Archive for May 6th, 2006

The Thinker

News is not free

Newspapers are in trouble. Readership is down. People have discovered that they can get free news online much faster and more conveniently, and the information is fresher. By the time my newspaper lands on my driveway around 5 a.m., it is already yesterday’s news. Who wants yesterday’s news when you can get today’s news online and instantly? News aggregators like Google News can tailor the news to just what interests you. Thanks to the internet, you do not even have to stray beyond the news that interests you.

Newspaper readership is down. In addition, news providers are consolidating. Journalists are joining the manufacturing sector and are finding pink slips on their desks. In-depth reporting is becoming less frequent because it is too costly. It seems that the internet has exacerbated our national attention deficit disorder. It seems we are far more interested in what is happening right now than in understanding a particular issue in any depth. Just as USA Today seems to many to be a dumbed down newspaper, and CNN Headline News a shallow version of CNN itself, Yahoo News and Google News tempt us with news that tastes good, but has little nutritional value. You might even call it junk news.

Newspapers have reacted to these trends in part by putting their content online. They are also finding increasingly clever ways to target relevant advertising to us online. This revenue model may in time prove viable. Thus far though few newspapers have succeeded in running profitable web sites.

I am one of many people who get much of my news from blogs. I haunt web sites like Daily Kos because I get news that I find more relevant there. To find the same news online at news sites like Yahoo News, I have to invest much more of my time. I am fully aware that blogs like Daily Kos though do not present an unbiased version of the news. This is also true of conservative blogs like Little Green Footballs. Most news and political blogs cherry pick the information and spin it for their readership.

Some now get our news entirely from blogs. We pick the flavor of blog that most tickles us the most and spins news the way that meets our predispositions. Like a nice fluffy sweater, blog news can feel very comfortable so it is easily habit forming. In addition, for the most part, we do not have to pay for it. The larger blog sites like Daily Kos can actually pay all its expenses from advertising and subscriptions. However, most blogs are like mine and exist largely for our own amusement. When blogs succeed financially, it is usually because they pimp news from other news sources. Ethical blogs will provide excerpts of articles and link to the original articles, perhaps proving a new revenue stream for news providers. Others, like Steve Gilliard’s News Blog, reprint news article in full, and thereby likely deny the news provider any potential revenue.

A few wholly online sites like Salon do both investigative reporting and analysis. To make it work though costs serious money, which is why on Salon you either cough up $30 a year to subscribe, or deal with the increasingly annoying ads. Because this economic models have not typically proven profitable, web sites that do their own reporting are very few and very far between. Salon has turned a small profit, but has spent most of its ten years of existence losing money. Its long-term survival is very much in doubt.

The general trend is clear: increasingly we are unwilling to pay for our news. The internet gives us the illusion that news is free. With fewer people willing to pay for news, standards suffer and journalists lose jobs. Our online news more resembles The Today Show than The New York Times. I hope I am not the only one disturbed by the trend. I wonder if the reason our media did so little in the way of investigative reporting prior to our War in Iraq was simply because the revenue stream was not there. Their bottom line does not necessarily serve the public’s need to be well informed.

Sites like Josh Marshall’s Talkings Point Memo and Juan Cole’s Informed Comment do a good job of providing unique perspectives. Nevertheless, even Josh and Juan could not provide it without ready access to abundant news sources. For the most part, they are not doing their own research. They are summarizing research and news collected by other, and adding to it their own highly educated perspectives.

Therefore, it is a dangerous illusion to depend solely on news from blogs, since blogs depend on news sources. By linking to these news articles, it may be that over time this model will spur the revenue needed by these news originators. With more money, news sources can do the journalism needed to keep both themselves in business and the public well informed. Of much greater concern to me is that present trends in news may mean the death of investigative journalism and balanced, well-researched news articles.

If that happens, it will also mean the death of an informed citizenry. For information is not free. The consolidation of the news business has the effect of providing fewer points of view and less in the way of investigative journalism. I see this already happening, and it disturbs me.

I may be old fashioned, but I will not give up my newspaper. I am fortunate to be able to subscribe to The Washington Post. I still read news online and in blogs, but my most meaningful news comes from The Washington Post. Unfortunately, the Post is not immune to the trends in the newspaper industry either. While doing better than most newspaper, it is also reducing staff.

I find something pleasurable reading a newspaper. Maybe it is because it is a physical product rather than a virtual one. The mere act of flipping through its pages means that I am more likely to read stories. I have yet to see a metaphor on the internet that works as well as flipping pages through a newspaper. A 1280 x 1024 pixel page in a browser cannot show the content of a typical newspaper page. It is easier to browse a newspaper for content than to surf a web site. Reading a newspaper helps me consider other things happening in the world. With a newspaper, I am no longer constrained by the top fifteen stories that Yahoo News chooses to present.

If you care about this country and our world, you should support investigative journalism with your money. Supporting sites like Salon is fine, but also consider your local newspaper. Start reading Vanity Fair and The National Review. If you are strapped for money, there are good independent news sources out there. NPR is readily available, as is C-SPAN and the BBC. Use the internet as a news source, but not as your only tool. Supplement your time on the internet by reading newspapers, magazines and books. Yes, you have to pay for such information, but often the information content tends to be much better. As a result, you will be a more informed person with a clearer view on how to deal with our increasingly complex world.

 

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