Newspapers and the Internet

Over at the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell has published a review of Chris Andersen’s new book “Free”. It’s a bit of a rambling piece (OK, reading this intro over after having finished, I’m not one to talk), in which Gladwell doesn’t so much review Andersen’s book as say it’s dumb and then go on and offer his own opinions, but then again, the subject matter is such that it’s hard to be direct without being, as Gladwell calls Andersen, “pithy” and “uncompromising.” The argument is no less than the internet and the future, with Andersen holding the standard for the everything-will-be-free-,-adapt-or-die team, and Gladwell saying hang on just a minute. It’s worth a read.

A lot of argument has gone into this topic. It’s surprising, given how long the internet has been around, that we still both think that it will change so much and have no idea as to how much or in what ways. This is especially true for journalism. For years now, the liberal intellectual world has been a collective kid waiting for a shot, clenching our jaw and expecting any moment for newspapers to be shut down and replaced by Fox News and the Drudge Report.

Gladwell and Andersen each touch on the topic of journalism. Gladwell gives us a newspaper sob story about the Dallas Morning News not being paid enough by Kindle for its content, while giving examples (WSJ) of newspapers that have managed to charge quite successfully for their content. Andersen, at least as Gladwell interprets it, basically offers newspapers an ultimatum: “To the Dallas Morning News, he [Andersen] would say the same thing. Newspapers need to accept that content is never again going to be worth what they want it to be worth, and reinvent their business.”

And yet the question that no one wants to ask is, what exactly is the content worth? Sure, the cost of transmitting the content is falling, but the situation facing the news industry is very different from that of the media industry. Music and movies have value that people are willing to pay for, but when there is a free alternative, they don’t, even if that alternative is illegal. No one is pirating news. It wouldn’t be hard for someone with a log-in to the Wall Street Journal (one of the few subscription-based periodicals) to write a script to pull up all the new articles added by the journal and repost them on a website hosted in Belarus, but no one does.

Where the music industry suffers from identical content being delivered by different methods, the traditional journalism industry suffers from different content being delivered by the same methods. Newspapers could charge for news subscriptions and make a strong profit, if there weren’t a bunch of online competitors offering their product for free (and of course if the consumer values the two products similarly). So then back to the original question, what is news worth? Just think about what exactly news is worth to you, and you can get a sense of why that question is so difficult for the journalism industry to consider.

Let’s back up a step even further. What is news? News is a lot of different things, even within one publication. On the NYTimes website, you’ll find breaking news, longer pieces on trends, editorials on issues ranging from very topical to irreverent, advice columns and self-reflections on belly-buttons. If news never existed, and in 2008 some clever individual tried to sell the newspaper business model to a venture capitalist, they would be laughed out of the room and told to go to business school. For centuries the model has worked because the most efficient way to transmit information about what is going on in the world was to print it on a big stack of cheap paper and bring that stack of paper to someone’s door. Ideas and information just couldn’t move very fast otherwise, so sticking as much of it as possible into one publication worked well enough. Obviously, ideas and information now move pretty fast.

Here is my overly simplified view: newspapers used to serve, and try to continue to serve, four functions: information collection (finding a piece of information, or news), information transmission (making that information known to the end users of the paper), information analysis (developing and presenting a perspective or opinion on a topic that is seen as well-reasoned and accurate) and information selection (picking what to report on and what to analyze and how to present it). All four have been impacted in different ways by the internet.

Information collection is one area where the traditional format is not working out very well for newspapers. With internet (and even just pervasive cell phone coverage), information is easy to both and pass on. We’re coming to a point in time when we don’t need journalists present in every part of the country, gold-digging for facts. Consider the Palin resignation speech press conference. Do we need reporters there? Can’t we just stream the video to all the news channels, from where they can do what they want (I mean, we do this anyway, so why have the reporters there at all? Can’t you phone in the questions? Would Palin feel awkward talking to an empty room?)?

Not is information allowing news companies to access their subjects remotely, but information has an easier way of making it to news companies on its own accord. Whatever issues I had about the way the Iran situation was covered, it is difficult to argue with wealth of information that escaped through the cracks of the media blackout that was imposed there. When people talk about a new generation of “citizen journalists” is developing, they (hopefully) don’t mean a generation of citizen Seymour Hershs or Bob Woodwards, just a bunch of eyes and ears that can gather information and transmit it. Some will argue that this information will be imperfect and sometimes biased. True enough, but that’s the nature of information. Having lone, stationary journalists stationed around the globe, with only the sources they have at arm’s length, however romantic, has its own set of limitations. Generally speaking, I’d say the quality and quantity of information available to the general public has improved drastically since the internet, and little of that has been from innovations made by newspapers. Collecting information, in other words, is shifting away from the purview of the traditional model of journalism.

If that’s the case for collecting information, it is doubly so for transmitting it. Let’s be honest about something, once we have the information, putting it into a presentable form for the end consumers is not the most intellectually taxing activity (if you follow much financial journalism, it can be a downright silly one, but that’s a topic for another post). I’m not sure how much money the Times spends having specifically its reporter write up its articles, but I’m guessing that it’s more than the value being added. Make no mistake, a professional journalist can turn a large amount of information into a good, concise piece, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best use of their time. The concept of news wires was a big step towards consolidation, but that was ages ago. The digital age will require an even bigger step. The analytical content on a typical newspaper article just doesn’t merit the expense that is currently being put into it.

