A new news media emerges for our new world, unseen and unexpected

Summary:  One indicator of the massive changes sweeping America is the destruction of longtime solid business models.  This post discussed colleges; today we look at the news media.  Tons of ink have been spilled on this, but IMO ignoring some likely outcomes.

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The major news media are on a treadmill. Loss of credibility shrinks their audience, hence less revenue, hence reduced funding. Which reduces the quality of their product, hence even less audience.  Worse is the loss of advertisers to new media (e.g., Craigslist and Google), which means less revenue, less funding for news collection, and smaller audiences.

This post speculates about the future, what new models might emerge from this turmoil.  Here are some guesses.

Contents

  1. Fewer providers of news, operating with higher profit margins.
  2. A US news media more like Europe’s, with a wide range of partisan viewpoints
  3. A radically different system providing local news.
  4. Articles elsewhere about this topic.
  5. For More Information

(1)  Few providers of news

Technology has opened the market for news to new competitors. The effect is similar to rapid cheap transportation’s effect on your great-grandparents’ general store: it created overcapacity. Most local outlets are uncompetitive, and there are far far too many national and global major media companies. Time will thin the herd, probably leaving fewer but stronger survivors.

The primary fact — ignored in most essays on this subject — is that the media are mostly distribution outlets for the actual producers of national and global news: the wire services.  The major newspapers and TV networks also originate some of the news.  Everyone else does little but re-distribute news and press releases.

The Internet gives the few news producers a direct channel to a new set of end customers.  Their current customers are merely an expensive distribution network.  They need to re-define their customer base and to either ring-fence their output (limiting access to subscribers) or sell advertising.   Direct distribution eliminates a whole level of costs, making it possible for the few surviving news gatherers to enjoy healthy profits by some combination of these means.  A smaller pie for the industry, but far fewer people feeding off it.  Most of the current news media must die before they survivors enter the promised land.  The transition will be painful for everybody — the dying media companies, the survivors, journalists, and us.

Of course, news is a global business.  Premier firms like the Financial Times and Der Spiegel are producers of global news, now with improved access to US (and world) customers.  Advertisers with global brand names will be natural markets for the few survivors.

(2)  A US news media more like Europe’s, with a wide range of partisan viewpoints

A likely outcome is a US news media more like Europe’s, providing a wide range of viewpoints from explicitly partisan news media companies.  Would that be better or worse than what we have today? I suspect it is a more stable outcome. Maintaining professionalism — in the sense of balanced and fair — requires much work from both journalists and their customers (us). Probably more effort than we’re willing to make, over the long haul.

(3)  A radically different system providing local news

Few local media effectively cover local civic news, outside a few major cities. Typically anything that bleeds gets its 60 seconds of fame, and investigation of local elites is almost unknown. I wonder if there is a real business here. Perhaps some sort of community nonprofits will form to cover local news. Partly hobbyists earning a pittance but having fun, with adverts and donations covering costs.  Much local news will be easy for amateurs to cover.  Sports and politics are the prime examples, easy to cover and with large audiences.   These will be great networking opportunities, and amateur news stars might wield substantial local influence.

These locals might become de facto “farm teams” (recruitment and training apparatus) for the surviving major media. Bloggers might become marginally paid reporters, analysts, and pundits for the media (trading their work for fame and exposure). That is, the major media might use locals and bloggers to enhance their reach and lower costs.

Imagine local news provided by amateurs, including poorly paid, often part-time entry-level professionals.  Local news websites might act as like farm teams in baseball, with the major news services recruiting the best of them.

(4)  Articles about this topic

Some articles by Clay Shirky, IMO one of the most insightful observers of the decline of the mainstream media business.  They are at his blog, unless otherwise stated.

Other articles

  • A 2007 Zogby poll of public satisfaction with the quality of journalism.
  • Priced to Sell“, by Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, 6 July 2009 — A review of Chris Anderson’s new book, Free: The Future of a Radical Price.

