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Media Comparative Advantage

One point I've been making lately whenever I get asked to expound on blogs, the media, and "what it all means" goes like this. Clearly, bloggers -- amateurs or even professionals acting independently of larger organizations -- are never going to be able to replace the core information-gathering function provided by traditional print or broadcast media. An online-only operation of sufficient scale certainly could, but lone bloggers simply can't conduct long-term investigations, operate foreign bureaus, or even just fly someone to Beirut really quickly to cover some demonstrations. The flipside of this, however, is that the blogosphere tends to cast into relief the extent to which a lot of what the traditional print and broadcast media does isn't really reporting in this sense. As John Quiggin observes:

Despite this catch-up, it’s still true that anyone wanting coverage of economic issues in the US would do far better to read blogs than to follow either the NY Times or the WSJ, and no other mainstream media even come close. It isn’t even true, as it is in other cases, that bloggers need the established media to get the facts on which they can then comment. The NY Times story linked above is basically a rewrite of the Bureau of Economic Analysis press release which you can get by automatic email if you want.
Right. A lot of information doesn't need to be reported. There are institutions out there gathering information and they want to tell people about it. The federal government, in particular, gathers and releases to the public a huge amount of economic data. And I'd rather here what an economist has to say about it than one a reporter -- almost by definition a generalist (not that there's anything wrong with that -- I'm one myself) -- thinks. Also stuff about the weather which is one of the main pieces of information local TV broadcasts report to the public, though without the audience-building hysteria. And of course the much-vaunted pass to the White House press briefing room is of little real value in information-acquisition terms. You can watch the thing on C-SPAN or read the transcript if you want to know what happened. Of course, you don't get to ask your own questions that way. But as becomes quite clear if you do read some transcripts, the people who get the jobs as press secretary aren't idiots and aren't going to let anything noteworthy slide just because you have a really, really clever question. The same thing applies, of course, to the Pentagon and State Department's briefings. My hope would be that as demographic changes grow the blog-audience this will push/encourage large media outlets to dedicate more of their time and attention to the sort of information gathering that they really excel at.

March 12, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Most (as in a majority) of what is published in newspapers and magazines starts out life as a press release. 90% of the edited text of the Wall St. Journal consists of barely edited press releases; that's actually part of the value of the WSJ -- that its editorial standards are standard, and, therefore, it is more economical to read the shorter PR rewrites in the WSJ than to read the actual PRs, which are filled with useless puffery. Much of what makes it onto television news starts out as an event staged by a PR firm, on behalf of some client.

That newspapers employ "generalists" as reporters & editors is an indictment of the way newspapers are organized. How many errors could be avoided, if the N.Y. Times filtered the reporting through the same, anonymous editor, sitting in New York, writing its daily reports on, say, Bush's Social Security plan? An anonymous editor, who would quickly become an expert on Social Security?

Big Media is dying a deserved, but too long death precisely because Big Media is organized around non-expert generalists, who are simply incompetent to report, day after day, on complex political subjects. And, Big Media is organized to keep their star reporters ignorant twats.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Mar 12, 2005 12:44:16 PM

Big chuckle about the weather bit - I always go to the weather.gov site, where I can get a simple estimate instead of "Philly will be buried in 6 feet of snow!!!!! And now to our reporter standing in a parking lot talking to snowplow operators!!!"

I don't know about the information-gathering aspect, though. In terms of specific kinds of information - detailed descriptions of evolution vs. creationism conflicts at school board meetings in Kansas, or individual glimpses of conditions in Baghdad - loosely distributed, to be sure, but that's what links are for, right? (Although I read an alternative explanation that is now horribly stuck in my head and darnit, I can't find the link for it . . . )

Posted by: Dan S. | Mar 12, 2005 12:50:36 PM

What can big media do that blogs cannot?

1)Data collection, aggregation,filtering...anybody can do that. Like the gov't reports.

