Response To “Ink-Stained Wretching”

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Hi, Tom:

I both agree and disagree. Let me begin with an easy point of opposition: Google is not stealing content or revenue from the NYTimes. GoogleNews — and Twitter and Facebook and various and sundry other filters — help people find content, help drive traffic from people who would not have gone to the news site otherwise. To believe that Google News steals revenue is to believe that readers go no further than the headline (most of its links) or the headline + the first sentence of an article.

Although most people who use blogging software to publish online are providing commentary, some are providing context that newspapers do not. Let’s face it, the online news model has been a form of shovelware. Put what runs in the paper on the Web. Don’t link out, whether to material referenced in the article (a bill, for example, that needs a thomas.loc.gov link) or to other sources (even their own archives!) that might provide context.

Journalists are using blogging software to do serious reporting — from hyperlocal sites (WestSeattleBlog) to political investigative reporting (TalkingPointsMemo).

In the main, mainstream newspaper organizations ignored the hyperlocal market, just like they ignored eBay and Craigslist and Monster.com.

By this I mean that they fell into the trap articulated by Clayton Christensen (1997, Innovator’s Dilemma, Harvard Business School). They focused on “sustaining innovations” (usually along the line of saving money and reaping more monopoly rent) and thus were fair game for disruptive innovation like those listed above. There is a very good reason why newspapers – which had a monopoly on classified ads – missed these boats in the mid-1990s: they were focused on protecting the business model that they knew, not on creating a new one. That’s classic monopolistic behavior.

Josh Marshall at TPM now has staff. But more importantly, he has an active community. That’s how he could do grunt work — the less glamorous part of investigative journalism — like reviewing hundreds (1000s?) of pages of White House documents. Recall, they broke the U.S. Attorney scandal, not the White House Press Corps.

That leads me to another point of contention: the implication that democracy is doing well under the current system. I’d argue that it is not. The press corps did not speak truth to power on the two biggest stories of the decade, Iraq and the banking crisis. In both instances, MSM have done/are doing a mea culpa. Falling down in that watchdog role (and they can’t blame the first one on the Internet, that was 2002-2003) has helped put this country onto shaky and questionable financial footing.

That said, I agree with you that there does not appear to be a simple model to replace the daily paper’s newsroom.

News today — especially the kind of public service journalism that we are all concerned about — has the characteristics of a public good. Public goods are things like lighthouses and the fire department (assuming it has more than one fire truck). First, two or more people can share the benefit of the good without infringing on one another’s experience. In economic terms, the good is non-rival. Second, it’s not possible or reasonable to exclude someone from using the good or service.

Digital information – in its native state – is non-rival and non-excludable. There’s a reason the “information wants to be free” meme has lived as long as it has.

Yes, it’s technically possible to firewall content – make it pay-to-view. Every attempt to do so — except for specialty content (finance, Consumer Reports) — has failed because more money is lost from advertisers (and links) than is gained in subscriptions. It didn’t work with early adopters in the 1990s (Slate) and it didn’t work with early majority in the 2000s (Times Select). Even The Economist opened its site.

It is possible that this imbalance will change when more people are online. I don’t know, but I suspect that the answer is no it won’t. We newspaper subscribers are paying for convenience (we’re buying time) not for the content. [Most of us don't have a commute like yours, Tom.] What can be more convenient than going to the website when I’m ready to check on today’s news?

The final area, one where we agree, is on the motivation for existence. And this relates a little bit to the public good bit.

For the mega-corporate entities that own most newspapers in the country (see Ben Bagdikian, New Media Monopoly), the run-or-shutter decision is based on what makes Wall Street happy, not what is best for the community or for “democracy.”

I do think that a community-journalist run cooperative news organization might work in mid-sized markets, but only if the option is no newspaper whatsoever. Which brings up yet another issue: the digital divide.

There are no easy answers, only painful questions.

2 thoughts on “Response To “Ink-Stained Wretching”

  1. downdb

    “We newspaper subscribers are paying for convenience (we’re buying time) not for the content. [Most of us don't have a commute like yours, Tom.] What can be more convenient than going to the website when I’m ready to check on today’s news?”

    It may seem small, but this point needs to be brought up every single time someone makes a comment about how much better a printed paper is for reading on the train or subway.

    Hey, mass transit is great, but for most of us outside of the NYC metro area, it’s a non-factor. Being able to read the paper on a train, while an experience that seems near and dear to the heart of many a defender of the traditional journalism trade, is much farther down my list of priorities than being able to get the news I need when and how I want it.

    Besides, even if I *were* on the train (or in a waiting room, or in line at the supermarket…), I’d much rather have an RSS feed I can get on my smartphone than a pile of paper.

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