(5)  For more information from the FM site

To read other articles about these things, see the FM reference page on the right side menu bar.  Of esp interest are:

Posts about America’s mainstream media;

  1. More post-Fallon overheating: “6 signs the US may be headed for war in Iran”, 18 March 2008
  2. The media discover info ops, with outrage!, 22 April 2008
  3. Only our amnesia makes reading the newspapers bearable, 30 April 2008
  4. Successful info ops, but who are the targets?, 1 May 2008
  5. The myth of media pessimism about the economy, 13 June 2008
  6. Keys to interpreting news about the Georgia – Russia fighting, 12 August 2008
  7. “Elegy for a rubber stamp”, by Lewis Lapham, 26 August 2008
  8. “The Death of Deep Throat and the Crisis of Journalism”, 23 December 2008
  9. The media doing what it does best these days, feeding us disinformation, 18 February 2009
  10. The media rolls over and plays dead for Obama, as it does for all new Presidents, 19 February 2009
  11. The magic of the mainstream media changes even the plainest words into face powder, 24 April 2009
  12. The media – a broken component of America’s machinery to observe and understand the world, 2 June 2009
  13. We’re ignorant about the world because we rely on our media for information, 3 June 2009
  14. The perifidy of ABC News (tentative conclusion on a breaking story), 18 June 2009
  15. Are we blind, or just incurious about important news?, 6 July 2009

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26 thoughts on “A new news media emerges for our new world, unseen and unexpected

  1. When I want news about the UK, I go to the websites of UK outlets. When I want news about Asia, I got to atimes.com. Why in the world would people go to cnn.com for foreign news when experts in country are a click away?

    Same with economics, I go straight to the Roubini blog. Stratfor.com is another that makes the obsolete media obsolete.

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  2. Also, one concern that I have is that the news outlets are in bed with the people they’re supposed to be reporting on. Such as the latest hooplah about Washington Post having “sponsored” dinner events pitching them as a way for lobbyists to get closer to politicians while the newsroom stays silent on what is said and promised at them. Apparently The Atlantic has been doing this for much longer, while the whistle on the WP’s “salons” was blown by a healthcare lobbyist. When a lobbyist complains that something is unethical, then it is *really* bad.

    This ties in with your post on “blind and/or uncurious news.” The major newspapers collaborated to hide the abuses at Abu Ghirab for more than a year. They also collaborated on hiding the warrentless wiretapping for a year: if they had released the stories when they were news, there would have never been a 2nd term for GWB. What other things are they hiding? I don’t know. Other than “on the internet” I don’t even know where to begin to find out what they’re collaborating in covering up.

    Newspapers are dieing because their customers are leaving and not coming back. Which is appropriate because the newspapers stopped publishing news.

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  3. The thing to look at is that in a failing market, Wash. DC has a new newspaper: the Washington Examiner {see the Wikipedia entry for details}. It is mostly ‘net but also physical, non-subscriber distribution. That distribution has a great price: free. Advertisers pay for distribution, thus that is income. They get ‘net income. Your price: free for ads.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: Is it sufficiently profitable? If so, it is a venture worth watching.

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  4. Unfortunately, my local news is by highly-paid, full-time entry level journalists. At least the product appears to be created by entry level types. Worst of both worlds, I suppose.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: On what basis do you say they are “highly paid”? I doubt that, in the usual sense of the term.

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  5. The “news media” as it has existed in the West for the past few centuries is but one model of how information can be disseminated.

    In pre-modern times, wandering minstrels would compose ballads of current events. Many surviving nursery rhymes are actually political commentary. “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?…” actually is about Mary Queen of Scots; while “Ring around a rosey, pockets full of posey,…” is about the Black Death.

    A major step in the Tudor’s conquest of Ireland was their suppressing its bards, who were spreading pro-Irish messages.

    Anyone who has worked for a local newspaper ( I have ) knows that the meat and potatoes of its content are its obituaries, its engagement announcements, and most particularly its local sports coverage. Sports, in particular, are easily adapted to ballad celebration. Ballads celebrating the local track star or mourning the local Casey at the Bat could be easily composed. The local pub would be an excellent locale for delivering them.

