Free enterprise just hasn’t been good for journalism

Paul Steiger - Propublica

If you were thinking that the Internet ruined journalism, you’d be wrong; it’s competition and free enterprise that destroys the noble profession.

At least that’s my reading of Paul Steiger‘s speech last week as part of the Ralph McGill lecture series at the University of Georgia. He says many items are published on the Internet merely to generate page views to feed the CPM model of advertiser-supported media

In his day, it was, … well, not so different. Steiger recalls many similarities between news coverage today and what it was when he was a “kid reporter” at the Los Angeles Times in the 1960s:

When I was a kid reporter at the LA Times in the 1960s, some of the veteran photographers and reporters regaled me with tales of how they used to sit in their cars with motors running, radios tuned to the police band, so they could be first on the scene of a gangland slaying or a spouse-stabbing, the bloodier the better.

There weren’t one or two papers competing for audience, but six or seven, and the more lurid the page-one photo, the hotter the per-copy sales, which were the lifeblood of circulation in those days.

There was serious stuff in the papers, too, like Korea and the Cold War and polio vaccine, but much of that was available to everyone and left to the wires to report. The premium, then as now, was on speed.

In betwixt then and now, newspapers culled competitors and gained monopoly markets. Steiger says the monopolies metro newspapers enjoyed for decades allowed for high quality journalism and even ethics. Huge profit margins allowed the expensive kind of investigative journalism that is part of the “fundamental underpinnings of our democracy.” Heady stuff for the beneficiaries of monopolist media.

Now that on the Internet anybody can be a publisher, the monopolies are in declined or no longer exist. Also in decline or no longer exist are the huge profit margins. We’re harkening back to the lurid photo (now the “sexy celebrities on news aggregation sites “> and bloodier the better (or “pointless exotica as a come-on for international or national news”) to attract audience.

Maybe monopoly newspapers benefited society even as they enriched their owners. Maybe telephone service was better when there was only Ma Bell. Maybe, TV news was more responsible when there were only three networks. Maybe what was good for GM really was good for America. And maybe Standard Oil really did have our interests at heart. Even so, it’s doubtful we’ll go back.

One point that I think Steiger did nail was on the need for transparency within the media, ranging from the sourcing of information (sharing documents and data) to the process of the reporting and even to “business-side” information.

For Steiger, the alternative to the problems of funding journalism without a monopoly, is the non-profit. He is editor-in-chief and led the launch of ProPublica.org, a non-profit, non-partisan news organization doing very fine work. Nonetheless, it’s done outside the fray of free enterprise and market competition. It may be one of the new models of media, but I doubt it will become the dominant model.

(Photo of Paul Steiger taken by Luca Sartoni on April 23, 2010 and used under a Creative Commons license.)

Update
: Welcome Instapundit readers.

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16 Replies to “Free enterprise just hasn’t been good for journalism”

  1. I suspect journalism in order to succeed in the free market and in the era of the Internet will have to specialize.
    You need to become an expert in one thing before everyone else. People will pay you for that high level of expertise or advertise on your webpage to get at the eyes of the readers. And you need to write well so that people will read your stuff.
    Unfortunately that’s hard for the present day journalist who is not an expert at all. It also means that you have to work for yourself rather than feed off the organization. And that’s doubly hard.

  2. “Maybe, TV news was more responsible when there were only three networks.”
    No way. Cronkite’s reporting on Vietnam was no different than the reporting on Iraq was. Biased, false, and motivated by personal belief intending to convert the audience to that belief – far from objective. Study history. There was no golden age of “objective” journalism since the invention of the printing press to today.
    Journalism will continue to be soap opera – entertainment used to sell advertising.
    My hope is that the internet will have a positive effect on society – allowing people who are interested in learning and thinking for themselves to find the truth – and preventing those with ulterior motives from perpetuating lies. But it remains to be seen if that hope will be realized – all people are so biased by their own preconceived ideas that they are often resistant to the truth when given to them on a silver platter.

  3. Missing all the good points entirely.
    Open media markets destroy the purveyors of disinformation. There will always be another Dan Rather trafficking forged TANG documents. Now we have an army of Davids to slay these disinfo Goliaths.
    I derive no end of amusement watching the evaporation of massive investment in Leftist media. Epic comeuppance.

