Journalism and the Google Economy

by Dave Schuler on May 23, 2014

I see that Internet entrepeneur Mike Hudack has a complaint about today’s journalism that may relate to mine of yesterday:

It’s well known that CNN has gone from the network of Bernie Shaw, John Holliman, and Peter Arnett reporting live from Baghdad in 1991 to the network of kidnapped white girls. Our nation’s newspapers have, with the exception of The New York Times, Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal been almost entirely hollowed out. They are ghosts in a shell.

Even these three survivors face great challenges and I doubt anyone would call them “healthy” or laud their courage in journalism. They just report what people tell them, whether it’s Cheney pulling Judith Miller’s strings or Snowden through the proxy of Glenn Greenwald doing roughly the same. They seem incapable of breaking real, meaningful news at Internet speed. It’s why they like Twitter so much. Twitter does the hard work for them.

He continues in that vein. I wonder if Mike realizes that he has or, more accurately, other hes in the wacky world that the Internet has brought us have fostered the attitude that may be once of the factors underlying the change.

Once upon a time a small number of people derived their incomes from coupon-clipping. I don’t mean the coupons for soap or frozen dinners in newspapers or online. Bonds used to have coupons attached to them. When the coupon matured the bearer of the bond could clip the coupon and present it for payment. “Coupon-clipping” was a symbol of wealth and indolence.

The modern equivalent of coupon-clipping is passive income. Put Google Adsense ads on your web site; earn money. That’s “passive income”.

There are two things missing from that model. The first thing is what’s referred to as “the long tail”. A very small number of sites garner most of the hits and, consequently, most of the income. Most of the sites earn very little income. Pennies or a few dollars a day is commonplace. In other words living on passive income is only a viable business model for a small number of sites.

The other thing that’s missing is that somewhere somebody must be making or selling something from which that income ultimately derives. No sales; no passive income.

How does that relate to journalism? Somehow the society has been infected with the idea that you, too, can earn millions from passive income, forgetting that there’s got to be underlying economic activity for that to work. In the newspaper business that’s either advertising or stuff that people want to read.

Newspaper advertising is on the skids through a combination of Google, mobile technology, and Craigslist. The political blogosphere has demonstrated that there’s very little reason to pay to read opinion. That leaves reporting and doing reporting that people will pay to read has always been difficult and you don’t earn passive income from it. Ben Franklin didn’t make money from his newspaper. He made money as a printer and produced his newspaper when business was slow and he had time on his hands.

I think there’s a dream of reporter-free news media with stories written by computers, gleaned by scouring the pages of Twitter or Facebook. What I can’t figure out is why anybody would pay to read those stories.

Reporting is a craft, it’s learned by doing it, and you can’t step out of J-school and expect to be a competent reporter. It requires patience and tenacity. I think it’s possible to earn a little money by reporting but probably not enough to pay off J-school debts and have a middle class lifestyle and certainly not enough to have the lifestyle of a physician let alone that of a financier.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

michael reynolds May 23, 2014 at 2:48 pm

I think there’s a dream of reporter-free news media with stories written by computers, gleaned by scouring the pages of Twitter or Facebook. What I can’t figure out is why anybody would pay to read those stories.

People are forever trying to remove writers from writing. Hasn’t worked yet, but hey, who knows. I’ve been saying for years that re-positioning and re-presenting someone else’s news while killing the goose that lays those golden news nuggets to begin with, is kind of not going to work long-term.

We made the wrong decisions with news and the free market. BBC does great work, Aljazeera does great work – both government financed. NPR does great work with a blend of public and private money. But most of the private news sources – networks and newspapers – are either reading Twitter feeds out loud, preaching to a handful of partisans or going broke. We used to get some decent work out of the networks when news was not a bottom line thing but an obligatory social good thing.

The free market in news means the NYT writes a story, everyone else rips it off and the NYT slowly goes broke.

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