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  6. “A new news media”? “A” indicates singular, but “media” is plural. It’s either “A new news medium” or “New news media” (without the “a”)
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    Fabius Maximus replies: In American usage “media” is often used as a singular, despite its derivation.

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  7. Good luck depending on amateurs to cover local news. Hint: Reporting is not fun, it’s work. If you are interested enough to do it for free, you very likely have an axe to grind and your report will show it.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I think you grossly overstate the case. I am highly confident that people can be found to do reporting (amateur reporting, aka blogging) about local sports (minor league pro, amateur, and school teams). Ditto for local politics. Both coverage and quality of reporting will be less than today, of course.

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  8. On the local level, I don’t expect to see coverage suffer much, if at all. Rather, I expect the “gadflys” to blog (as many already do, and I doubt any town lacks them). They would bring a tenacity you don’t often see from journalists.

    Gadflys, of course, are heavily biased, but the bias will be upfront and obvious. I expect they, like other bloggers, will become influential to the extent they are accurate and trustworthy. Those who are merely crazy will not be widely read.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I agree with the first part. I am less confident about the 2nd paragraph. But life will go on, and I suspect few will notice the change in local news coverage.

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  9. FM: “Loss of credibility shrinks their audience, hence less revenue, hence reduced funding. Which reduces the quality of their product, hence even less audience.

    I don’t think the quality, or lack of it, of their product is linked to funding. Quality was always pretty crappy even when they were on Easy Street. What’s happening is that more and more people are becoming aware of that lack of quality. (Not the media itself, of course.)
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    Fabius Maximus replies: That’s a minor point. Developments of altneratives are destroying the news media’s business model. As I describe in this post. Their revenue is migrating and their audience diminishing.

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  10. National and global news is a commodity and local news outlets that depended on that for filler, extra income, and prestige are having trouble adapting. How much reporting does your local paper really do? Is there enough “news” going on locally to support the massive organizations of most newspapers? Not enough, in general.

    We haven’t had a less partisan press these last 30 years. Just one that could hide it better by not covering some stories. Jack Kennedy’s private behavior anyone?

    At the local level, we’re more likely to get party or activist associated presses going again, just as we did at the time of the Revolution. Getting back to a more partisan and activist press like we had 200 years ago isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A more partisan press would actually question both political parties’ policies and management rather than just one and in general would enliven political turnover by resisting the implicit censoring of stories by quietly ignoring them.

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  11. There is a high level of wishful thinking in many of these posts. The low level of confidence that conservatives have in the press or media or whatever you want to call it is justified. The trade drew people whose opinions formed a reliable template of liberalism. On the other hand, they were willing to do the boring, paint-chipping work that constitutes 90% of journalism. They sat through excruciatingly dull meetings and dealt with bureaucracies that had vested interests in keeping its processes and actions from the public’s notice. “Gadflies,” no matter how animated by single issues and causes, will not be willing to devote the time and work to this.

    The public is not necessarily interested in news even when it affects them in personal ways. Look at what happened in California as decade after decade passed with government steadily sweetening its wages, benefits and pensions. I don’t know if any of the papers warned of the mountain of debt, but I doubt any gadflies did. Or if they did, only the neighboring trees in the forest heard about it.

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  12. Banjo, you’re missing the biggest point (and deeply mistaken about who’s willing to do the paint chipping). Decades ago we needed the large porfessional news organizations no matter how flawed their product. That is much less true today and in five years it won’t be true in the slightest.

    The internet gives everyone a voice, but quality (sometimes quality within a niche) is what gives some, but not others, an audience. The best local, national and international reporters are already bloggers. What’s missing is an organizing force, what I thought Pajamas Media was trying to be and still might become (though they aren’t at the moment).

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  13. “’A new news media’? ‘A’ indicates singular, but ‘media’ is plural. It’s either ‘A new news medium’ or ‘New news media’ (without the ‘a’)”

    That would be so in Latin. However, my post was in English.

