Alternative Journalistic Models

John writes, “Technology has so dramatically decreased the lag-time between one person knowing something and everyone knowing it (Brown himself has a joke about re-tweets counting as plagiarism), that I wonder if ‘breaking a story’ is eventually going to be one of those outdated achievements….”  This is an interesting question, but I think just as interesting of a question is if the net amount of journalistic information available will decrease as the result of aggregation, blogging, and other technological developments. We already are seeing newspapers, magazines, and other news organizations cutting back on foreign correspondents and new hires. But, this doesn’t necessarily indicate that, in the long-run, less information will be available. It may simply be provided through a different means. The journalistic model will change. Here are four possible alternatives to the current model for information gathering*:

*These alternatives are actually more like “features”: They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, all four may exist at once. Nonetheless, I’ll speak of each independently.

  1. The Rise of Independent Journalists. Clearly due to loss of advertising revenue, it is becoming less cost-effective for newspapers, for instance, to maintain journalists in more remote outposts. Sure, a newspaper could still run stories from the Associated Press, but every other newspaper is using those stories too. What if, rather than having a reporter hired by the newspaper gathering information, the newspaper contracts out on a per story basis to independent journalists? Freelance journalism for major news stories. Especially in remote locations, this would likely lead to an equilibrium where only high-quality journalists are freelancing since they have to cover their own living costs and can only cover them if the newspaper thinks their story is good enough for purchase. This is different from the Associated Press (AP) model since the AP is based on a long-term cooperative agreement among many news sources. Admittedly, this doesn’t address the issue of aggregators since the aggregator could still link the story and the news breaker doesn’t reap many financial benefits from expending the money on the freelancer to break the story. Nonetheless, this is a cheaper option than having a permanent correspondent.
  2. Public subsidization of journalists. Breaking news is becoming more of a public good. As John states, news is spreading through the Internet more quickly. The result is that it is becoming less and less excludable, meaning fewer people can be prevented from accessing news stories for free. News generally is also non-rivalrous, meaning that one person reading a news story does not prevent another from reading a news story. Journalism as a public good promotes positive externalities: More people than ever are able to access an increasing amount of information for free, as I discussed when reviewing some of Tyler Cowen’s arguments in Create Your Own Economy. Positive externalities tend to be underprovided since they are not compensated for in the free market. One solution to this is to offer government funding for journalism, particularly the more expensive forms of journalism (e.g. foreign correspondents) that are being underprovided in the current market. Economically, if your goal is to provide the optimal amount of news information, this makes sense. But, politically and morally it does not. Independence of the press from the government allows the press to publish stories that it would not otherwise publish. Being financially independent of the government—presumably one of the central institutions that you want to write news stories on—is crucial for promoting objective analysis. There is always going to be an incentive, even if it is subtle, to cater to your donors. When that donor has a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, that incentive matters quite a bit.
  3. Decentralized blogging and news reporting. This appears to be happening now. We learn about foreign human rights abuses, big sports signings, and more from uncompensated members of the blogosphere. Of course, if the readership increases enough, the bloggers may make some revenue. The advantage of this type of reporting is that it could be very local. On the one hand, there are aggregators, which tend to be less local and more geared towards collecting a lot of local information from established journalists who have access to that information. However, it works both ways: Some bloggers (and other independent journalists) simply have access to information that other official journalists do not have whether it is due to their location or press restrictions in particular countries. (Burma VJ is an incredible documentary showing the power of local independent journalists to transmit video and images of Burma’s oppressive regime.) Even if the journalism industry substantially shrinks, it is unlikely these more local and decentralized forms of news reporting will disappear.  The question, though, is how sustainable is this decentralized form of news reporting? Will people continue blogging original news without significant forms of compensation?
  4. The Enforcement of More Stringent Fair Use Laws. Perhaps the way journalism is going to be saved is through a more stringent interpretation of fair use laws, not allowing websites to post multiple paragraphs of articles without permission. Maury Brown talks about this in his article but reaches no resolution. I just don’t think this is the solution at all. Just as people are going to find ways to download songs and smoke marijuana with government restrictions, aggregators and bloggers are going to find ways to get around fair use doctrines. With more stringent fair use laws/rulings, more people may have to click on links and read less of the original material on the aggregator blog, but is this really a significant difference? (Maybe, a system that incentivizes clicking on hyperlinks to the full article will marginally increase page views and therefore advertising revenue, but I doubt this will be very substantial.) Either way, people are using the aggregator as their original news source. Nonetheless, Brown is right that there will likely be court challenges and from a legal perspective it should be interesting how these challenges work out, even if they matter little from the broader journalistic perspective.

What’s the likelihood that each of these changes will happen in the United States? I think public subsidization is unlikely given the premium traditionally put on an independent and free press in America (although, I would not have guessed two years ago that the President would be in a position to force the CEO of General Motors to resign). Enforcement of more stringent fair use laws may be a possibility, but it’s very costly. In the case of downloading music illegally, you had the rich and powerful RIAA bringing lawsuits against individuals, and even that didn’t create a major disincentive for downloading music illegally. The news industry, already losing revenue, simply does not have the monetary capability to bring sustained lawsuits. Options 1 and 3 are very likely to occur but the consequences of these developments are unclear.

It is by no means clear that the net amount of journalistic information will be less (or more) than it presently is or was during journalism’s heyday: There are just too many factors at work. Industries undergo changes when market conditions are altered, many times for the better (see Schumpter’s creative destruction). In the end, we should approach this shift in the dynamics of the journalism industry with curiosity and not downright pessimism (unless of course, you are currently a professional journalist).

2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Laura Fong on August 11, 2009 at 10:57 AM

    hey. u should totally check out some technology-enabled crisis-reporting efforts like Ushahidi.
    great blog, btw.


  2. […] the Structure of the Journalism Industry Changes: I’ve already posted about my intrigue on this matter. Is journalism going to be undersupplied? Are fair use laws going […]


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