secondary news digesters aren't going to pay for it directly, because whatever they pay for will immediately become a public good that the other secondary news digesters will free ride on... The secondary news digesters are too disorganized (and there are too many free speech issues at play) to form any sort of collective where they share the costs. The market could very well end up being denied what it wants in terms of secondary new digestion because there doesn't seem to be a good market mechanism by which the primary sources are financially viable. That's the sort of situation where I think it is appropriate to consider some sort of collective (government) action.

Joe said...

There are like 20 typos in that last comment... too bad you can't edit these things...

Henry said...

I'm inclined to say that people who want more information can easily access it. There is obviously a lot of good information online from many different sources. I suppose that is to say that a significant part of what is happening is a transition from one medium to another.

I think that the internet is probably a better medium than television for good journalism. It is much less centralized. Centralization and the momentum of huge institutions, are things that I think are inherent problems with the network news. The liberalization of the means of distribution can do alot for journalistic independence. I'm sure Joe would agree with these points.

Of course none of that addresses the problem of who is going to create the journalism. Where will the money come from? It is true enough that most bloggers today just reprocess information that has originated elsewhere. Insomuch as many news junkies now spend more time reading blogs than newspapers and magazines one could even argue that blogs are paracitizing the cash flow of the actual news generators.

It is, however, almost trivial to note that we are in a period of media transition. I think that media as an ordinary profitable industry is on its way out. That may sound rather extreme to some, but I find it fairly straight forward. The simple fact is that it is quite easy to replicate and share content we like with as many people as we want. For free of course. So any media that can be digitized is already operating on a de facto voluntary contribution basis. I think there are three ways for media to be created, each of which will likely play a role in the future of news. These are: media funded by advertising, media funded by voluntary contributions, and media funded by involuntary contributions (subsidized).

I think the potential role of voluntary payment could be quite large. I won't go into it here. I might devote a longer post to the idea some other time. I just wanted to say that I could easily envision it as a very significant segment of the market.

So the media models of the future are those that do not rely on monopolization of the content, becuase such monopolization is just no longer feasible. I think that the media environment that will emerge based on these modes of operation will be diverse, competitive, and robust. I really don't see the elimination of the traditional sources of journalism as a threat to journalism itself.

In fact I think the flow of information might end up being reversed, with journalists, whose foremost venue is the internet, selling their content to paper media outlets for those discerning readers who prefer a hard printed edition.

One final point I will add is that I don't think that the new media environment will have a 'commanding heights' so to speak. I think the idea of improving the quality of the evening news is that it has a privledged position and that it's a broad platform for the dissemination of information. But I think that active individual managment of media is becoming more and more mainstream. I'm not sure that there will be an equivalent to the frontpage or the evening news in the future. There will certainly be popular shows and websites but each viewer's exposure will probably be highly individualized. From '93 to '04 viewership of local news fell from 77% to 59% and that of network news fell from 60% to 34%. If you look at the demographics you find that the numbers are considerably worse for those under 50. This trend will probably continue. The media environment is becoming increasingly flat and I don't think that there will really be any center stage to target. Although individualy popular pieces of content will likely achieve very high levels of viewership, due to their desirability rather than to their occupying some priveledged position.

I could go on speculating about the future of media for a very long time. I've only writen down a small fraction of the ideas that have come to me while writing this. I'll stop now though.

I've also often wanted to revise comments. It's too bad that they don't let you. The whole blogger comment system could use some improvement in my opinion. In fact I think it would be great if more media, blogs but also the traditional media, like, would implement a /. like comment system. It would be so fantastic.