Over the last few days a debate has emerged (or more accurately continued) between those who think newspapers in their current form are socially desirable and should be supported to continue in more or less their current form and those who think that the entire institution has come to an end and is in the process of being replaced. The person who is for the ‘old’ is Dean Starkman who wrote this piece in the Columbia Journalism Review. His target is everyone who disagrees with him by advocating a new news future; the so-called ‘Future of the News’ group. That group is probably led by Clay Shirky who has just written a response to Starkman. Each accuses the other of zealotry and they are both right there. But I think that, in many respects, the debate is seriously misplaced (i.e., the woes of news outlets may have more to do with advertising than with the demand for news and its production) but it may take me a little while to get there in this post.
Let’s begin with Starkman. His article is long but I think this sums up his problem with the Shirky crowd:
According to this consensus, the future points toward a network-driven system of journalism in which news organizations will play a decreasingly important role. News won’t be collected and delivered in the traditional sense. It will be assembled, shared, and to an increasing degree, even gathered, by a sophisticated readership, one that is so active that the word “readership” will no longer apply. Let’s call it a user-ship or, better, a community. This is an interconnected world in which boundaries between storyteller and audience dissolve into a conversation between equal parties, the implication being that the conversation between reporter and reader was a hierarchical relationship, as opposed to, say, a simple division of labor.
By contrast, Starkman argues that there is something important in what I guess we could call professional journalism led by the prime examples of important investigative reporting that led to real policy and political change. On that I am pretty sure no one disagrees. Do we want a means whereby independent investigations conducted by people or teams dedicated to the truth can receive funding? Absolutely. The question is how to get it.
Shirky’s response is provocative with great statements that get you thinking. For example:
Institutions are designed to reduce they choices for their members, but they only happen to reduce the choices in society. A publisher may want reporters at their desks at 10 am, and to be the main source of breaking news for the paper’s readers. The former desire is under the publisher’s control; the latter not.
Now this seems easy enough to describe, but people inside institutions tend to confuse the two, to believe their institution is in control of both their daily routine and their destiny. And of course, the longer any given institution maintains a stable role, the less that role seems like an accident and the more it seems like a robust feature of reality.
He is speaking here of the editorial function of newspapers. They take the huge volume of things they could report and choose to report something less than that. The consumers suck up the end product.
But what happens if the consumers are more fickle? The model of editorial selection and control works fine when people have — by cost or choice — access to only one news outlet. But when they have access to thousands, what exactly are the editors doing? The model of “give us your attention because we can efficiently give you the news you need and want” becomes harder when consumers can more easily divide their attention. In effect, a newspaper used to offer a product “read us and you won’t miss something important” but now many consumers have other ways of “not missing out.”
Note something critical here: the “not missing out” view of a news outlet’s role is very different from the “gathering the news” view of that role. The latter is the feature that extolls investigative journalism that brings new things to light. I would wager that the “gathering the news” view was never really responsible for the regular readership of a news outlet. If a newspaper got an exclusive, that would lead to a surge of papers sold at the time, or more generally greater attention captured. But how often would that translate into stable market share? To be sure, continue to get scoops and you’ll switch people towards your outlet as loyal readers. But the primary thing the outlets are doing is aggregating news found more generally. And it is that function that has been disrupted.
The Internet has solved the problem of getting news so you don’t “miss out” so we don’t need outlets for that anymore. This function can be funded at pretty low cost and embedded into routines of enough news organisations that there doesn’t seem to be a real issue. It is a commodity. Indeed, our problem is that so much can be routinised that way that we can lament information overload still. The point is that it is hard to distinguish yourself as a news outlet from the crowd with that function.
But the “gathering the news” bit is a problem. If previously this part — being expensive — was funded by the promise of an improved regular readership, then that promise is no longer there. But in its place is a continued demand for great stories. The problem is that the commercial reward for it — increased subscriptions, sales and ad revenues — cannot be relied upon. Put simply, the investigative story has become unbundled from the main business of news organisations.
This is the uncomfortable situation that the ‘old zealots’ have trouble grappling with. There is still demand but the previous model of supply is not working. But the ‘new zealots,’ to be clear, have not offered much in the way of help. Shirky says that experiments will find the right model. Others in that group say that we will leave the professional investigative reporter behind and some other form of hybrid reader/reporter/network model will take its place. To be sure, the observation that readers can help generate news is hardly new. I’ll wager that the Watergate informant was a regular Washington Post reader and if he had not been that story would have gone to another outlet. So I must say that I have sympathy with the notion that there isn’t really a substitute for professional journalism even if the set of people who might actually conduct it may have grown a little.
So how will investigative journalism get funded? If the product is unbundled, then it has to be considered as a separate product. Now one way this could occur is that the story gets posted, it attracts millions of readers and that earns advertising dollars. That is great in theory but it also heads us straight towards a key fact: the trouble the newspapers find themselves in is not a lack of readers per se but that the product they offer to advertisers is now broken. Like consumers, advertisers went to outlets because they knew they would find regular readers there. Now that isn’t the case. And if your readership is skewed by the occasional blockbuster story, then you are worst for wear. What precisely is it you are selling advertisers? It isn’t access, as your readers can be accessed elsewhere. Put simply, advertising is a bad way to fund occasional visitors especially if you don’t know a lot about them.
What the old and new news zealots fail to appreciate is how important it is that advertising markets aren’t working right. If they work well, you grab some attention and will receive advertising dollars that reward you for grabbing attention. If they do not work well, then grabbing attention isn’t enough. Thus, what we are seeing may not necessarily have anything to do with how news is produced per se but instead the mechanics of the supposedly unseemly advertising side of the equation. If that is true, then there is undue focus on changing the production function of news and whether it turns out that the balance of output from professionals or others has changed is completely immaterial to the problem at hand.
I have some ideas about how we might re-envisage the news industry where advertising markets have been disrupted but I have exhausted myself and probably your patience in getting to this point and so will leave that to a future post.