  4. Steiger is right. Successful owner/editors in the previous competitive era are a lot like today’s new media builders.
    Huffington and Breitbart = Pulitzer and Hearst?

  5. I would put the lion’s share of the blame on shoddy, partisan “journalism.” When an article or newscast seems to be straight out of the democrats campaign talking points (because it was) or the media turns a blind eye to lefty political corruption while jumping on completely unfounded accusations against conservatives, it creates an environment where the old legacy media can no longer be taken seriously (there’s more news in the NY Times corrections section than the rest of the paper) and people have started to look elsewhere (blogs and Fox News) for honest reporting. I don’t mind reading opinion pieces where the author is up front about their political perspectives, but “journalists” who claim to be impartial while peddling the democrat party line (or conservative…like that ever happens) are dishonest and obnoxious. The bottom line is that no one likes to be propagandized!

  6. “Maybe, TV news was more responsible when there were only three networks.”
    I guess it depends on what you mean by “responsible”.
    Shoot, by 1807, Thomas Jefferson’s opinions had radically changed: “Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”
    And people are beginning to realize the truth of Knoll’s Law of Media Accuracy: “Everything you read in the newspapers is absolutely true except for the rare story of which you happen to have firsthand knowledge.”

  7. You’re right, that is a conundrum for the typical journalist … What worked in a mass, general interest medium is precisely the wrong attributes and aptitudes for a medium that favors expert specialization in niches.

  8. When it comes to journalism, people pay for good, valuable, and unique.
    Journalists seem to think that that is also the order of importance – they think that good is more important than valuable, and valuable is more important than unique.
    However, when it comes to making money, they’ve got it backwards. Unique is the most important followed by valuable and then good.
    Unique is the most important because if someone else is providing the same content, you’re competing on price.

  9. I’m not aware of too many (being generous) MSM sources or bloggers who are actually interested in the truth no matter what it involves: they’re all partisan hacks in one way or another. The “Armey of Davids” are basically just foot soldiers for the GOP, and likewise with l/w bloggers. And, some comments above as well as the blurb given this link by Instapundit make clear that their goal isn’t the truth: they just want to replace one form of bias with another.

  10. Interesting though that you dont hear many stories about the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, or talk radio having any trouble making a profit. How come it is only the leftie news outlets going under? Maybe, once you no longer have a monopoly, you have to deliver news that your customers actually beleive, and want to hear more about, instead of dull, politically correct, propoganda. What a novel concept, actually having to please your readers and viewers. Conservatives understand that simple free market principle, lefties do not. They only understand running to the government to beg for help.

  11. Their problem is that they haven’t really paid attention to their customers, like any marketer should. They were basically a monopoly on news and opinion for so long, they assumed it was the natural way of things.
    But there was a huge market segment out there that they were ignoring, and when Rush Limbaugh and conservative talk radio, and then Fox News began serving that market segment, it abandoned the old media in droves. Young people aren’t interested in what Frank Rich and other old cranks have to say. And they can get direct access to the major press services directly. Why pay for the NYTimes when you can see the same news on Yahoo! and more diversity of opinion on blogs from every point of view?
    Part of it is technological, printed paper is the buggy whip of the 21st Century. And the internet and smart phones are the disruptive technology that will force these companies to change or die.

  12. The premium, then as now, was on speed.
    Getting a story first has and will always be the major economic imperative for any hourly or daily news business. News is a funny product. Once you sell it, everyone, including your competitors, can have it for free. The only unique thing such business can sell is having the story first. People will pay to have news first. That is the only thing upon which news sellers can base a business model.
    That is why the “scoop” has always been the holy grail of journalism. If you look at the nomenclature and even the mythology of journalism, the emphasis is always on being first to market with a story. Accuracy is just casually assumed. After all, its not like they ever pay an economic penalty for being wrong, at least in the short term.
    So, absolutely nothing we can ever do, even direct government subsidy, will ever change the culture of speed. It is hardwired into the business and nothing can change it.

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