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  14. Newswriting and gathering news the way it was taught in my days, I suppose, still holds. It’s really nothing but getting the facts, putting it together in a coherent manner without ‘infecting’ it with your own ideas or views. It had to have an angle as it is human for a reporter to have a limited ‘view’ of an incident or event. The reporter has only got two eyes and ears, you know, through which to filter the information gathered. The lead in a story takes care of that–it’s the first and last lesson hammered in journalism classes — or is it still the one?

    Today, news is no longer news as I knew. Newspapers are now 85% columns, views, and feature stories. And with the web, we’re now over-informed but with what? There’s no filter for truth anymore. But whatever we’re getting now perhaps is what we deserve. Our voraciousness for anything but the truth has made this possible. Our impatience for processes to attain propriety has given us what we want. The world is spinning so fast, everything seems like a blur. But who’s doing the spining? We are. ‘Spining’, this fits how newsmakers and the news industry do it these days. And I’m afraid how a spin always ends.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I doubt you can find many folks — even in journalism — who consider the news media to be “a filter for truth.” Not in 1900. Or 1940. Or 1980. Or today.

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  15. Tim: I think what you mean by “organizing force” is money. Samuel Johnson famously said no one but blockheads write, except for money. If you expect people to inform you — adequately inform you, mind — free of charge, there are a number of bridges and property that is flooded only twice a day I have available for your purchase.

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  16. I don’t want to seem petty, but one of the better things about Old Media — perhaps the only good thing — is that they use copy editors. This post is most interesting, but the spelling mistakes are a major distraction.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: One of the best things about the Old Media is that its writers were paid. These essays take a bizarre amount of time to prepare, the free WordPress does not have MS Word’s fine spell/grammer checker, and there are no Editors. Get over it.

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  17. Get over it? The devil is always in the details. If spelling and grammar errors are something that has to be shrugged off because of a lack of paid manpower, what does that say about the larger question of motivating people to do the plodding shoe-leather work it takes to produce quality journalism? That takes infinitely more work along with perseverance, luck and even charm. Newspapers are in a death spiral, that’s certain. What is less certain is if the host of bloggers that you see taking their place will actually rise from their keyboards and go out into a world that is not virtual but real. It’s messy out there and hard to figure out even if you take the laptop with you.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: If spelling and grammer errors are your indicator of quality, then you might find the new world of news a problem. I suspect that you are in a minority. Very successful blogs — like Matthew Yglesias’ — will be unreadable to you. For a few years, until blogs have state-of-the-art spell/grammer checkers. Then you can join the rest uf us in the information vanguard!

    “What is less certain is if the host of bloggers that you see taking their place will actually rise from their keyboards and go out into a world that is not virtual but real.”

    The brief history of blogging shows that amateurs will invest substantial amounts of time and effort in research. Dan Rather learned this to his sorrow. The pros missed his sloppy research, but bloggers quickly shot it full of holes. The amateurs like Michael Yon reporting from Central Asia — often areas where few or no western journalists will enter — are also powerful counter-examples to your guessing.

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  18. Fabius, You missed the implications of a recent story that I think provides hidden insights into the business models of the print media: the recent story of WaPo’s and The Atlantic’s salons. Selling access to journos and policy makers is one more sign the print media’s struggling to make their business model work.
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    Fabius Maximus replies: I saw it, but have no idea of its significance. You point is probably the key — its an indicator of their desperation!

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  19. Actually, a perfect working example of how minstrelsy can effectively spread a message in today’s world is how the Mexican drug cartels use narcocorridos:

    “A narcocorrido or drug ballad is a Mexican music and song tradition which evolved out of the norteño folk corrido tradition. It uses a danceable, accordion-based polka as a rhythmic base. Corridos have long described the poor and destitute, bandits and other criminals, as well as illegal immigrants to the United States. The first corridos that focus on drug smugglers—the narco means drug—have been dated to the 1930’s.”

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    Fabius Maximus replies: Great point! The important memes in society are passed person to person.

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  20. Of course, what did I mean by “filter for truth?” “What is Truth?” Didn’t Pilate ask this question 2000 years ago. And He, who was addressed, didn’t give an answer. By lamenting the lack of “filter for truth”, I believe I was simply expressing what my professors urged us to ideally strive for. But as I practised journalism, all I could write as truth was limited by my senses. I did try my best to process these in the most truthful way possible but, indeed, was it the truth? Truth is but a mosaic of reality and it hardly ever comes as finished, to my mind. And with digital media today, it has become a kaleidoscope.

