Computers, Privacy & the Constitution
Are today's news organizations sustainable on their current revenue models if you cut the cost of physical printing and distribution? I think the answer is that it may be viable for some companies, and others feel the same way. Consider the following two bits of news. First, the NY Times Company turned a minor profit in the 2d quarter of 2009 even after discounting one-time savings and accounting adjustments, despite plummeting advertising revenue. Second, in a recent flurry of articles, op-eds, and responses over Ian Shapira's WaPo column, the president of Media at Thomson Reuters had this to say: "the Internet isn't killing the news business any more than TV killed radio or radio killed the newspaper... (industry) leaders continue to help push the business into the ditch by wasting "resources" (management speak for talented people) on recycling commodity news. Reader habits are changing..." More to the point, Hugh McGuire of Book Oven bluntly stated "why would newspapers pay a staff writer to spend a full day investigating & writing a 1,500 word fluff piece when there are a million fluff pieces all over the web getting published every day? What value are they adding to the info marketplace, and is that value worth the money/time they've spent on it?"

The takeaway here seems to be that there are too many newspapers writing too much useless crap. It's not just an outdated distribution model holding them back. It's an outdated model of what's being distributed. And if that's the case, why do we need to so many papers anyway? Do I really need a Washington Post, LA Times, NY Times, Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, and take your pick from the McClatchy? company story on the same event? All of those papers are flagships of different newspaper conglomerates. It seems to me that consolidation is inevitable.

Nicholas Kristoff's formulation of "The Daily Me" underscores the problem. The amount of written content on the internet is overwhelming, and not just content, but specialized and industry/topic specific content. Why does a national circulation newspaper need an arts page? Or any other specialty section? As consumers break content apart and consume just the pieces they want, specialization is bound to occur. I don't read the NYTimes for technology related news, I read Ars Technica instead, which does a good deal of its own reporting and analysis. While Kristoff sounds an appropriate warning about viewpoint insulation that might result from such self-editing, there's a tremendously self-righteous claim underlying the warning – that members of the institutional press like the NYTimes are somehow neutral and objective in their editing and reporting, while a reader left to his or her devices would select bias-confirming sources instead. The institutional press has peddled its fair share of biased and subjective reporting.

This brings me to the second inquiry, where does hard news come from? A leaner newspaper enterprise that spends less time contemplating the quandary of upper-middle-class Manhattanites looking for private kindergartens would have more resources to spend on "real" news. Leave the soft news for another business model to handle.

Similarly, a leaner "real" news focused enterprise could make its bones on investigative journalism. That being said, I think the importance of institutional backing to investigative reporting is overstated. Granted, I haven't seriously studied the muckrakers since high school, but they seemed like fairly entrepreneurial folks, with their own muckraking focused magazines. It might be a sustainable model today. Breaking free of a model of investigative journalism that emphasizes old content delivery methods, there are alternative streams of revenue. In particular, modern day muckrakers can take a page out of their forbear's playbook and start publishing books instead of newspaper or magazine stories. Ida Tarbell turned her articles into a book on Standard Oil. Jacob Riis published a book. Upton Sinclair used the novel genre. Cliff Levy's way isn't the only way to get investigative journalism published.

The real distinction between sources of information is how they're funded. If a slimmed down institutional press is the outcome of the current industry upheaval, the next question is how do aspiring journalists who aren't working for the institutional press keep afloat? Will free-lancing and solo reporting through a personal website or blog generate enough income? Or maybe we should take a market-based approach to this – if your reporting isn't generating enough income to support it, it isn't worth reporting in the first place. This can work today in ways we'd never imagined before.

A presenter at the Kernochan Center's Google Books Settlement Conference decried what he perceived to be the growing inability to make a living as a writer and asked rhetorically "do we want to live in a society where only the Medici can write?" His query ignored the crucial change in the 500 years since the Medici ruled Florence- we now live in a society where everyone can publish. The underlying worry of the aforementioned writer is that this new society will lack the old financial incentives to write and, relevant to this inquiry, to report. But news reporters aren't necessarily in it for the money, and we definitely want to live in a world where the Sulzbergers, Murdochs, Grahams et al aren't the only ones who can publish. If the reporting is worthy, the eyeballs will come.



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r11 - 17 May 2010 - 16:35:23 - RazaPanjwani
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