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Journalism, Past and Future

Journalism isn’t broken, but the way this public art pays has fallen down almost completely. Given that a free people need good information to make good individual decisions this struggle is now something at the core of where a lot of things are going in the future.

The way people have made money off of journalism hasn’t changed much in at least 150 years.  The basic equation has been to separate published information into two categories – things people will pay to get the word out on, their products or skills, and information that the general public wants to know more about, the events of the day.  The former, advertising, was used to subsidize the gathering of the latter, the news.  The news itself drove readership through mass appeal and/or a perception of quality, making the advertising space more valuable.  By balancing these yin and yang, printed newspapers cost a nothing more than spare change from our Civil War on.

This model was so simple and powerful that it was able to survive the development of radio and teevee.  No one alive has ever had to pay the actual cost of the news that they receive on a daily basis.

The internet brought two important changes to “media”.  The first was the existence of interaction as a product itself, either as a contribution to the “media” or on its own terms as citizen journalism.  The second is that advertisers found that they could reach customers directly, bypassing the expensive and carefully balanced establishment.  The old revenue model that survived so many changes broke very suddenly and nearly completely.

Given that the flow of information is important to a free people, journalism has a lot of rich connections through many aspects of our culture and politics.  The stress of the collapse transmits through those connections, changing and amplifying in strange ways.   It is hard to make a complete list, but I’ll stay with media and politics.

Ethical standards were one of the first casualties of this stress.  At first, established “media” attempted to tighten their standards to inhuman levels of “objectivity” in an effort to enhance the perception of quality.  During this period “media” tended to consolidate into larger institutions for similar reasons.  Establishing themselves as rigid “authorities” was a lot like building the castle walls higher – it’s not as much stronger defense as a symbol of power.  But ethical standards meant little in this new age where stories could be endlessly BREAKING NOW!  For the new product, interaction with readers, the entire concept of “ethical standards” makes little sense altogether.  The castle walls fell as they always do when they become expensive to maintain.

Without these standards, politics was the first thing to take over.  Generating excitement is a good way to sell a product, and in politics the sizzle of anger in a citizen’s blood can be excitement enough.  It seemed to drive media consumers, too.  The politics of mass media took over, stressing posture over action.

What does all of this mean to our politics?

For starters, our politics has become rather stupid and irrelevant.  I will leave it to my friend Bria Skalsky who stated the problem very eloquently.  I dare anyone who purports to practice “politics” to answer her despair over how bad it has gotten.

People may blame media figures such as Glenn Beck for the problem, but consider for a moment the simple matter of scale.  Beck has about 4 million viewers.  In a nation of 330 million people undergoing rapid change, does it make sense that about 1% of them favor histrionics and gross over-simplification?  I’m surprised his viewership is as low as it is, frankly.  Compare it also, if you want, to the 66 million who voted for Obama.  Beck just isn’t that important.

The perspective necessary to understand this is just one example of what will have to happen. People must develop the appropriate critical reading skills to digest the flow of information that Scott Adams has described as “A firehose aimed at a teacup”, but these are terribly lacking.  Aggregators will cut down on some of the noise for us, but it’s very likely that it will take an entire generation to develop the skills necessary to be able to process information in a world without clear “authorities”. “The way it is” died long before Walter Cronkite, but I may be dead before we deal with the fallout.

Interaction itself shows an interesting response to the perception of authority as well.  People may sometimes leave nasty comments on a blog, but generally the really ugly stuff is reserved for comments in major newspapers that spent so much effort portraying themselves as “authorities” to increase the perception of quality.  I see this as just another manfestation of the “Rage Against the Machine” problem, where people interacting with computers or cars on the roads often forget that there is another human at the other end of the next machine over.  When the other end has this “authority”, the rage only becomes nastier – the image that “media” cultivated over many years is now actually working against them when it comes to an important new product.

I can’t say what the new ethical standards or business model will look like because we have not developed the core skills that will define our interaction with media.  What I can tell you is that we are all still just humans with very human reactions to the things around us.  Given that the fallout from an historic change in our media is clearly affecting a lot of our lives it seems only reasonable to go back to these basics.  None of us are particularly “objective” and very few can claim to genuinely be “authorities”. Pretending otherwise is only making things worse in the short run.  We simply have to turn down the noise.

What is happening really is a big deal.  We’re handling it very badly, but it’s hard to expect otherwise.  We’re only human, after all.  Can we start with that?

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14 thoughts on “Journalism, Past and Future

  1. A great summary of what you’ve been saying all along. I hope the message gets out. We are human, but I will object to the ‘only’ part! Dealing with this big change is a serious issue that we have to take very seriously to make it work.

  2. It’s a bit too long as a piece, but I’m commenting on some discussions I’ve had with several people over the last week. It seems to me that several themes keep coming back and one central point has to be made. I hope that this is only the start of a different kind of conversation on the topic.

  3. I don’t think we can blame the fall of journalism or its income for us getting stupider. Sure didn’t help much, but we have been getting pretty dumb for a long time. I like it better when you go after the “experts” who don’t know what they are doing.

  4. What about MPR/NPR? They don’t get any money from commercials, so people do pay pretty close to the real cost based on donations.

  5. John:

    There is a good reason that MPR is a target lately, and it has a lot to do with their revenue model not breaking like everyone else’s. The Strib has good reason to be afraid, IMHO.

    But look at the Annual Report, esp page 5:
    http://minnesota.publicradio.org/about/mpr/finance/annual_report_2008.pdf

    MPR gets 13.8M$ of its 80.5M$ from individual contributions – that 17%.

    But there’s more to it than that. I can’t find it again, but I remember once seeing a breakdown of those individual contributions by what services people support. If I remember correctly, the share of “Classical Music Only” plus half of “Both Classical and News” added up to about 60%.

    IF that is right, I have trouble believing that the expenses of Classical are as large as news gathering – it’s a person in a booth spinning discs, fer goodness sake! So I have a sneaking suspicion that Classical Music is subsidizing News at MPR. But I can’t prove it.

    Can anyone help me with this?

    If that does prove to be the case, individual contributions to News are probably around 10% of the News budget, which is similar to what subscriptions pay at a paper, if I remember right (or at least ballpark).

    Interesting, no? It’s still a very different revenue model that hasn’t broken yet, but the statement “people don’t pay the real cost of their news” holds. 🙂

  6. Very interesting…an elder friend of mine recently referred to the “mens underwear index”…I wonder if anyone is tracking that one…may be a reference to a time that doesn’t translate globally?

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  8. Update: I hear from a totally unreliable source that Classical is indeed the largest source of income at MPR and a decent “profit center”.

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