No, The Death Of Newspapers Does Not Mean An Age Of Corruption

from the let's-think-this-through-a-bit,-shall-we... dept

A few folks have sent in Paul Starr’s long but thoughtful article in The New Republic, which worries that, thanks to newspapers dying, we’ll be entering a new age of corruption, since no one will be watching government officials like investigative reporters have in the past. The article is well worth reading, and brings up a number of interesting points — but, in the end, fails to make a compelling case for a number of reasons — most specifically that it relies on both a faulty model of news production and a faulty understanding of economics. This isn’t to knock Starr or the article, because the mistakes are subtle, but important.

The first mistake is in looking at news production itself — and specifically investigative reporting. Starr seems to significantly overestimate how much investigative reporting newspapers do. In fact, investigative reporting is a fairly new phenomenon and has never been a major focus of newspapers. Those bemoaning the supposed “loss” of this function don’t seem to recognize how little money has been put towards such investigative reporting in the past. As that second link suggests, most newspapers spend more on their comics pages than on investigations.

Furthermore, the article brushes off the fact that the increase in information out there, and the ability for almost anyone to consume different media, means that a lot more people can participate in the process itself. Starr does mention some of this, but seems to brush it off without a deeper investigation. And that leads to quotes like the following:

Altogether, according to the governor’s office, the number of full-time statehouse reporters in New Jersey has fallen from more than fifty to fifteen in the past decade. That is a lot fewer pairs of eyes to keep watch over state agencies.

Which of course assumes that the only people who can monitor government agencies are reporters. That’s simply not true. There are many more “eyes” watching over state agencies — it’s just that they don’t do it as a full-time job. That doesn’t mean that as a group they’re somehow less effective. If well organized, they can be much, much, much more effective — enabling multiple people to assemble different pieces of the puzzle and work together as a team to unearth problems. This is often brushed off as useless because some of those people might be “biased” or have an “agenda,” but, in practice, that issue is often negated. Those with obvious biases or agendas are usually pretty quickly outed.

So, while the nature of the beast may change, there’s little evidence that corruption will suddenly be free to roam. Especially in the political realm, where there’s so much interest in digging up “dirt” on opponents, it’s increasingly hard to keep corruption secret.

The second mistake is much more subtle and quite easy to understand. It’s in focusing on the idea that “news” is somehow a public good. Much of the discussion, then, about public goods is based on an older understanding of public goods and what that implies from an economic standpoint. But, that thinking on public goods has gone through something of an economics revolution in the last decade or so, with much of the research being so recent that plenty of well-known economists are still digesting it. The claims that public goods are necessarily “under-produced,” because there isn’t enough incentive for private providers to supply them, knowing that there will be free riders, is looking less and less true — especially when it comes to information.

That mistake is based on a simple misconception (which many still hold), that the business model needs to be about the public good itself. When the product is information, that’s not true. You can use the information itself to create different business models, by effectively bundling the information (or infinite) good with a corresponding scarcity. In fact, that’s exactly what newspapers have done for years, in reality. They’ve used the information to attract a community — and then sold that community to advertisers. The problem newspapers face isn’t that they’re producing a public good — it’s that they never fully realized that they were selling their community’s attention, and were unprepared when that community found other places to go.

Starr, unfortunately, only focuses on “non-market” production of public goods, using Yochai Benkler’s excellent discussion on “The Wealth of Networks.” That’s a useful starting point, but it’s hardly the end of the discussion. Through bundling and creative business models, you can very much create very strong market production of such infinite goods (which are misnamed “public goods”). The issue is just setting up those proper business models, and we’re starting to see more and more examples of those pop up every day.

When you correct for both of these mistakes, you realize that the widespread participation of the community, combined with newer business models for the production of such infinite goods, allows such “investigative reporting” to be done more cheaply — while actually providing an even larger revenue stream. I recognize that last statement seems like a bit of a leap of faith (especially to those who are worrying about dying newspapers), but as you look through the economic evidence, it’s difficult to find a market that wasn’t greatly enlarged by the injection of more “infinite goods,” combined with a more efficient system for participation.

Don’t fear the changes that are coming. They may take a little while to sort out, but the opportunities are huge, and they will be too tempting for some to pass up.

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Comments on “No, The Death Of Newspapers Does Not Mean An Age Of Corruption”

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Anonymous Coward says:

More ways to get info

In Mike’s point no. 1, it should be added that the dwindling number of New Jersey state-house reporters doesn’t mean less oversight.

In the past, you had to go to the state house to get the info; now, it’s available on government web sites, Lexis-Nexis and so on (a great example is – this distribution of info was unheard of 10 years ago).

Just because there are less reporters in the press room doesn’t mean there is less oversight.

Jake says:

"a more efficient system for participation"

Mike, great article.
A. Would love more concrete examples of “infinite goods” — I feel like I have a limnal understanding of what you are talking about here. Might be because I have a head cold today.
B. Do you think a more efficient system for participation is being represented currently by Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc…? Are these enabling technologies for what you’re talking about?

