Balkinization  

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

What Does the Web Mean for Newspapers?

Neil Netanel

JB has graciously invited me to try my hand at blogging on information society issues. His invitation to blog follows on the publication of my book, Copyright's Paradox. So like many of you, I enter the blogosphere to discuss, elucidate, and (let's be honest) promote work produced in that venerable paradigm of old media, a hardcover book.

The interplay of digital and old media is a central theme of Copyright's Paradox. Copyright law serves as the field of major battles between digital and traditional media. In those copyright battles, Google is both a prime deep-pocket target of the old and able defender of the new. Newspapers have sued the multi-billion dollar upstart over Google News, book publishers have sued over Google Book Search, movie studios over Google’s YouTube, and, yes, adult magazines over Google Image Search. The outcomes will profoundly impact the shape of the media, how we receive and impart information, news, and opinion, and what types of speech are most salient to the public. Depending on how copyright law is configured, the new media may supplant the old or the traditional incumbents may stifle the new. Copyright is thus no less a part of national media and information policy than are the Telecommunications Act and the First Amendment.

I will expand upon copyright's role in a later post. Here I want to focus on newspapers and ask whether we should care about their demise. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Eric Alterman surveys the evidence and concludes that "it no longer requires a dystopic imagination to wonder who will have the dubious distinction of publishing America's last genuine newspaper." As he demonstrates, a primary cause for newspapers' rapid decline in advertising, readers, market value, and, indeed, sense of mission is the Internet.
The Internet makes the daily newspaper look slow and unresponsive. Young people in particular (only 19 percent of Americans under 34 even claim to look at a daily newspaper) prefer to surf the Web and log in to social network sites for up-to-date, easily digestible news bites. Even aside from lost readership, the Internet erodes newspaper advertising revenue. Craigslist has wiped out classified advertising. Online news aggregators, like Google News, usurp much other advertising. And for newspapers, moving online is no panacea; newspaper Web sites benefit from the growth of online advertising, but not nearly enough to replace revenue losses from circulation and print ads. Madison, Wisconsin's The Capital Times is but the first big city daily to abandon printing and move entirely online. That move is unlikely to stave off extinction.

Not all bemoan newspapers' demise. Many news bloggers and other self-styled online journalists trumpet their superiority over the mass media. Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post "Internet Newspaper," has been particularly relentless in attacking the mainstream news media for its lackluster reporting and prolonged servile acceptance of the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq and domestic war on terror. And in his seminal book, The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler argues that peer reporting from a multitude of online speakers does better than traditional news media both at bringing information and opinion to the fore and engendering an activist, autonomous citizenry.

Peer reporting and opinion no doubt form an invaluable component of public discourse, both in and of themselves and for calling traditional news media to brook for its failings. But blogs do not and cannot substitute for institutional news media in performing the still vital Fourth Estate function. As studies show, the blogosphere is largely parasitic on media coverage. Blogs from the Huffington Post on down engage in little original reporting and link to stories from the mainstream press far more than to other blogs. Online opinion also appears to be highly fractured and balkanized (with a lower case "b"). Conservative and liberal bloggers, for example, rarely link to blogs across the political divide–and even when they do, views from opposing camps can generally be found only by following a link; unlike newspaper op-eds and letters to the editor, they are not interspersed side by side. Bloggers also lack the financial resources for investigative reporting and fact-checking that mass media enjoy. Nor do they have the institutional commitment to accuracy. Indeed, stories have already surfaced of political and corporate operatives putting bloggers on their payroll or even masquerading as nonpartisan, objective bloggers themselves (present company excepted, of course!!).

Whatever their many foibles, in short, newspapers (or their online equivalent) are worth saving -- not at the expense of peer reporting but as cornerstones of investigative reporting, representing public opinion, and providing an exchange of view, on which democratic governance depends. How copyright law might enter into that equation, I save for a later post.

Comments:

Its not clear how such melodramatic dialog as "who will publish the last newspaper" will help news organizations adapt and survive. One may as well ask who made the last typewriter? Who used the last hand press? What edition of which paper was last printed on the steam press? How would those questions have served the news organizations of their respective day evolve?

As for a fourth estate function, its at this time quite questionable as to whether traditional news organizations can serve that function in the interest of society. Still, its more than clear that the vast majority of blogs cannot and do not supplant news organizations - something I would think a relief to journalists.
 