2)Most reporters simply talk to people, on the phone or a press conference or lunch. Now the access has some value, getting quotes and info from Mankiw and Snow has some additional and/or different value from talking to Setser or Delong or Roubini, simply because of their positions and proximity to policy makers, but comes with a cost in lack of candor and inevitable spin.

And I would claim this is 90% of what the MSM thinks and claims is their advantage...access to high level sources.

3) Investigative reporting? Somebody send Riverbend or Zeyad $100 a week to look around. I think this is an overrated advantage that is fast disappearing. Where am I getting my good info on Syria? SyriaComment, from someone living in Damascus for years talking candidly to Syrian friends. Do I really need NBC to spend $250k to send a reporter to Syria? Will I gain much more in the way of good info? I very much doubt it.

What did the old "foreign bureaus" have as an advantage that blogs and commenters(Internet) do not? See #2. We are beginning an age of distributed reporting with aggregators like praktike and Abu Aardvark filtering and collating.

Old media can just die.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Mar 12, 2005 1:11:47 PM

"but lone bloggers simply can't conduct long-term investigations, operate foreign bureaus, or even just fly someone to Beirut really quickly to cover some demonstrations."

A strawman, and you must know it, contrasting the abilities of the mainstream media against a "lone blogger". The blogosphere doesn't have to send somebody to Beirut, it's already there.

Bob is right, blogs could ultimately beat out the mainstream media, by operating as a distributed information gathering system, each blogger adding his or her drop to the flood.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Mar 12, 2005 1:16:08 PM

You do have problems with ethics, training, etc. - standardization of product quality?

Posted by: Dan S. | Mar 12, 2005 3:02:15 PM

Well, what about the following two axioms:

1. Words printed on paper can not lie.
and
2. You can't believe anything you read on the internet.

Everyone knows these are true statements.

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 12, 2005 3:09:39 PM

Ah, but what about the $$$$?

Posted by: praktike | Mar 12, 2005 3:10:08 PM

The media comparative advantage should go to the wire services. Without some of those stories for final copy or lead development in preparing a storyline, local papers would have a lot of blank space.

Blogs are fine, but where is the USA Today equivalent blog? I built a daily world news section for a well read message board a few years ago; included over 30 categories of news by broad subject. Initial interest was excellent, but that lasted about four months. Once the readers tracked my links and became accustomed to the sources, the readership dropped off.

I do the same thing with blogs. If they become boring or repetitive, I move on. Not so with a good newspaper or google news. Read them every day.

I believe that quality online news media has an excellent future. Paper copy is another matter, not likely to survive.

Perhaps online news organizations should demonstrate more interest in supplementing their efforts by building internal blogs and creating lists of links to other quality blogs by subject matter. And no, I do not mean the little message boards like the NYTimes. I am suggesting a more polished effort.

Posted by: Movie Guy | Mar 12, 2005 9:32:12 PM

>>>Most (as in a majority) of what is published in newspapers and magazines starts out life as a press release.

All newspapers? You're focusing on things like the Wall Street Journal. There are hundreds of newspapers out there. Part of the problem is that they MUST dedicate some of their resources to things like local murder trials (that can go on for days), etc. There are fewer and fewer newspapers due to media conglomeration, so there are fewer reporters around to compete and specialize and everything else. We need more newspapers and more coverage, not fewer. Woodward & Bernstein were allowed to focus on just one assignment for a very long time. Most papers don't have the staff and resources to do that. But that doesn't mean that on a smaller scale they don't try.

Bloggers can pretty much focus on any issue they want. If they're competition for the news media, that's a good thing. But we need them both - not just blogs where the owner can write whatever the fig he wants, true or not.

Posted by: CL | Mar 13, 2005 12:47:05 AM

"...but lone bloggers simply can't conduct long-term investigations, operate foreign bureaus, or even just fly someone to Beirut really quickly to cover some demonstrations. "

True, a lone blogger can't. But there can be bloggers living in foreign countries who can cover events in their country well. And our lone blogger can link to them.

Posted by: Njorl | Mar 14, 2005 11:24:11 AM

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