Monday, October 12, 2009

So why can't we have a better press corps?

That's a question often asked by folks like Paul Krugman and Brad DeLong, who decry the ridiculous state of economic reporting in our newspapers. So why is the output of our newspaper industry, when talking about economic policy, so often one-sided propaganda? Well, that's simple: That's what they get paid to produce by the people who pay their bills. It's called the Golden Rule: I.e., he who has the gold, rules.

We cannot have a better press corps because they are bought and paid for by corporate America. The fundamental problem is that advertising dollars, not subscription dollars, pay the freight at newspapers. Expecting newspapers to report accurately upon news affecting major advertisers is like expecting tobacco companies to accurately report the risks of smoking. It simply is not in their best interests to do so, and thus they do not, regardless of any theoretical "firewalls" between the editorial and advertising departments.

Given the realities of news distribution it seems unlikely that this will change anytime soon. Newspapers are a natural monopoly. There are only a certain number of places that you can place newspaper bins in a city, and whoever gets there first gets first-mover advantage and can crowd out possible competitors. For subscriptions, the newspaper with higher circulation will have lower per-subscriber costs because it costs a certain amount per mile to run newspaper routes across a city regardless of how many subscribers you have per mile, so the newspaper with more subscribers per mile will have a lower per-subscriber cost and thus a competitive advantage. And finally, advertisers will advertise in the paper that reaches the most people, meaning that the #2 paper in a given market will be starved of advertising funds. The end result is what you would expect -- single-newspaper cities are now the rule, not the exception, and anybody desiring to start up a new newspaper to compete with the established monopoly faces some daunting realities -- *IF* we're talking about a subscriber-supported newspaper delivered in print.

Is the future of real journalism (as vs. corporate boot-licking) on the web? If so, what will it look like? Current attempts at online journalism have been rather laughable, nowhere near as professional as even the most unprofessional hick newspaper. But as the print industry continues to spin down into irrelevancy, that may change...

-- Badtux the Press Penguin


  1. Beautifully said.

    Also true of TV - where the advertisers seem to be oil, insurance - RX companies, Banks - Lemme see - I did see an ad from a hair restoration company and a fat farm who had no political axe to grind. But generally - the source of funds are enemies of the people.

  2. I have seen the future of journalism. It looks a lot like you and Phila and the Anonymous Liberal. And on a really good day, a little bit like me.

    JzB the readin', writin' trombonist

  3. I'm an analyst, not a journalist. I still need someone out there doing old-fashioned journalism, gathering the data and reporting it in a dispassionate bias-free manner. If you and I are the future of journalism then things are dire indeed, because all there will be is fact-free opinionating, not journalism.

    - Badtux the Opinionated Penguin

  4. There's fact-free opinionating on teh Internets tubez, and there's analysis. I gravitate to the analytical, especially when it comes to economic news. I spend more time reading econoblogs than I do political or straight news ones, because the way I see it, what's happening with money is what's going to drive politics, the environment, energy, etc.

    I reckon there will always be SOME standard media out there. Educated, culture people, even me, want to have something they can hold in their hands to read, or sit in front of to watch. And there will be reams of government statistics, corporate reports, official statements and other facts that provide grist for the plugged-in bloggers. People like the economic commentators I follow are anoraks about stuff like that, and they'll always chew into those to examine the angles.

    What it boils down to is credibility. I'm sceptical, and I choose who I want to believe based on how I see them following the facts. That's also why I DON'T bother reading the Washington Post online any more -- I find them to be no longer credible (after they sacked Dan Froomkin, especially.)

  5. If consumers of news were willing to pay for intelligent, independent, in-depth investigative reporting, we'd have it. We're apparently not willing - or at least, not enough of us are to make it affordable for the average person. People expect their TV and radio and news to be free of cost to them, or at least heavily subsidized. We're getting exactly what we're (not) paying for, either in money or in time. Newspaper circulation is declining; more and more people are getting sound-bite stories from CNN Headline News (at best) or Faux News (at worst). As Walt Kelly put it, "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

    There is another issue that I've seen widely complained about that is not necessarily linked to the political bias of the payer of the bills: the idea that objective reporting somehow means abandoning all criticism, analysis, and independent fact-checking in the news story. Reporting too often seems to consist of getting a quote from source A and a rebuttal from Source B, presenting both, gravely intoning, "Fair and balanced. We report. You decide," and heading for happy hour at the bar. Fact-checking, if it occurs at all, seems to be relegated to a separate story.

    While this may serve the interests of Wall Street, I don't think that's the only explanation. As far as newspapers go, there are plenty of local mom-and-pop businesses - restaurants, car dealers, furniture stores - that don't have a political axe to grind. I don't think it's simply a strange perversion of the journalistic ideal of objectivity, either. There's a simpler economic explanation: this shallow type of reporting is cheaper than real investigative reporting.

    Both the advertiser-paid and consumer-paid reporting models are increasingly subject to a free-rider problem. It used to be that if I wanted to know the news, I had to actually read the paper or watch the news. Now, the news content gets blasted across the internet. If Watergate were happening today, I wouldn't need to buy a copy of the Washington Post to learn about it. I wouldn't even need to go to their website and see their banner ads. The blogosphere would be filled with repetition of the essentials. Not a dime of salary for Woodward and Bernstein would come from those readers.

    While there were always free riders to some extent - e.g., an entire office could share one or two copies of the paper - at least they were potentially seeing the ads. If we had reporting completely paid for by the readers, how long would it last before some of the readers got tired of freeloaders and decided to join their ranks?

    @Bukko_in_australia - The problem with government and corporate reports and statistics and statements, of course, is that they are what the authors want to tell us - which may be a half-truth, or an outright lie. Digging up what the government and corporations don't want us to know takes time and shoe leather. If it only gets done when someone is willing to do it for free in their spare time, it doesn't take a Nobel laureate in economics to predict that there won't be nearly enough of it.


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