You had me with you on your description of the problems with the blogging community as news sources right up until you mentioned the traditional media's 'institutional commitment to accuracy'. Seriously, can anyone who's been watching how the media has covered pretty much anything done by the Bush administration claim that there's an 'institutional commitment to accuracy' at the major traditional news organisations? Look just at the recent (should have been) scandal about the compromised nature of retired military personnel as so-called independent analysts on the war; where was the commitment to accuracy there? You hear this kind of comment a lot, but I cannot see any demonstrated superiority in this respect of the traditional media over bloggers.
 

The logical and legitimate alternative to peer reporting is expert reporting. Newspapers do not offer this service. Their function seems largely stenographic at this point, with little challenge of the substantive claims with which they are presented. Their desire to be "tough" thus channels them into a dreadful focus on procedure, and we get flag pin questions masquerading as political coverage and outright propagandists masquerading as independent analysts.

It's a sick institution badly in need of radical transformation.
 

I call bs on this repackaging of the same old "journalists vs. bloggers" storyline. Let's take the anti-blogger screed line by line.

But blogs do not and cannot substitute for institutional news media in performing the still vital Fourth Estate function.

Perhaps you should re-read Carlyle. His description of the Fourth Estate sounds a lot more like bloggers than the modern form of journalism.

As studies show, the blogosphere is largely parasitic on media coverage.

No, the studies describe linking behavior that you interpret as parasitic because you don't understand how blogs actually work. Calling out the Huffington Post based on two studies that describe events before the site was founded betrays a lack of "institutional commitment to accuracy" in my view.

I'll skip the usual list of irrelevancies (apparently you're shocked that blogging and the institutional media are different) to which the only rational response is, "So?" to focus on the main canard.

Bloggers also lack the financial resources for investigative reporting and fact-checking that mass media enjoy. Nor do they have the institutional commitment to accuracy.

You might want to check out Josh Marshall's talkingpointsmemo.com. I hear they even won a George Polk award for legal reporting. They "led the news media in coverage of the politically motivated dismissals of United States attorneys across the country. Noting a similarity between firings in Arkansas and California, Marshall and his staff (with his staff reporter-bloggers Paul Kiel and Justin Rood) connected the dots and found a pattern of federal prosecutors being forced from office for failing to do the Bush Administration's bidding. Marshall’s tenacious investigative reporting sparked interest by the traditional news media and led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales."

On the other hand, stories have already surfaced of reporters like Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair committing journalistic fraud, but comparing the worst of one form to the ideal of another is a ridiculous tactic.
 

To bitswapper, Peter, ADamiani, and William Ockham,

I appreciate your comments. I wholeheartedly (but sadly) agree that the press miserably fails to live up to its fourth estate ideal. But the judgment we must make in evaluating flawed instititions is always "As compared to what?" Even with its flaws, the institutional press has the ability to serve -- and aspires to serve -- fourth estate functions that individual bloggers do not and cannot. You all seem mostly to question the institutional commitment to accuracy. I do think the press -- certainly the elite press -- has that commitment. Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair were fired and the New Republic and New York Times disgraced by their journalistic fraud. The print media has castigated their TV news counterparts for using retired military as "independent analysts." Bloggers don't have that common institutional commitment (or call it "ideal" if you will). Nor do they have the financial wherewithal to back it up with investigative reporting and fact checking. The Huffington Post removes erroneous blog posts after the fact if it receives a round of reader complaints. But it does not commit to reviewing posts before posting (except perhaps for the posts on its home page).

Don't get me wrong. As I said in my post, bloggers make an invaluable contribution to public discourse. But their contribution is different than that of the institutional press, and I think we need both. (Talking Points Memo may be an exception, but I don't see it as a scalable model to take the place of the institutional press.) Indeed, expressive diversity requires not just a variety of content, but a multiplicity of types of speakers.

So our focus should be on how to maintain and improve the institutional press, not to celebrate its disappearance. More on that in later posts.
 

i agree with much of this post, but, quibble on the necessity of preserving the MSM.

there will always be a demand for reporting, investigating and digging up stories. as others have noted blogs can do actual reporting.

it may be that in the future the blogs will take over the cost of financing the investigative reporting currently paid for by the MSM.

