BLAME

Posted in Rants on December 9th, 2009 by Ed

It's no secret that traditional news media are in dire straits. Network television news has become almost completely irrelevant while 24-hour cable networks, the last innovation to revolutionize the way we consume news, are scrambling to recover the audience they're losing to the internet. If you don't believe me, try watching CNN until you hear the word "tweet" or "blog." It won't take more than five minutes. Radio has all but disappeared as a primary news source. And the newspaper industry…good lord. These are the end times for them. Circulation is down 7,000,000 per day since 1985 and in the past 12 months alone ad revenue has plummeted 19%. I've said enough over the years about the sorry state of print media, and it's nothing you don't already know if you've picked up a newspaper in the last few years. Even the New York Times is hurting, and lesser papers, the Chicago Tribune for example, are so thin they could scarcely provide enough square inches to serve as fish wrappers anymore.

Like the railroads or any other industry backed into a corner by technological changes making them obsolete, the traditional media are baring their claws and preparing for a fight – one of the vicious, desperate fight-for-your-life variety. The latest hue and cry focuses on the role of "aggregating" websites, places like Huffington Post or Digg which collect the most interesting bits from hundreds of sources and provide them free and without requiring a subscription. Ms. Huffington herself points out that:

So now sites that aggregate the news have become, in the words of Rupert Murdoch and his team, "parasites," "content kleptomaniacs," "vampires," "tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internets," and, of course, thieves who "steal all our copyright."

It is very convenient for the champions of the obsolete technology to vilify that which replaces them, and frankly their argument is not without merit. The internet is undercutting them precisely by providing more variety, as-it-happens delivery of breaking news, and a user-end cost of zero. Dozens of traditional media websites have attempted to set up "paywalls" – in other words, charging for access to content – and in nearly every instance the scheme failed miserably. Ironically it is the lack of rigor in the print media that undercut the attempts at paywalls; papers have gotten so lazy and so reliant on AP/Reuters/wire/syndication copy that a reader could simply steer away from pay sites and find literally the exact same story elsewhere gratis.

It's a compelling story, and a story as old as industrial society. New technology crushes old technology, the latter of which can offer little more than appeals to tradition and nostalgia. The internet killed off newspapers just as airlines and highways killed off the railroads, which killed off the steamboats, which killed off the keelboats, which killed off the Indians. But this explanation is far too convenient for the traditional media because it allows them to ignore their responsibility for their own demise. Yes, it's time for some victim-blaming.

The internet is not simply killing old media because it is newer-faster-cheaper. It is killing old media because it is providing a far better product. Wha-wha-what, you say? Yes, there certainly is a lot of shit on the internet. But consider this: on the two biggest news stories of this decade, and possibly of a generation, the traditional media absolutely and irrefutably failed us. Compare the performance of internet "news" – blogs, amateur journalists, basement and bedroom analysts – to the paper-and-ink media on the run up to the Iraq War and the 2007-2008 subprime mortgage-driven financial crisis.

Which media provided facts and which one toed the party line? Which media did the digging and fact-checking that is supposed to be the foundation of journalism and which one unquestioningly parroted Official Sources? Which one offered loud voices saying "Um, these claims about Iraq are utter bullshit" or "Hey, people should pay attention to this bomb that is about to detonate under our economy"?

God help me, I am about to use a football metaphor. An American football metaphor for those of you who think soccer is football.

The old media, at least after they decided to stop questioning Official Sources and serve as stenographers, are like one person trying to tackle a runner. If they miss the runner, no one else is there to tackle him. The internet is like a gang of tiny people trying to tackle the runner. One person can't do it. She'll bounce off, but she will slow him down just a bit. And then two more little people will jump on the him. And then ten more. And then a thousand. And before you know it, the runner is buried underneath thousands of little people.

The internet is flatly better at serving the purpose our media is supposed to serve. The traditional media run a headline – "IRAQ WAR CLAIMS MAY BE BULLSHIT" – and maybe it sticks, maybe it doesn't. If it doesn't, that's it. They move on, and their need for ratings and profit demand that they rapidly move on to something mindless but titillating. The internet, on the other hand, greatly reduces the odds of stories falling through the cracks. People swarm around stories that seem to have legs, re-posting and forwarding and generally doing a good job of getting more people to take notice. And therefore important stories might be brushed from the headlines but they don't just disappear.

I don't want to wax lyrical about the glories of internet journalism because I know just how much utter crap and misinformation circulates online. Yet no matter how disappointing the signal-to-noise ratio may be, there is some signal. If a story is relevant or newsworthy, someone will catch it. Someone will ask questions, do the fact-checking (thanks, Media Matters and FactCheck.org!) that the news media are supposed to do, and persist long after the newspapers and cable networks have decided that it is not ratings-friendly or in their financial interest to run stories about things people should know but prefer not to.

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