A Philosopher's Blog

There Was the News

Posted in Business, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2010
Front page of The New York Times on Armistice ...
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The news, it seems, is in danger. The most obvious sign is the fact that printed news media is not doing as well as it once did. However, other forms of news media are facing challenges as well.

One obvious factor is the web. Newspapers, which were having a hard enough time competing against TV, have not fared very well against this medium. Part of this is simply the way advances in technology work (when was the last time you heard a town crier or received a telegram?). Part of this is due to the  disease of “freeitis” that infects the web. For some odd reason, many of the folks driving the expansion of the web were able to sell business on the idea that they could make money by providing stuff for free. While this has helped Google (they make good money putting ads among all that free content), this has not worked out so well for the news providers. After all, it makes little sense to pay for news that you can get for free on the web.  Amazingly enough, few of the geniuses behind this realized that free stuff generally does not generate much in the way of profits without there being stuff that is not free.

Obviously enough, news companies need to find ways to monetize the news on the web. While it will be difficult to cure people of freeitis, it can be done. People will, after all, pay for content. The success of iTunes, Kindle and so on have shown this. However, the news folks will need to step up to the challenge.

Another factor is consolidation. Most of the media is now owned by a very few large corporations and this has helped reduce the number of news sources. While this allows large news companies to exist and gain the advantages of having considerable resources, it does tend to thin out the alternatives. This can, as some have claimed, lead to media bias due to a lack of diversity.

This challenge is a tough one. After all, getting the news can be an expensive operation and this seems to require that news companies be large. For example, a small town newspaper or blogger probably cannot afford to send journalists to Iraq to cover the war or even to Washington to report on politics there. That said, smaller news operations can do well, provided they find a niche. Interestingly enough, local bloggers and news has been doing quite well in some places. After all, CNN is not going to cover a local clam festival in Maine or the local events in Tallahassee, Florida.

Yet another factor is that the news business model is based primarily on advertising. As such, the news has to provide what will attract an audience. One effect of this is the existence of partisan (biased) news services. Fox News  and MSNBC rather clearly present a political agenda and even CNN has been accused of a liberal bias.

But, someone might point out, Fox News is doing great. How is this a problem? The problem is not that Fox News and others are not providing content. Rather it is that they are not really providing news. While a degree of bias is unavoidable, there is a clear and meaningful distinction between news reporting and commentary masquerading (often very poorly) as news. We are in an ocean of news, but it is a case of  “water, water all around…but not a drop to drink.”

In terms of fixing this, the fix lies with mostly with us. The media folks give us what we want and if we want pseudo-news, that is what they give us. As such, we need to be more critical of the news and push the media folks towards being fair and balanced. We also need to push for higher quality content.

It might be wondered why this matters. That is, why worry about the news? Why not just let the news media become partisan fluff and let the blogs take over?

One selfish answer is that most bloggers need the news. After all, it is rather hard to write about current events, politics and so on without a source of information. Like most bloggers, I shamelessly make use of the news. I am, however, careful to credit my sources and provide links to the originals. I also make a point of subscribing to news magazines even when I could get the information for free.

That said, much of the information in the news is provided to the news companies by governments, businesses, press agents, and non-professionals (like the iReporters of CNN). In reality, news companies devote few resources to investigative journalism. As such, bloggers and their kin could do a lot of what the news folks do now (that is, get emails from politicians and companies).

However, the professional news agencies do engage in journalism and investigation that the bloggers and their kin lack the resources to do. Additionally, the professional organizations have (or often have) credibility that arises from a review process that bloggers and the kin generally cannot match. Naturally, their are bloggers who are professional grade and news organizations do make serious mistakes (and suffer from bias). Interestingly, bloggers who become professional grade often transform from being just bloggers to true news folks and editorialists. As such, what might occur is not so much an extermination of the news in favor of blogging, but an evolution of both blogging and news towards a somewhat new form of information and commentary. After all, the traditional news folks have moved towards the web and many bloggers have started moving towards the roles played by the traditional news folks.

Another answer is that the news, despite its problems, is a critical part of democracy and having informed citizens. It is no accident that the founding fathers provided protection for the press and also recognized the importance of the news. The folks in the media often serve a vital role in exposing problems and dangers-such as corrupt politicians, dangerous products and so on. As such, the news folks are an important part of our society and social system. Professional news and professional commentary are well worth preserving. While times seem tough now, I have confidence that this is primarily a transition and evolutionary phase for the news-rather than a slide into extinction.

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6 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on May 24, 2010 at 7:34 am

    Here is an experiment. Listen to the audio version of the Economist, and then listen to NPR.

    You’ll begin to wonder why NPR doesn’t cover the news.

  2. ajmacdonaldjr said, on May 24, 2010 at 9:58 am

    You make some very good points here.

    I think traditional print media news, especially newspapers, are feeling the pain more than anyone else. The cost of being online is virtually zero as compared with the cost of printing a daily newspaper.

    Truckloads of paper and ink are very expensive, costing millions of dollars per year.

    The best thing about the internet news and bloggers is the diversity. It’s a true deregulation of the older print media, of all sorts, via a new virtual paper (like ipaper or epaper).

    When it comes to information, free is good.

    Most writing concerns ideas and the internet allows writers to put their ideas out into society for free and the internet also allows readers to gather these ideas for free.

    As with the printing press, the internet is a technological revolution that has created an opportunity for people with social-political-religious ideas to spread their ideas to the general public.

    Todays bloggers are very much like yesterdays pamphleteers, who were more concerned with making ideological converts than they were money.

  3. Jaimie Gould said, on May 28, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Newspapers do not even make good toilet paper.


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