Sunday, January 04, 2009

More News

I love David Byrne's music, but I feel compelled to disagree with his recent blog post in which he opines that the bankruptcy of the Tribune Company is leading to a world in which we will have "No More News." I would, by the way, complain on his blog but he doesn't provide a comments capability. Perhaps as a public figure of his stature it is impractical to allow comments since moderating them would be such a time burden. But lets bookmark this point for a moment, as I think the lack of dialog (and perhaps the lack of understanding of what this dialog brings) contributes to Byrne's misunderstanding of what is happening in the media ecosystem.

The basic point that Byrne makes has certainly been repeated endlessly - the Internet has radically transformed the business of news and the companies which have understood how to make a living collecting and distributing news in the last century are failing to find a new model as the fundamentals of this business change. Byrne also mentions (though without commentary) the fact that the people running these news businesses have been making changes which make them even less relevant. I thought this observation was particularly well stated:
Likewise, these newspapers have dumped most of their foreign bureaus, food critics, and film critics, and are loathe to assign reporters to stories that will take months to research and write. In doing so, they are eviscerating that which makes newspapers different from online reviews, blogs and websites.
But Byrne goes on to complain that there is an enormous threat to our democracy because of the decline of these traditional news businesses and I think this is a mistake.

It is undoubtedly true that we are in the midst of an enormous tumultuous period of change for the news business. It is also true that from the perspective of the traditional news business, their model is being eviscerated. But this does not mean that there are no possible models for a news business. In fact, I believe that the future of news is very bright and that as a society we will (and in some cases already are) enjoy more news content not less in the future.

First of all, Byrne ignores the fact that bloggers and "citizen journalists" are already making an enormous impact in challenging entrenched media interests and bringing more facts and more "sunlight" into our political processes. The political campaigns of the past year showed how effectively the non-mainstream media could play a role in debunking lies, providing information which would otherwise not have made it into the limited space of broadcast media, and giving people with specific local information a way to get that information to a national (and international) audience.

The wonderful NPR program "On The Media" recently had a segment on the Japanese Kisha Press Clubs which make transparent a fact which is as surely true with our mainstream media -- that journalists will sometimes become too friendly with the people that they are covering in order to obtain access and that this closeness will then taint the coverage of these people. The Kisha Clubs institutionalized this closeness even going so far as to manage a list of issues which all participating journalists (which is to say, those that got access to representatives of the government) would agree NOT to cover. And this is only coming to light now because of bloggers.

Journalism will change, the business of news will change, but rather than looking at the failure of the traditional news media as being a threat to democracy, as Byrne does, I prefer to look at the strength of our democracy as being the force which will lead to a new journalism and a new business of news. This was certainly the case for the newspaper industry we have today. Newspapers were started by people passionate about the mission of the fourth estate and only later were taken over by accountants.

Al Gore, in his closing keynote speech at this year's Web 2.0 Summit conference, provides an interesting perspective on the broadcast media industry. In brief he observes that the printing press started a process in which knowledge was democratized but that television (and in general the concentration of media ownership) was a "re-feudalizing" force in our society for the past 50 years. Concentrating ownership and control of the media into a small number of corporate interests reduced the number of voices participating in the conversations of our society. While one could certainly point to the tendency of some news vehicles (like Fox) to use this power to promote a particular ideological position, the more frequent result was blandness.

Social creation of the news is removing the blandness and is a force FOR democracy. The future of in-depth reporting, investigative journalism, and foreign news desks, which Byrne worries we will lose, will emerge from this creative power of social production. We are still in the infancy of this new medium and we have a lot to learn still about what forms this NEW fourth estate will take. But I already believe that we are witnessing an explosion of news, not an elimination.


Meow said...

Hi Ted, thanks for pointing me to Byrne's post, and for pointing out very clearly and concisely what you think he missed out on. Great points! One big question i still have that does not seem to be addressed: Given that sustained investigations and well thought write ups remain key (paid staff), and democracy on the production and consumption (free social media and distribution) would improve on that, what would be the model that would sustain both? This is the perhaps the oxymoron that is tearing both sides up, since they DO need each other

Ted said...

Hi "meow" - thanks for your comment! I agree that your question is unanswered. Part of the point I am expressing is my confidence that the question will be answered -- that the strength of our democracy and society will lead to the development of a model which does allow for sustained investigations and thoughtful writing. I think the big shift is to stop thinking that advertising is going to be the model -- until we fully recognize that advertising is not going to work, we will get hung up on this seemingly easy answer and not do the hard work of coming up with a truly new model.

Ming Yeow said...

Hi ted, meow = mingyeow :)

Thanks for the clarification, i very much agree now with both points. The really important point i think you are making, is this:

" think the big shift is to stop thinking that advertising is going to be the model "

I consulted for a large press arm, and it was amazing how they are extremely stubborn on focusing on increasing page views, practically ignoring other forms of monetization (e.g. providing referrals from their articles towards paid services).

It was an almost blind belief that as long as they get page views, they could monetize at some point, despite the fact that they were staring at tonnes of empty inventory and terrible CPM.

Politics did not help, either. There was an (almost) paranoia around cannibalizing offline classifieds revenue in anyway, despite the fact that we were looking at very different audiences.

I think i wrote more than i wanted to, just wanted to say that i agree - there ARE lots of monetization models out there, and newspapers have the unique ability to provide editoral control over all the crappy UGC out there.

But they really need to get past the more eyeballs = more money paradigm....

I think you need one brave newspaper to blaze a trail - any idea who that might be? =)