The July 9 edition of The Economist carries a number of articles ruminating on the “future of news.” The most perplexing feature of the series is that it nowhere explains what “news” means: an omission I dwelled on sufficiently in my last post. In addition, there’s a disproportionate focus on printed stuff, ignoring the fact that the majority of people who care about news get them from television. This may seem like a curious choice, until we reflect that The Economist is, after all, a news magazine.
So we have a lack of definition and an overemphasis on print: what else can we say about the effort?
It starts, like all great epics, in medias res – in the middle of the action. The “news industry,” once powerful and influential, is now said to be in crisis, at least in the US and the “rich world.” The reason is the internet. We are told how newspapers are making out (poorly here, wonderfully in India and China) and how print media can still turn a profit (build paywalls), then are given a tour of the digital mutants lurking under the stairs: social media, Julian Assange, the Foxification of the news, etc. Conclusion: the news of the future are headed “back to the coffee house” of eighteenth-century London, returning to the “conversational culture” which existed before the advent of mass media.
But this is coming at the question from the wrong direction, I think. The agony of the news business isn’t an epic. It’s cultural evolution at work. If we want an educated guess about the future of news, we shouldn’t simply project a trajectory from the present moment forward. Rather, we should look around us and ask whether an environment pounded without mercy by the digital revolution, characterized by the rise of the public and a distrust of authority, can still support an industry which arbitrarily chunks and sells information.
Let’s start with newspapers, the medium most visibly mangled by the digital meat-grinder: my hometown paper, the Washington Post, just reported a 50 percent decline in profits for the last quarter. On this subject, The Economist makes a couple of interesting observations.
First, the loss of paying readers isn’t global. Increases in India and China have compensated for a decline in the US and Western countries generally. Even in the West, the condition of the patient varies from country to country. American newspapers, according to the magazine, have practically expired, but British papers despite losses have been able to maintain a spirit of healthy, innovative competition. The Japanese, for their part, appear insatiable in their consumption of newsprint: the Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s top newspaper, still has 8 million daily readers, and competitors boast only slightly lower numbers.
Such differences reflect the uneven pace of digital expansion across the world, and unique cultural and national strategies for dealing with the transformation. But there are some universals. Information everywhere is becoming more accessible, more voluminous – hence, cheaper. The public everywhere is taking control of the means of communication. There’s a demographic aspect to this informational transfer of power: the young love digital, while the old remain ink-stained. Pretty soon, the only public left will be accustomed to control, eager to talk back, contemptuous of those who speak from authority. Anyone hoping to sell information anywhere will have to distinguish their product among millions of free competitors, then conquer the loyalty of mistrustful and inattentive customers.
Maybe a brilliant group of editors and reporters, adding massive amounts of value to their information, can ask for enough money from readers to prosper in the new environment: but that is a demanding business model for the long run.
Second, the problem with readership, The Economist correctly notes, concerns profits, not actual numbers. Many more people read online newspapers than ever did the printed versions – the difference is, they spend less. New capabilities have changed the public’s behavior. It considers itself a competitor, not a passive consumer, in the production of information, and it gravitates toward platforms which allow social transparency and control in their transactions. The rise of the public has been a catastrophe for the newspaper business.
American newspaper companies, which grew fat selling classified ads, now find readers abandoning them for free web advertisers like craigslist. Hence the fatally wounded condition of printed papers in this country. The other way to turn a profit – favored, according to the magazine, by the rest of the world – is to sell copies. It may be true that the sale of dead-tree copies is booming in India and China (although one should treat newspaper sales claims, and Indian and Chinese economic statistics, with some caution). But how long can the trend last? I suspect, only until the arrival of the generation of digital natives. Only until the public, laptop or tablet or smart phone in hand, decides to take control of the information landscape. Then, the trend will reverse and information transactions will move online, where the economic reality favors the consumer.
This explains the desperate attempt to build paywalls. “A decade ago,” The Economist informs us, “the idea of a paywall appeared to have been widely discredited.” True enough, but most observers I know still think paywalls are a bad bet. Not so The Economist. It becomes lyrical on the subject. Paywalls, we are told, “come in many forms.” Some are “watertight,” but “increasingly they are porous.” Best of all is the magazine’s own version, the “metered paywall model,” which charges super-users while letting the occasional reader in for free.
I have posted on paywalls before, and won’t elaborate here on the perverse incentives they generate. The problem is more fundamental, in any case. By erecting paywalls, newspapers imagine they are escaping the economics of the web. They wish to impose little enclaves of old-time reality on the troublesome virtual world. It can’t work. The public won’t behave like the captive audience of old, simply because content is hidden behind a cash register. I have seen no evidence that paywalls can save the newspaper, and The Economist offers none. The magazine acknowledges that visits to the New York Times site have declined by 10 percent since its paywall went up, then clings to a rather frail hope: “more people than expected are signing up.”
I’ll be brief regarding the supposed decline in objectivity in the new environment – the “Foxification of the news.” I have searched for empirical evidence of such a decline from a golden age of opinion-free reporting, but have not found any. What one finds is horror that certain impolite notions, once taboo, are now being expressed in public. “Lack of objectivity” thus often seems to mean “opinions I don’t approve of.” For The Economist, a negative effect of Foxification in US politics is “a refusal to accept that taxes must rise.” Advocates of lower taxes would of course disagree: and only the most rigid minds would fail to see in this a difference of opinion rather than a problem with objectivity. The magazine’s attitude is of a piece with Sen. John Kerry’s recent demand of the news media that it block political opinions which are not “legitimate.”
This is a longing for walls of a different kind. The rise of the public has hurt the articulate elites’ sensibilities as much as their pocketbooks.
Has the news business evolved into the digitized equivalent of an eighteenth-century coffee house? At one level, sure. Every day Andy Carvin, an NPR journalist, receives on his Twitter feed a stream of information from people on the ground in the Middle East. “What’s the source?” Carvin invariably asks. Conversation ensues.
Conversation thrives in niche virtual communities – that is, in the immensely long tail of information which constitutes much of the digital landscape. But conversation doesn’t scope. News and blogging sites at the pointy head of the chart have millions of readers. At that level, the coffee house metaphor explodes from sheer numbers. And is a Google search a conversation? Navigation, as much as conversation, is the typical activity of the information-seeker today: the consumer of news. In the end, too, all the talk of coffee houses and conversations obscures the overwhelmingly visual nature of the new landscape: think YouTube, Flickr, Photobucket, Google and Yahoo images, Facebook, cable and satellite TV, Netflix. When images displace the written word, information exchanges will necessarily assume strange new forms.
The Economist’s articles dispensed interesting factoids and got the big picture partly right. Bits of what used to be the very serious news business now look like coffee houses. Other bits look rather different. What, then, of the whole – what does that look like? I’m not sure anyone knows. My preliminary metaphor: a fast-forward cosmic version of the “Garden of Earthly Delights,” with good and evil, reward and punishment, frolicking side by side in a blizzard of perpetual chaos.