Seymour Hersh, Murray Waas, Jane Mayer and others have all done wonders to keep us informed and I believe people like them will continue to do so.

once you remove the MSM's ability to do basic reporting, you are left with nothing the internet can't do better.

btw, i get all my news off the net. i don't watch news shows or read the paper and yet i am remarkably well -informed.

ps. the reference to op-eds and letters to the letter are usually selectively run. you'd be better off reading the comments section of a good blog if you want real dissenting views.
 

You all seem mostly to question the institutional commitment to accuracy. I do think the press -- certainly the elite press -- has that commitment. Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair were fired and the New Republic and New York Times disgraced by their journalistic fraud. The print media has castigated their TV news counterparts for using retired military as "independent analysts." Bloggers don't have that common institutional commitment (or call it "ideal" if you will).

Three comments:

1. It's unfair to compare the "elite press" with "all bloggers". Just as nobody believes the tabloids have any commitment to accuracy, so nobody believes that all bloggers do. But that's not the test. The test is whether the best of each do.

2. I think it's odd to cite the recent print media stories about retired military analysts in support of your claim. As has been widely noted (see here and related posts), the broadcast networks themselves have utterly failed even to mention this story. That failure actually undermines your claim regarding their commitment to accuracy.

3. If you're going to limit the "commitment to factual accuracy" to the kind of "media marketplace" example of the press finding flaws in broadcast journalism, then it's only fair to apply the same standard to bloggers. The better blogs DO check each other for factual errors (and political motivations create a strong incentive to do so), as do commenters on the blogs themselves. The "elite blogs" (just to carry over your reference to "elite media") make a point of correcting their factual errors when commenters or other blogs find mistakes. That's a standard that the "elite media" all too often fails to meet.
 

I appreciate your willingness to engage in dialogue (that's what good bloggers do). I'm not here to denigrate the institutional press or celebrate its demise. My comment was intended to denigrate your framing of the issue. Jay Rosen tried to declare the whole "bloggers vs. journalism" debate over in early 2005[1], but some folks (primarily in the institutional media) can't give up on it because it gives them an easily caricatured villain.

The problem for newspapers is that their business model is collapsing. Without the subsidy of advertising, there aren't enough people willing to pay for the privilege of reading newspapers. I would argue that, instead of trying to figure out how to save the institutional media, folks like you should focus on thinking about new business models that independently support investigative reporting or the exchange of views or whatever. The social and economic forces that bound investigative reporting and balanced op-ed pages together in one daily publication are waning. The institutional media doesn't have a copyright on journalism.

[1]http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2005/01/21/berk_essy.html
 

Ron Steinman said of BVD-clad bloggers (I prefer "BVD-clad" to "Pajama-clad" because Hugh Hefner thinks of pajamas as formal wear) --

There is a growing and disturbing movement in the media for a new freedom that promotes the idea that whoever covers news, and believes they are journalists without credentials, can and should be their own editor, writing and saying what he pleases in his self-created Web log [and also arbitrarily censoring comments from those who disagree with him]. Everywhere I turn, those who call themselves serious journalists, some even using that grand and old fashioned phrase, the press, are assaulting us with the virtues of this new-found freedom. Thus, blog, the shortened version, is now the latest gobbledygook noun in the English language. Lewis Carroll would be proud.

. . . .A major problem is bloggers who run items with no sources. When they cite sources, they are so tenuous as to make you pass Go and return the $200. When caught, the blog will sometimes print retractions quickly [a BVD-clad blogger is likely to just delete the comment that pointed out the error]. The problem is that the readers have become so undiscerning it makes no difference . As quickly as an item is found wrong and as quickly as the blog runs a correction, another rises to take its place. Accuracy has no place on many blogs.(bracketed comments are mine)


Carolynne Burkholder wrote --

. . . . bloggers’ claims that they are the true citizen-journalists and that they can self-correct their errors is questioned by journalists and ethicists as self-serving rhetoric. Critics note cases where rumours were circulated by blogs and they were not proven to be false until much damage had been done to the reputation of career of a person or group. Self-correction by blogs is an imperfect process [and is made even more imperfect by the arbitrary censorship of comments]. Other critics accuse blogs of hypocrisy by claiming they believe in accuracy but they do not believe in editorial controls on postings prior to publication [BVD-clad bloggers also do not believe in any controls after publication]. Bloggers are also accused of wanting freedom without responsibility -- of reaching thousands of readers but rejecting calls for ethical codes and standards.(emphasis added; bracketed comments are mine)

How in the hell can blogs present a variety of views and be self-correcting when so many bloggers arbitrarily censor visitors' comments?
 

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