BLAME

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.

14 thoughts on “BLAME”

  • 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.

    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.

    The railroads were only killed by the "better" technologies of airlines and highways because the extremely dense source of energy embodied in petroleum has been extremely cheap for the last 100 years. Notwithstanding the laughable dreams of "green energy" fantasists, the cost of energy is increasing now, and rapidly and permanently so.

    Assuming we don't return to local agricultural feudalism, and manage to retain industrial capitalism at some level, the railroads will be back with a vengeance.

  • NB: I am not an economist, just ask my bank manager.

    The railways in America were most certainly surplanted by planes and cars, but a good part of that is down to successful lobbying on the latters' parts. I'm not going to bore you with my "trains in Europe are awesome" rant, but rather my "trains in China are awesome!" gambit. And they are– the Chinese are ploughing another $50B into its infrastructure because it *works*, is more energy efficient than trucking, and takes pressure off the roads. I spent two months in China this summer and I LOVE the trains there– they're cheap, fantastically comfortable, and go almost everywhere you want to go. Call me a dreamer, but I'm excited about Obama's plans for America's trains!

  • The other night Dan Rather was on The Daily Show. Apparently he is reporting for "HDnet." All through the conversation about Afghanistan Rather kept referring to "we" and "us." It felt like he was a spokesman for the State Department and Pentagon rather than an independent reporter. Not that I found him particularly relevant when he was with CBS.

    I've noticed lately that as Print Newspapers try to branch out into the web with blog-like reporting, they start imitating and copy/pasting. It's always great when a stuffy old paper discovers FAILblog or whatever and gives "The top ten…"

  • Fears to the contrary about the direct correlation between higher bandwidth and lower IQs, paper will never go out of style. Reason? Paper don't need batteries. As long as there are books, there will exist the potential for a depth of knowledge, depth of personality, and most important, meaningful communication, which produces culture, which, in the final analysis, keeps us all from being just the glorified chimps we all individually are.

  • I would like to vouch for NPR (and PRI, Pacifica, etc.) as a traditional news source still worth its salt. It has done a laudable job of weathering the recession and evolving its web presences to reflect new technology without necessarily jumping on every goofy tech bandwagon that clatters by.
    Like the most of the internet, NPR is nonprofit, and while it's not free to run, it has enough of a reputation as an ethical, unbiased, industry standard that great journalists are willing to work there out of love and donors still feel good about opening their wallets. The main advantage for me over internet reporting (besides just liking having Renee Montagne's soothing voice in my ear) is that they still have international correspondents on the ground and doing good reporting, something most online English-language news sources don't have aside from personal blogs by those who live abroad and aren't professional journalists.

  • The Economist does not seem to be losing readership. I wonder if it's got anything to do with them trying to do a good job by, you know, making some actual arguments in their articles. Or using some evidence. Or trying to look at issues with some dispassion (at least sometimes; when they cover Obama, they sound a bit like mindless Republican Lite hacks).

    The NYT could be saving itself a lot of money by getting rid of its sinecured op-ed writers. A lot of them provide a product that's sub-par and exorbitantly expensive — in a market in which there's vast amounts of better stuff free of charge, on blogs.

    Plus, some journalists have been making too much money anyway. Journalism wasn't supposed to be a cushy middle-class job; it corrupts the newsman, and makes him all too sympathetic to the ideology of those he's supposed to regard with suspicion. The Broderites have become such cretinous cheerleaders for the Establishment not least because they like being invited back for wiener and champagne at the parties of Washington potentates. Fuck'em. A real journalist is hungry, uncertain about his future, and has reason to hate the motherfuckers he's been assigned to cover.

  • Aaron Schroeder says:

    If the internet replaces traditional media, we do run into the problem of how high-input cost news gathering will get done. That kind of news pretty obviously includes the international variety, but less obviously, it includes the kind of news that comes from dumping resources into 24-hour news gathering. As an example, do Woodward and Bernstein break the Watergate story without the Washington Post having had the resources to have reporters waiting to be in the right place at the right time? Without having spent years developing relationships with politicians and other officials? I mean, it is strange to think that Deepthroat-2020 would shoot a quick text over to Drudge (although, maybe not that strange).

    Either way, without institutions likes the New York Times, and the NBC/GE/COMCAST corporate machine, one suspects that those high-input media responsibilities might have to be met in much the same way that the Brits meet theirs. NPR, anyone?

  • If there is any question about the future of news media, it can be answered by looking carefully at the pie-chart located here

  • Well-written post, Dr. Ed! All good comments, too, esp. Desargues.

    A cogent argument (to me at least) in favor of traditional news is that professional journalists have vested interests in getting the story right, unlike internet bloggers. You apparently think that the large numbers of bloggers will circumvent this problem, since the magic of hyperlinking will allow real information to outcompete misinformation. An apt analogy is how native wildflowers will eventually outcompete weeds during prarie restoration. My question is, do you think there needs to be any incentivization for news-making? How should this be accomplished?

  • "A cogent argument (to me at least) in favor of traditional news is that professional journalists have vested interests in getting the story right, unlike internet bloggers."

    The incentives are already in place. We already see bloggers getting the story right BECAUSE they want to get it right and develop a following for being so. The reverse is also true in print where we have the Kristol's and Douthat's of the world, wrong about everything but could not care less.
    I understand how this could be seen as a possible argument but in the real world it already has been settled.

  • I'm following you up until that last sentence about financial interest. Besides the obvious megawad of crap on the internet, the most significant weakness is online media's ability to gauge public interest in a story IMMEDIATELY, by click-throughs and such. They don't even have to guess which stories might be useful, newsworthy, important, etc., they can publish only what is POPULAR (e.g., celebrities) and see direct results in site statistics, with which to entice advertisers. Online media have even less reason to report objectively or report responsibly than print media and more ability to report for profit. There will soon be no ratio at all in the signal-to-noise equation.

  • The incentives aren't to be accurate, they are to build a stable of readers to whom you cater. To the extent you can find readers who are primarily motivated in finding accurate, high quality info, and who are discriminating enough to be able to detect which kind is which, then you can be… I don't know, there has to be a place like that.

    To the extent that lots of people just want their biases catered to, you can happily be Fox news, or Red State or similar (or HuffPost or Kos???) and have people coming back again and again for more. to the extent that people want intelligent and reasoned debate, you can be a niche blog. But probably just a niche.

  • IMHO the night true journalism died on network TV was Ted Koppel's last night on Nightline, which has now become a tabloid 'news' show.

    Investigative journalism on TV is dead. The networks run one 'murder mystery' after another.

    Pitiful.

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