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  21. FM: “The brief history of blogging shows that amateurs will invest substantial amounts of time and effort in research. Dan Rather learned this to his sorrow.

    The high-profile stories charged with controversy will always draw lots of bloggers, 99.9% of whom will offer opinions rather than useful investigation. A whole universe of stories — many of them important and some of vital interest to the citizens of a democratic republic — will go unreported. They will be hidden as a matter of course or their importance won’t be seen at first if they are stumbled upon. In its blundering and often incompetent or compromised way, the press (as distinguished from TV and radio, which historically has almost always followed its lead) has served as the watchdog that barked.

    What I find notable about your comments is how much they seem based on theory rather than real world experience. Pardon me for asking, but are you an academic by training?
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    Fabius Maximus replies: What I find notable about your comments is that they consist of guesses dressed up as facts, overlaid by myth. The current US news media’s content consists mostly (perhaps “99.9%”) of material from press releases, staged events, and obvious events (e.g., disasters).

    “has served as the watchdog that barked”

    How many examples can you provide of this during the past year, decade, generation? Most of the media’s “scoops” are leaded infor from insiders. This has been the pattern from the Pentagon Papers and Watergate (FBI leaks) to the various NYT stories about Bush violations of our rights. The Internet allows these to be just as easily leaked to the world.

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  22. Update: another sign of the old news media’s death throes

    GE’s silencing of Olbermann and MSNBC’s sleazy use of Richard Wolffe“, Glen Greenwald, Salon, 1 August 2009 — Excerpt:

    The New York Times this morning has a remarkable story, and incredibly, the article’s author, Brian Stelter, doesn’t even acknowledge, let alone examine, what makes the story so significant. In essence, the chairman of General Electric (which owns MSNBC), Jeffrey Immelt, and the chairman of News Corporation (which owns Fox News), Rupert Murdoch, were brought into a room at a “summit meeting” for CEOs in May, where Charlie Rose tried to engineer an end to the “feud” between MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly. According to the NYT, both CEOs agreed that the dispute was bad for the interests of the corporate parents, and thus agreed to order their news employees to cease attacking each other’s news organizations and employees.

    Most notably, the deal wasn’t engineered because of a perception that it was hurting either Olbermann or O’Reilly’s show, or even that it was hurting MSNBC. To the contrary, as Olbermann himself has acknowledged, his battles with O’Reilly have substantially boosted his ratings. The agreement of the corporate CEOs to cease criticizing each other was motivated by the belief that such criticism was hurting the unrelated corporate interests of GE and News Corp…

    So now GE is using its control of NBC and MSNBC to ensure that there is no more reporting by Fox of its business activities in Iran or other embarrassing corporate activities, while News Corp. is ensuring that the lies spewed regularly by its top-rated commodity on Fox News are no longer reported by MSNBC. You don’t have to agree with the reader’s view of the value of this reporting to be highly disturbed that it is being censored.

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  23. The depth and breadth of your lack of knowledge — I will not say ignorance — of how journalists do what they do makes me wonder how you could spend so much time on the subject and not pick up a clue here and there. (You never did say if you are an academic). For example “perhaps “99.9%” of material [comes]from press releases, staged events, and obvious events (e.g., disasters).” Can you really believe that? At another point, you say “The important memes in society are passed person to person.” Does this nerdy formulation refer to gossip? Murky writing is usually the result of bad thinking. Check out Orwell on that. As for the barking dog, exaine past winners of the Pulitizer Prize for investigative reporting as I just did. Some of it was highly useful, like what the Washington Post did on Walter Reed Hospital. A lot of it clearly was very expensive to do, far beyond what even the most valiant blogger is capable of doing. I agree that the Charlie Rose mediated ending of the feud between Fox and MSNBC is an ominous development. There will be no putting that genie back in the bottle.

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