Anonymous Coward says:

There might be more eyes but what about voices? Think someone posting about corruption in govt. in a blog has the same voice as in the New York Times?

I once posted something about a police chief and an investigation that was pretty bogus. I mentioned a conflict of interest in the investigation. A few months later, I was visited by two police officers of the same city asking me about my post (which was interesting, because I had posted anonymously, but hey, IP address’s can be traced) A month after that I was visited again and questioned. A 3rd visit would have resulted in a call to the EFF, but it never happened.

Do you think they would have sent two police officers to the New York Times? Local politics can be pretty nasty. So yeah, I think that with fewer newspapers or large organizations reporting them, those in power will feel free to do pretty much what they want much easier.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There might be more eyes but what about voices? Think someone posting about corruption in govt. in a blog has the same voice as in the New York Times?

No, they don’t have the same voice, by themselves, as the NY Times, but that’s not mutually exclusive. The point is that if the story has legs, other sources (perhaps including the NY Times) picks up on it.

Michial (user link) says:

Death or "organized News" is welcomed

For the most part the Death of the new media and the birth of the internet news reporting is probably a good thing overall. The news media rarely seems to be unbiased anymore, and more and more seems to be about making money than about reporting the news.

There is only a few areas that the big News Media has coverage that is not easily covered by the average blogger, and it’s the biggest area of concern.

Polititians, and especially the president can block/prevent anyone from getting near them, with the exception of the large news organizations. So if the news reports are eventually replaced with the average blogger, then the politicians will have even more control over those reporting on them because they will of course only allow the “friendly bloggers” near them.

This is my only real concern about the downfall of the media.

batch (profile) says:

newspapers are fail

where were they during the Bush administration? oh wait, I remember, they were right there with the television news reporters asking stupid soft questions and allowing officials to either not answer the question and instead talk about something else or give a bs answer that anyone with common sense would be crying foul over. “Investigative reporting” what a joke.

Osno says:

Media is a good, and an infinite one at that (0 cost)

Sorry to state this bluntly, but using newspapers as a control for government corruption is a joke. Newspapers tend to be aligned to whichever politician suits them, and they oversee stuff based on the same scale of power that politics use. Blogs are far more neutral, or at least more plural. Just as an example, the two most important newspapers of Denver (don’t remember the names, I’ve been there a long time ago) are one republican and one democrat and owned and managed by the same corporation. The newspaper business is a business and, as stated before, they only care for money. Blogging may not have the force, but that’s a cultural thing. Once people start to find trustworthy blogs and start giving them credibility, things will get worse for the established easy to buy media.

Seth Finkelstein (user link) says:

Fantasy vs. Reality Scenario

This is what a call a “Fantasy vs. Reality” scenario.

One starts by detailing all the ways reality is ugly, complicated, messy, doesn’t work well at all.

Then spin fantasy about how the new world will work. There’s no ugly, complicated, messy component, since it’s all an invention.

Win. Nobody can disprove it, since the problems of reality are manifest, while the fantasy can be bolstered with more fantasy.

Anonymous Coward says:

A New Age of Corruption

from the let’s-think-this-through-a-bit,-shall-we… dept -> “The New Republic, which worries that, thanks to newspapers dying, we’ll be entering a new age of corruption, since no one will be watching government officials like investigative reporters have in the past.”

Not at all egotistical – huh?

What? There will more corruption than there is today?
I never thought of the jounalism profession as the last bastion of defense against the evils of corruption, but maybe that is true. But even if it is, I doubt the loss of corporate media would make things any worse than they already are.

The Watchdog says:

One other counter point.

The government’s own accountability infrastructure has also gown over time. Specifically, to follow the N.J. example, the last 2 years have seen the creation of a state Inspector General and Comptroller, with a combined staff of around 40 to dif into state and local spending. Three N.J. counties have their own I.G.s, and fourth has been proposed. While they can’t totally substitute for reporters who work outside the system, the increase in the number so people paid by taxpayers to keep an eye on government activities can lessen the blow if big-paper investigative journalism really goes the way of the dinos.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Investigative reporting

RIGHT ON, Michael! To which I will add; the newspapers are owned (or, at least, operated) by wealthy people, often very conservative, and arguably biased (according to a story I read in Newsweek (sorry, no cite) some reporters in Florida were fired, they claimed, for refusing to lie about the news – it was thrown out of court, but questions remain …….
In any case, much of the “investigative” reporting, to me, is not in the mainstream thought, or even accurate.
With the community, the biases, not being controlled by a single entity, tend to even out; plus many people “just believe” what they read in the newspaper, but question blogs.

Tim Moe says:

Not a Mistake

“The second mistake is much more subtle and quite easy to understand. It’s in focusing on the idea that “news” is somehow a public good.”

This is not a mistake. Freedom of the press was written into the constitution for a reason. It is not just for the disemination of information. We are in danger of losing our liberties, and are totally oblivious. We are becoming a nation of moronic sheep. We need to be connected to our local communities in order to participate in representative government. There is no way that an ‘online’ service can substitue for what newsapers have done.

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