May 8, 2009

Consumer Reports + National Enquirer + ? = the future of free societies

Another week, another round of debate about the future of journalism. As usual, I’m too overwhelmed with my own duties of news reporting, commentary, consulting, and small business administrivia — not to mention basketball-watching and kitchen repair — to chime in at the length I’d like. But even given those limitations, I’d like to reiterate something I said in a prior post about the evolving information ecosystem:

a significant fraction of news is something large organizations have a vested interest in releasing

In my opinion, that’s a crucial point. On subjects where primary sources want information to get out, traditional journalists are not needed to relay news. Comment (especially sceptically)? Sure. Filter? Maybe. Story-tell? Yes, but only if news-as-entertainment is your idea of fun.

Basically, the “death of media” concerns should for the most part be restricted to the future of investigative features. When one thinks of major investigative reporting that society would have been poorer without, it’s usually either a feature story or a series of articles that might as well have been a feature. The reason those are threatened is that their huge value to society is not always paired with a huge “fun”/”interest” factor in consuming the stories, and hence traditional attention-based economic models may not work for them.

In essence, most investigative journalism is bundled into larger publications and broadcast enterprises. (Even the TV show 60 Minutes seems to get its viewership more from celebrity interviews than journalistic exposes. At least, that’s a reasonable inference based on what segments they particularly emphasize in their marketing.) This can make good business sense on at least two levels:

The disaggregation of news is undermining both of those business cases. To me, that’s the true part of the Chicken Littleish scares.

Offhand, I can think of only two kinds of investigative journalism that directly pay for themselves. One is sober investigations that have pretty tangible benefits — stock short-sale recommendations, Consumer Reports, and the like. The other is entertaining scandal-mongering, most notably in the area of celebrity gossip. That’s the starting point from which we need to build.

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4 Responses to “Consumer Reports + National Enquirer + ? = the future of free societies”

  1. Linda Barlow on May 11th, 2009 12:37 am

    “a significant fraction of news is something large organizations have a vested interest in releasing”

    Is that news or is it publicity? Depends on the circumstances. Certainly there is plenty of what I might call news that orgs do *not* have a vested interest in releasing (although they might have a vested interest in not covering it up).

    I agree that the predicted death of traditional journalism could lead to a cut-back well-sourced, thoroughly researched investigative reporting. Indeed, there is already a trend on the web to accept poorly-sourced stories as fact.

  2. Curt Monash on May 11th, 2009 3:05 am

    Publicity is something that happens to real or imagined news — or, if you like, to the subjects of such real or imagined news.

  3. TechCrunch offers to pay a source’s legal expenses | Text Technologies on May 23rd, 2009 5:51 pm

    […] That’s a remarkable offer to make, one that I don’t ever recall hearing the mainstream media ever matching. As such, it’s a strong (albeit very partial) answer to the ongoing handwringing about the future of investigative journalism. […]

  4. How to preserve investigative reporting in the New Media Era | Text Technologies on September 26th, 2010 8:18 am

    […] stance in my May, 2009 post on where the information ecosystem is headed and even more directly in an earlier piece that month. However, I’ve changed my mind in an optimistic direction, and now […]

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