Monday, December 8, 2008

glasses are too expensive, but who needs to see anyway

Sullivan writes about the trouble that newspapers are in.
The economics of this are brutal. Print and paper and delivery by lorry are immensely cumbersome and expensive compared with a modem – or even with a mobile reading device that you can take on a train or bus in the morning. A single blogger in his bedroom can reach as many readers as a big paper, with no overheads and no staff and no product costs except band-width. That kind of economic competitive advantage is entirely a function of technological change and it is unavoidable...

The terrifying problem is that a one-man blog cannot begin to do the necessary labour-intensive, skilled reporting that a good newspaper sponsors and pioneers. A world in which reporting becomes even more minimal and opinion gets even more vacuous and unending is not a healthy one for a democracy.
I've been thinking about this lately too. And it's not just the newsprint that is expensive for newspapers, it's much of the original reporting too. Somebody has to go to interview the locals in the worlds contested spots to find out what really is going on. And that someone isn't going to be Sullivan or Kos or anyone at NRO either. "Real" journalists are already struggling with this, and not always doing a great job, and if the business model that supports them collapses, we're all in a serious dose of trouble. Journalists, whatever their flaws, basically serve as human intelligence for the general public.

Now that I have you worried about this hit, here's the shoe coming to whack you from the other side: The lower cost analysis machine (i.e., blogs) that is currently cannibalizing the more expensive "research and analysis" machine (i.e., news) still requires "facts" to run on. But where will they come from? Blogging is not profitable enough to support much primary research, so there's only a few major possibilities.

Perhaps there'll be a big market for free lance reporters to build personal reputations as news gatherers, selling their info to the blogging world. But Bloggers don't really have the money to pay for that now, and even if they did, there'd be nothing to stop everyone from 'free riding' off the first other people to announce the info. So perhaps we'll manage to assemble distributed networks of private local citizens all over the world, who will post their local intelligence onto the web, but good luck getting much of that out of, say, Myanmar. More ominious, and perhaps likely, is that people with deep pockets and profit making agendas on their minds will realize that there is a niche open to them to control the public discourse by financing the fact gathering, and then manipulating what is released. Want to know if there are still bloody diamond wars going on in Africa? DeBeers will be happy to pay for reporters to go cast light on the situation, and who is there to contradict them? If you think that political and corporate kleptocrats are already directing too much of the feed into our news-dissemination machines, just imagine what happens when journalists aren't just too lazy/stressed to do good work, but are out of their jobs entirely.

It's been dangerous enough to see what happens when a third to a fifth of the US public are completely unplugged from the reality based world, insulated in a bubble of talk radio madness, but what happens when that mooring is cut for the rest of us?

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