Thursday, May 7, 2009

Good news and bad news on the state of the news

Evan's critique of the consolidation of print media is both prescient and pedestrian - and I should say I don't intend that evaluation to be insulting to him at all. Indeed, I think the fact that it is both prescient and pedestrian is a positive sign. People are broadly aware of the problem, and there is a real grassroots constituency that is making exactly these points.

Actually, what I found most surprising about Evan's post was that it was decidedly more negative than the usual narrative you hear, and it is precisely this relatively negative outlook that I want to address. The more common storyline, I believe, is that local media and print media is dying at the same time that TV news is being dumbed down and sub-divided into ideological camps. Polarization in and of itself doesn't have to be bad, but the polarization we are seeing now seems to be contributing more heat than light to the debate. Keith Olbermann and Sean Hannity may personally be genuine in what they are reporting, but the market-segmenting arrangement between MSNBC and Fox itself is more akin to a cable-news Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, dividing the market in half, than it is to a meaningful debate between two differing perspectives). In the no-man's land that's left in the middle (I suppose this would be Warsaw if I were to continue the World War II analogy), we have CNN that increasingly descends into flashy gimmicks that avoid the ideological confrontations of Fox and MSNBC - and CNN (and other middle of the road sources) end up avoiding real reporting in the process.

A Cable News Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact

That's the downside of the "usual narrative".

The upside is "Web 2.0"; the democratization of media as a result of Youtube, blogs, and even Wikipedia. The story goes that while the print media is failing to adapt, and cable news is failing to deliver, the blogosphere is creating a network of private citizen-reporters prepared to keep the elites (both in positions of power and in the media itself) honest.

I see two problems with this "good news/bad news" story, which may help to buttress Evan's concerns. First, many blogs themselves rely on re-posting, re-analyzing, or simply aggregating the work done by the "mainstream media". Obviously this serves an important chastizing function, but it is unclear what the blogosphere would look like without the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Fox, MSNBC, and CNN. Could they pick up the slack and create new news? The beauty of blogs is that anybody can create one, absorb information, and reorganize their own thoughts. We do this all the time. But that isn't necessarily conducive to uncovering new stories.

My second concern centers on what blogs don't allow us to do. What bloggers can't do (at least out of their blogging revenue - if they even have that) is buy a plane ticket to Mexico City to investigate swine flu, and then stop by Atlanta on the way back to the office to consult with the CDC about what all this really means. This is the work of real reporters - the very reporters that are being laid off or re-branded by newspapers and cable TV shows. Some of this investigating can be done through sites like Youtube. Indeed, in many cases the mainstream media is now using videos posted by private citizens as material for their own shows (the George Allen "macaca" incident, linked above, comes to mind here). But as a general rule, bloggers don't have the access that traditional reporters do, and they also don't have the same reporting standards. This isn't to say that there aren't objective and rigorous bloggers - but there isn't the same obligation to double-check sources and edit material. By the time some blog stories get debunked, the story itself is so thoroughly embedded that often it can't be dislodged (i.e. - that Obama is a Muslim).

What I'd like to emphasize is that neither of these burdens should be insurmountable. Bloggers can and already have started creating new content. You don't have to fly to Mexico City or Atlanta these days, because there are local bloggers in those locations that can be networked with. The CDC can be reached by email, as can the Mexican government. Pictures and videos to highlight the blog post are a Google search (and Photoshop session) away. As for standards, I think the question of how much reporting standards really help is an open one. They may prevent certain news from reaching us that we would have wanted to hear. The National Enquirer - a notoriously low standard publication - actually gets the story right a lot of the time, and is therefore able to break news long before the "mainstream media" feels comfortable reporting it. They proved that this past campaign season, when they were first to break the (quite accurate) story of John Edwards's affair with a staffer. Even if problems do occur, debunking things is practically an American past-time. We love doing it, and even if many people take the original story hook, line, and sinker, we practically can guarantee that it won't go unchallenged.

I think cautious optimism is the way to approach the restructuring of the news industry. Evan's concerns are completely valid, but I think it's important to recognize that what we are seeing is what Joseph Schumpeter called "creative destruction". Old industries are collapsing precisely because they are being made obsolete by new industries. My guess is the blogosphere will pick up the slack and we will be fine, and in fact we'll probably see the reemergence of many traditional news organizations in this new medium (as we have already seen with The Atlantic, whose website is more of a blogging network than it is an online magazine). The question is - what kind of sneaky stuff will those in power be able to slip by with while the blogosphere is still learning the ropes? If recent history is any indication, I'm happy to say that I think the answer is "not much".