That brings us to the third aspect of news, news analysis. While I think that newspapers as we know them are pretty much over if the previous three paragraphs are true, I think there is money to be made in news analysis. It’s not surprising that the NYTimes kept its editorial section behind the pay-wall for much longer than its news articles. More analysis based periodicals like WSJ and FT have kept up their subscription walls pretty well, highly analysis based magazines like Harper’s have done it even better (the New Yorker is a mixed bag, with no apparent system for what’s free, while the Economist is definitely the big exception, with all of its content free online. As an aside, who are all you people who won’t read the Economist online, even if you don’t have access to the paper copy, because it’s “not the same as having the real thing”? You give liberal arts educations a bad name).

It’s interesting that analysis is the one thing people get really worried out when they talk about the fall of old-school journalism. People assume that once newspapers are gone the vacuum will be filled by crazy bloggers with extremist agendas and a disregard for facts. I think the opposite is true. Information gathering and transmission is an expensive process – you need people moving around, you need technology, etc. Analysis, on the other hand, just takes thinking. There is a lot of excellent analysis being done on the internet, with most of it supported by just ad sales, because traffic is actually strong for these sites. And I think people will continue to pay for the long-article, in-depth research pieces that you see in the New Yorker and NYTimes Magazine and such, simply because there is no substitute (unlike headline news, which you can get basically anywhere).

If all this is true, newspapers as we know them will basically be undone by the weight of trying to maintain analysis and information collection all under one roof. Information collection will be done in some even more centralized fashion, more reliant on information that is already freely being provided within the digital realm. Analysis, being an actual unique product, will migrate towards paid services, which people will be more willing to pay for than basic news, and which will also be relatively cheaper to produce.

So then the last newspaper activity, information selection. This one, from a bit of a meta perspective, is the most interesting in my opinion. When you have a handful of large, national-readership papers, and when they do have total license to deliver news in all of its many forms and permutations, they have a lot of leeway in terms of what content they can put in their pages (as long as the cover the 4 or 5 stories that are really pushing the news – TV has found that all they need to do is push these 4 or 5 [or 1] stories for hours at a time to make money). This means that if you consistently read, or at least glance through, the whole paper, you will have a pretty solid idea of what’s going on in the world.

Now, one of the consequences of major newspapers becoming less relevant has been their replacement with smaller, more specialized forums. This has supposedly given rise to what MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte termed “Daily Me” (Nick Kristof wrote a recent column on it). Rather than being given a pile of news-on-paper, we go to these more specialized forums, and we go to the ones that agree with our pre-determined views. These forums agree with these views, and thus offer us positive reinforcement, inclining us to return to them for our information.

I have two takes on this. The first is that some of this could be romanticism of the olden days. The fact that the internet at least gives us the opportunity to explore so many different viewpoints, even if we then fall into a habit of reading one of them, is a step up from a time when, sure, we got all our news from one diverse(ish) paper, but in terms of social pressure only received pressure from our close peer group, because we had no real possibility of exposure to other peer groups.

The second is that traditional newspapers are pretty limited in what information they offer on a topic. You won’t be interested in a lot stuff going on in the news, while for the topics you are interested in, you’ll probably go to website devoted to those topics. The Times’ coverage will not be the best for every topic, it probably won’t be the best for most topics. Nate Silver for election predictions, Andrew Sullivan for the Iran riots – so many examples abound of specialized forums delivering better news than newspapers, in terms of both content and analysis, for the topic they cover. These specialized forums, though they tailor to specific interests, create a wealth of information that couldn’t exist pre-internet. Can it be wrong it only read news about the Iran riots, because those interest you, at the cost of reading news about Honduras’ political disaster?

This goes back to one of my original questions (that I subsequently ignored) of what news means to you. Why do we read it, why is it important? Entertainment? Knowledge? Well-roundedness? These will be important questions to answer, much more so than in the past. When news was relatively scarce, you could actually consume most of it. Anyone who “followed the news” closely probably knew a substantial amount of what was being reported in their country at the time (kind of like Aristotle might have been the last person to know every piece of knowledge that was accessible to him). Now that we have access to so much news and analysis, it would be impossible to sort through it all.

Here, Andersen (remember him?) makes an important point. He states that part of accepting the Internet’s role in society is moving from a mentality of scarcity to one of abundance. We are not lacking information – on the contrary, there is way too much of it. Figuring out our own internal algorithm for what is important, what is worth consuming, will be integral for allowing us to take advantage of the changes in the news industry.

You’ve made it this far? I’m impressed. Here’s your prize:


2 Responses to “Newspapers and the Internet”

  1. 1 David(P) July 9, 2009 at 3:16 am

    Seth Godin (one of my fav bloggers) has a great analysis on this debate as well. Check it out:

  2. 2 JSC5 July 14, 2009 at 10:55 am

    Not to go too social sciency on this, but I’d offer an additional legitimate function of traditional news outlets: providing a common fact base.

    It’s pretty important for citizens in a democracy to be able to speak to each other in the same language, which means we all need to be conversant in a wide range of topics. There’s a reason all kids are forced to attend school, and it used to be that all adults were forced to absorb information from the same news sources. That way, at least we can understand each other during debates.

    One of my own fears is that if we loose a coherent and relatively cohesive national news media, we’ll start to sound unintelligible to ourselves. Just consider the kind of difficulty a normal liberal has talking to a real Marxist. Just what is solidarity anyway? We don’t know. Not part of our language. Luckily no one really talks like that in the US. We have other ways of expressing similar points, which everyone understands because of our shared media exposure. But now we can see the cracks forming. ‘Daily Me’ is a real problem because it is balkanizing our political language. Witness my inability to understand what Sarah Palin is talking about.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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