Can you teach an old media new tricks?

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Today, Reynolds and McChesney address the state of contemporary news media. Later in the week, they'll debate the citizen journalism, media consolidation and other issues.

Big Media plays to its weaknesses By Glenn Harlan Reynolds
Bob, you and I agree about something important—quality matters, and today's news media aren't delivering. There are a lot of reasons, but the most important, I fear, is that most of the people running newspapers and television networks are, to put it kindly, clueless. In fact, the comparison that comes to mind is the management of U.S. auto companies in the early 1970s: alienating their most loyal customers with misleading marketing and declining quality while failing to learn the lessons offered by nimbler foreign competitors. Newspapers are even focusing too much on cost-cutting to produce short term improvements in the bottom line, and not enough on quality, just like General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler. The upside is that this problem can be solved, if they're willing to be somewhat brighter—or if shareholders replace them with people who have more on the ball.

It's easier to make money selling people things they can't easily get elsewhere than to sell people things that they can get somewhere else for free. Yet the strategy of much of the news media has seemingly operated on the reverse principle. With the wave of corporatization and consolidation that started in the 1980s, actual news reporting was treated as a commodity item, and outsourced to wire services, etc. This allowed expensive foreign bureaus to be closed, while newspapers focused on "value added" in the form of opinion, "analysis," and that marketing favorite, "attitude." The advantage of those products over hard news reporting? They're a lot cheaper. The result was newspapers whose news content came mostly from wire services, or press releases.

This might have worked, back in pre-internet days. In fact, it mostly did work, which is why the newspapers used it. Unfortunately, even as this strategy was being deployed, consumers were starting to get that commoditized news directly from wire services and foreign papers via the internet. The internet excels at eliminating middlemen, and newspapers (and to a lesser, but substantial, degree, television networks) had become middlemen.

As for opinion, well, that's available for free on the Internet, too. And while the barriers to entry in the hard-news reporting area are fairly high—there's some excellent reporting by bloggers in Iraq and Afghanistan, but most reporters there are from the Big Media outfits who can afford to send them—the barriers to entry for opinion and analysis are pretty close to zero. Newspapers chose to cede the market segment where they had the biggest advantage, and are trying to compete in the area where they're weakest. No wonder they're in trouble.

Hard-news reporting—actual facts, not opinion—remains the "killer app" for Big Media. But they're not making proper use of their structural advantages there, and those advantages are likely to weaken over time. Already, as I've mentioned, journalists like Michael Yon and Michael Totten are reporting from Iraq with interviews, photos, and video that in many ways surpass the work of virtually all big media reporters. Likewise, local-news websites are starting to challenge local newspapers, taking advantage of drastic cuts in hard-news reporting budgets there.

Right now, traditional media organizations are still in a much better position overall to cover actual news than citizen journalists. They've got the infrastructure, the training, and the experience. But those advantages are eroding daily as technology shifts in favor of smaller operations, and as citizen journalists gain experience and audience. Will Big Media change in time? They will if they're smart—which is to say, probably not.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is Beauchamp Brogan distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee, creator of instapundit.com, and author of An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government, and Other Goliaths.


Create a better media world By Robert W. McChesney
The answer to this question depends upon our definitions. Do we define traditional media as institutions the produce journalism or do we define traditional media as old technologies, like television and newsprint? If it is the former, the answer is an emphatic yes, we need traditional media, even in the digital era; if it is the latter, the answer is less clear and debatable.

Likewise, do we define citizen journalists as people conducting journalism in their spare time with no institutional support or do we define citizen journalists as full-time journalists who may not have traditional training and who are building new institutions that produce journalism? If it is the former, the answer is yes, we need traditional media; if it is the latter, the answer is less clear and debatable.

I tend to define both traditional media and citizen journalists in the former sense, so my answer to the question tends to be a resounding yes. I believe it is imperative to have well paid full-time journalists in competing newsrooms covering our communities, the nation and the world. This competition need not be between commercial institutions, but diverse institutions competing for stories are essential. We need journalists with the time and resources and experience to dig into the tough questions. We need journalists to work in teams and in competing newsrooms to goad other journalists along. And these journalists need strong institutions that can stand up to people in political or commercial power when they are pissed off at the coverage they receive. Good journalism will invariably antagonize someone in power. If it doesn't, it probably isn't very good journalism.

The current disintegration of our journalism—which I documented yesterday—is not due primarily to the internet and new technologies but rather to the fact that doing journalism increasingly does not make business sense to the handful of corporations that dominate our news media.

Where I would disagree with you, Glenn, is that I do not think the crisis in journalism is due to mismanagement of news media firms by incompetent executives. I think it is a structural crisis. Some of these current managers are gifted and some may be knuckleheads but all are doing more or less the same thing. That is because there are strong institutional pressures to gut journalism in the manner I have described. The crisis we face is that our smartest capitalists, not just the dumb ones, have determined it is not good business to do what our society needs in the way of journalism. The commercial news system has failed, and so far there is little indication that it is going to be resurrected in the digital world.

Our job is to create a media system where it is rational to do good journalism.

That is certainly how the Founders understood it. They instituted enormous printing and postal subsidies to spawn a free press. They understood that if producing journalism was simply left to the whims of rich people searching out maximum profit, our society would not generate the press system necessary for a self-governing system to succeed.

We need to return to the Founder's mission and determine the best policies we can that would promote a vibrant independent free press that would generate the journalism we need to be our own governors. We need study and debate. This includes policies to promote: local, worker and community media ownership; healthy postal subsidies for small publications; vibrant and diverse public and community broadcasting; limits on advertising's influence on journalism; stricter limits of government secrecy and propaganda; and an uncensored and ubiquitous high-speed internet.

Glenn, I know from reading your pieces that you approach matters from a different vantage point, and are taken with the immense possibilities of the internet to transform our journalism for the better. I agree that these technologies hold a democratic potential that is revolutionary, and can be the basis for an extraordinary positive transformation of our journalism. Our notion and understanding of journalism is going to change to account for much greater public participation in the process. There is a key, perhaps enormous, role for citizen journalists to play. It is exciting. Where this process ends up is beyond the capacity of my imagination.

But journalism cannot be done entirely on the cheap or in someone's spare time, even the expanded spare time of the digital era. We need effective policies to promote the institutional foundation of a free press. And we need policies to see that the democratic promise of the Internet is preserved and promoted. If we lose a battery of core internet policy battles—ranging from net neutrality, telecom and cable ownership and regulation, spectrum allocation, community wi-fi, Internet copyright, and privacy—we may come to regard the digital revolution as a mixed blessing.

Robert W. McChesney is a professor of Communication at the University of Illinois. He is the co-founder and president of Free Press.

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