Web Specialization vs. Newspaper Autarky

Judging from the comments on my two posts last week on reporting and paywalls, I didn’t do a good job of making my case. I think that’s partly because this is an argument about culture as much as economics. Traditional newspaper journalists have a certain set of assumptions about the nature of journalism, the obligations of journalists, and the proper relationship between a journalist and her readers. The web has its own culture with its own set of answers to these questions. Unfortunately, the “debate” over the Times paywall has largely consisted of people on each side loudly reiterating their own side’s assumptions without paying much attention to what the other side has to say. Needless to say, that hasn’t been very illuminating.

So if you’ll forgive me for yet another post (actually two!) on an over-blogged subject, I want to step back and talk explicitly about some of the baseline assumptions made by these two cultures (the web and the print press, respectively). Every culture is solipsistic, with the result that assumptions that seem almost self-evident in one culture will strike the other culture as implausible or even perverse. It’s only by talking about these assumptions explicitly that we can make some sense of the ongoing argument between these communities.

As is often the case, the web/print culture clash is rooted in the differing capabilities of their respective technologies. Daily newspapers were born in an era of information scarcity. Distributing a newspaper is expensive enough that most people tended to take just one.

This meant that a newspaper had to be all things to all people: they needed to cover a full spectrum of topics and do it in a way that didn’t assume the reader had access to any other publications.

The web is obviously different. There are thousands of websites that offer news coverage. Readers don’t generally go to a single news website and read it “cover to cover.” Rather, they sample from a wide variety of sources. And this means that news sites don’t need to be all things to all readers. They can focus on a particular topic to cover in depth. They can write for a narrow audience, skipping background exposition that a general-interest outlet would have to cover.

Most importantly, they can link to other sites. Links are profoundly important for the character of the web because they allow writers to make incremental contributions to ongoing conversations. Rather than trying to be “all things to all people,” writers can link to and quote from conversations that are happening somewhere else and then make a (possibly small) contribution of their own. This division of labor opens the conversation up to many more people. A nuclear physicist may not feel competent to write an AP-style news story about the Fukushima nuclear incident, but he can link to a news story about it and then offer his expert opinion. And his thoughts can, in turn, be incorporated into future writing by non-experts.

This helps explain one of the perpetual sources of friction between mainstream media outlets and bloggers. Mainstream media outlets prize original reporting to the point that they’ll perform completely redundant reporting rather than citing another journalist’s work. In contrast, on the web it’s considered perfectly kosher to quote and link to another news outlet without doing original reporting. What’s not kosher online is failing to give credit to the original source for a story—even if subsequent reports are independently reported.

Indeed, the norm of linking to original sources is strongly enforced within the blogosphere. If a site develops a reputation for failing to credit sites that break stories, other sites will “boycott” it by refusing to link to its stories. The result is an economic model for rewarding sites that do original reporting. Web traffic operates as a de facto currency.

What we have here, at root, is a conflict between autarky and the division of labor. The newspaper style of news gathering is expensive because, like any autarkic system, it eschews the benefits of specialization. The Times does some kinds of reporting superbly and efficiently, but it does many other kinds of reporting clumsily and wastefully. On the web, in contrast, each news outlet focuses on producing the types of information it can produce most efficiently and “trades” with other publications for other kinds of information. The result is a decentralized system that produces news at much lower average cost than the centrally-planned model of a newspaper.

OK, so with that background, it’s worth going back to our running example of covering an away baseball game. Newspaper partisans want to know who is going to pay to send a New York reporter to Toronto to cover a Yankees away game. The answer is that this is the wrong question. The right question is: how is a New York publication going to get information about a Toronto baseball game to its readers? And the answer is there’s likely to be plenty of information about the game on the web already. So the 21st century news outlet’s job isn’t necessarily to do original reporting. Rather, its job is largely to help readers find the information that’s already out there, possibly with a bit of original reporting to fill in the gaps.

The obvious objection is that there’s no guarantee that there will be any coverage for the New York publication to link to. But although this is true in a trivial sense, it’s not actually much of an objection. There’s no law or institution guaranteeing I’ll be able to buy groceries next year, but I don’t lose sleep over the possibility that all the supermarkets in my town will go out of business—I’m confident someone will find a way to satisfy my demand for food. Similarly, people want to read about Yankees games in Toronto. If there’s a shortage of sports reporting in Toronto, one of the millions of people in Toronto will step in and fill the gap. Asking for an explanation of precisely how this will be done is the same kind of conceptual error as asking which farmers will produce the food I’ll have for dinner next week. The content in question isn’t too expensive to produce and there’s a financial incentive to produce it. So someone will.

That’s fine for baseball games, I hear you say, but who’s going to pay for the New York Times‘s Baghdad bureau? There probably aren’t a lot of Iraqis who will step up to write about the war for an American audience, no matter how much traffic such a blog would generate. I’ll address that question in my next post.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Web Specialization vs. Newspaper Autarky

  1. Brett says:

    There probably aren’t a lot of Iraqis who will step up to write about the war for an American audience, no matter how much traffic such a blog would generate.

    What about the local newspapers? Even if there aren’t any Iraqis willing to blog directly in english for an American audience, there are presumably local Iraqi newspapers, not all of which will suck. That requires translation, but there are translators, and even digital translating software is getting better.

    If you don’t trust the local papers, then conflicts frequently get at least a handful of freelance reporters, who could sell their stories to major papers back in the US.

  2. Kaleberg says:

    Actually, the New York Times has a rather minimal Baghdad bureau as compared to the 1980s. Newspaper and television reporting budgets have been dropping for years, and the foreign bureaus were the first to suffer. By the mid-90s, it was hard not to notice how the Times had changed, and not for the better.

    I’m not too sure of the future, but after the mergers and nationalization of news in the 80s and 90s, I think we are moving back to a more local news model. You need a certain level of local news reporting, so you tend to take your local paper. For world and national news, you can go for USA Today, or you can get your local paper’s AP feed. Even the Peninsula Daily News – circulation 10,000, or so they told me when I put in that half page ad – has an AP feed. In fact, if you wander around the net, you find that most news sites, newspaper, radio or television, tend to be driven by local reporting and an AP feed.

    There are also a number of political sites, most with an obvious bias. They too tend to cite the AP news wire now and then, but they also do a lot of reporting based on government sources, scanning other blogs, often activist blogs, and just plain calling people up, emailing people and sending people over and asking them to report back on what they heard and saw. If you were following the collective bargaining battles in the mid-west recently, the AP was rather disappointing. The first person accounts from inside the Wisconsin capital were more interesting. In fact, they reminded me of newspaper reporting back in the 50s and 60s. While the blogger’s sentiments were clearly with the unions – hey, even Glen Beck is a union man – the focus was on what was happening, who said what, who did what. You get surprisingly little of that in the mainstream media these days.

    I’m not going to rhapsodize over the golden age of journalism. You can probably dig up fifty phrases for scandal sheet with a few minutes of Google. There really wasn’t one. There was a brief period of responsible reporting early in radio and early in television when the FCC was enforcing that public service in exchange for public airways nonsense. Maybe a lot of the mainstream media’s resentment is that the internet never really had anything like that, so bloggers never had to deal with that tradeoff.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.