Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In search of the new aggregator

Megan McArdle's two posts at the this week -- "The Newspaper Industry vs. The Journalism Profession" and the follow-up "Who Will do the Reporting?" -- struck a nerve with some folks and a chord with me.

They dovetail well with the case I have tried to make, essentially that, as she puts it:

Instead of dozens of media organizations with staffs in the hundreds or thousands, we're likely to see thousands of news organizations with a few dozen—or even fewer— employees.

The 20th century model of the newspaper—a monolithic corporation with a thousand reporters that cover everything from sports to foreign policy—is comforting because there's a certain amount of predictability that comes with central planning. We can be sure that the New York Times will cover every topic because it has a hierarchy of editors whose job it is to make sure that all the important topics get covered. ...

But while central planning often produces a comforting uniformity, it isn't actually a particularly efficient way to organize the enterprise of news gathering. Bureaucratic organizations tend to have high overhead and to allocate resources poorly. In hierarchical news organizations, reporters tend to be confined to narrowly defined beats and are given limited flexibility to branch out into other subjects that might interest them more. Large organizations tend to waste resources—flying a reporter to a remote location and putting her up in a hotel when a locally-based freelancer could have covered the story just as well, for example.
There are the usual back-and-forth comments about the relative merits of "kararoke journalists" (read bloggers) and the like, but a couple of them , combined with McArdle's thoughts, serve to frame things nicely.

From Bill Dunphy, whose thoughts and work I admire as the force behind Canada's WebU:
The fetish isn't for print and ink, it's for the kind of jouranalism that 25% profit margins can buy...

And from Peter Bautista:
Has the web era really made this less true? Specifically, is reporting cheaper now? The web cuts all kinds of costs, from printing to communications, but at the end of the day, we do need reporters physically on-scene at least some of the time.

Let's take what I'm trying to lay out point by point:
  • No, reporting is not particularly cheaper now. Yes, there are cost-saving strategies. Free phone services like Skype (assuming your source has it, too); lighter, cheaper gear; free or almost-free access to online information sources for context and depth, sources that before would have cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, or not been available at all. But the essence of journalism is still the one-on-one relationship of reporter to source. And labor is not cheap.
  • Journalism takes funding, but does it require 25 percent profit margins and did those margins really buy you great journalism? I'd suggest the answer is no.
  • Newspapers are aggregators of individual journalists' work no more or less so than Google or Yahoo are aggregators of news organizations' current output (in fact, if you think about it, Google and Yahoo essentially re-atomize that output). Now, before you get all twitchy and reach for the reply button, read the longer explication that follows. Part of the issue is that news organizations as we now know them aggregated not just economic costs, but social ones as well. This is is the nub of the transition we are in -- the new aggregators do not yet cover those social costs. And, frankly, we aren't sure yet what those social costs will be.
OK, now for some longer verbiage.

Let's just take the first two points and refer back to McArdle's second post, that there are less-expensive ways to do journalism than the current model. We could embark on a lengthy debate here on several points, but let's keep it short to focus on the last item.

First, there is the veracity/credibility/ownership issue. Briefly put, the argument is that if you own it, then somehow it is more credible. The list of contrary examples over the years, and stretching far back beyond "Jimmy's World" or Jayson Blair, or CBS and the Bush memos, or exploding Ford trucks, should be enough to put that to rest. Credibility has become transactional, not institutional. It is now less a function of ownership and more of ethical and professional orientation, the evaluation of your work by the wider community, and, as applicable, the nature of work flows and quality control. Besides, the wire services and networks have belied that argument for years in their liberal use of freelancers.

Second is the diversity argument: It's good when everybody sends a reporter to the Super Bowl because you get a diversity of voices. The reality, of course, is that you get dozens of versions of the same inanity. Such limited-venue events offer limited opportunities, and managers are starting to wise up and realize that they can probably get almost all of what the event entails if a few large organizations with wires and feed staff it. If there are any additional truly authentic voices to be heard, they might well be the fans blogging from the cheap seats.

On the typical national or world stage (and let's take a natural disaster for an example) -- and except for the most-remote areas -- there are likely to be more feet on the ground even at the outset than media organizations can parachute in. The very nature of the current model of parachute journalism (and it can still be parachute journalism if you have a bureau on hand and force all the "news" to come through it) is to create the neck of the bottle that favors distortion by creating a work flow in which everything must pass through the limited space.*

Third is the question of whether 25 percent profit margins are needed to do good journalism. Again, numerous examples abound, from the news cooperative AP (last time I looked at its financials, AP was clearing far less than 25 percent) to Mother Jones and Consumer Reports, to more recent nonprofit models, that margins need not be so large. The argument against the nonprofits is that they may have no staying power. The retort is "so what"? If news itself is dynamic, why shouldn't the industry that covers it be dynamic as well. Now, this requires subscribing to the view that the locus of journalism is the journalist, not the organization -- and that is the lynchpin of this whole line of argument, so if you want to attack, attack there. But I still maintain that journalism -- not putting out a newspaper or magazine, putting on a TV show, or even necessarily writing a blog -- is and will remain one of the original cottage industries.

In other words, gathering distinguished from production. Certainly, it takes a village to put out most of today's current products except the blog. (And even then, if you think about it, there is a village behind the scenes. Someone is maintaining and paying for those servers, Internet access and development of the blogging software.) McArdle suggests that may not be the case in the future, and I agree.

But that brings us to the fourth point, aggregators and costs.

Newspapers and TV stations are aggregators. They are economic aggregators, taking individual stories that in practical terms have little to no economic value and giving them value by packaging them with ads, indexing and organizing them (layout and headlines) and distributing them. But they also aggregate social costs.

The modern newspaper was a product of the industrial age and, of course, it took advantage of centralized production and economies of scale. But with the rise of the Industrial Age also came the need to centralize social costs, like libel and defamation.

The Colonial and even the Civil War-era press had been an unruly thing, prone to vicious attack. The practical matter, however, was that it was largely impractical to sue individual small publishers for sullying your reputation. The resources were not there.

As the newspaper and its news organization evolved, they also developed the necessary deep pockets to right social wrongs their journalists might cause.

The rise of the large media company also provided a central place for legal action, promoting efficiency. In return, it made an implicit social contract (too often violated, but still) that it would strive to meet a certain level of professionalism, both to society (by providing a legal and managerial collar around unruly journalists, for instance) and to the journalists (by providing a living wage and decent benefits, ease of production and distribution, and a certain modicum of legal protection in most cases).

Fast forward to today, and you can see the outlines of the pre-industrial era in this post-industrial age: A progressive atomizing of journalism (and other businesses that relied on near-monopoly control) has us again pondering the function of the individual journalist and small news organization. Part of our upset and confusion is because we have not discovered the model for a new aggregator that will provide not only economic but the necessary social benefits.

The legal system generally takes about a decade, if not more, to catch up to major technological change. One question society, through the legal system, has yet to fully answer is how, or if, it will handle the social costs of this media atomization. For instance, again we see situations where a serious libel may be created without any practical way of redress.

(Under Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act, every individual effectively becomes his or her own publisher. If you are in California and libel me in South Carolina, I have no real practical way of recovering economically unless you have deep individual pockets; the costs of bringing the suit and jurisdictional issues alone can be substantial (you can seek to have the case removed to California, thus subjecting me to the costs of litigating there, etc.) This is one reason I have suggested we may need to consider some kind of federal defamation small claims court that conducts most of its business digitally so that the parties can remain in their home areas and avoid some of those litigation expenses.)

Depending on how the legal system evolves to handle these issues, the need for future aggregation may be great or small. If for no other reason than a time-starved society, some aggregation is likely.

But Yahoo, Google, etc. are not it. For now, they are only interim steps addressing, to some extent, a facet of the issue: help for the time starved (and to a small extent, through Google Ads, providing some small economic support for individuals). One can envision a new type of aggregator that can provide some liability protection, perhaps support services such as editing to the extent the journalist wants them, some kind of interconnection into the Web's economic model of the time (a model I suspect will be in flux), and perhaps some social services, such as health insurance, retirement counseling/accounts, etc. Once those are in place, I expect "small" journalism to also become robust journalism. **

Whether a company, a trade association or a foundation -- or likely mixes of all three -- these support aggregators will be stripped to the bare essentials. Flexible. Non-controlling. And not needing 25 percent margins. I'm convinced this model is coming to replace "newspapers" as we now know them, and I would not be surprised to find that some current news companies transform themselves into these shells.

*The camel in the tent, as Eric J. notes in a comment to McArdle's second post, is whether this is possible at the local and hyper-local level. National/international media have the advantage of being able to select from a wide variety of events daily, such that the yield of interesting, readable stories can be quite high. On the local level, the ratio of interesting to banal is lessened.
** A useful policy discussion would be whether this system, however, is likely to favor one type of news, seen as less-threatening, over another from the simple stop-loss nature of commercial endeavors, no matter what their margins.

Labels: , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home