March 04, 2009
HLS Professor Yochai Benkler ’94 wrote “Correspondence: A New Era of Corruption?,” in The New Republic online on March 4. The piece— on the effects of media diversification and competition on the traditional model of regional newspapers and democracy—was a response to an article by Paul Starr, “Goodbye to the Age of Newpapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption.”
The heart of Paul Starr's characteristically thoughtful and well-researched argument is that a core aspect of American democracy has long depended on one-newspaper-town monopolies and a lack of media choice. First, because dailies were monopolies, they could charge very high fees from advertisers. These created the slack out of which newspapers could afford to subsidize those parts of the paper that were important public goods--news and investigative reporting. But these high fees from advertisers are disappearing. Second, part of the democratic role of newspapers has been the political education of the distracted masses. On their way to local job listings and sports pages, readers would inevitably stumble over the front page local corruption story; or coverage of a war. This incidental exposure created a minimally-informed citizenry capable of checking the worst excesses of corrupt government. The dispersion of attention, begun with cable and talk radio and crowned by the Internet, has led to a more inert and uninformed general public. The most politically engaged members of society have used the new diversity of offerings to flock together and become better informed than they could possibly have been in the past. But they are also more partisan. Because of these twin effects, the demise of the 20th century business model of newspapers threatens to undermine the way our democracy functions and to introduce a new era of corruption.
I largely agree with Starr in his prediction of the effects of media diversification and competition on the traditional model of most regional newspapers in the United States. I am less persuaded that the effects will indeed be so dire for democracy. First, though it would be silly to deny the contributions of newspapers to checking abuse of power, the traditional media have been far from the idealized Fourth Estate. Starr knows this, of course, as his superb history, The Creation of the Media, tracks the emergence of the Fourth Estate, warts an all, over two centuries. Here, however, he seems to take our knowledge of the imperfections for granted. The result is likely too skeptical of the possibilities of the new media.
Critics of online media raise concerns about the ease with which gossip and unsubstantiated claims can be propagated on the Net. However, on the Net we have all learned to read with a grain of salt between our teeth, like Russians drinking tea through a sugar cube. The traditional media, to the contrary, commanded respect and imposed authority. It was precisely this respect and authority that made The New York Times' reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq so instrumental in legitimating the lies that the Bush administration used to lead this country to war. Two weeks ago and then last Friday, The Washington Post was still allowing George Will to make false claims about the analysis of a scientific study of global sea ice levels without batting an eyelid, reflecting the long-standing obfuscation of the scientific consensus on the causes of climate change by newspapers that, in the name of balanced reporting, reported the controversy rather than the actual scientific consensus. On some of these, the greatest challenges of our time, newspapers have failed us. The question then, on the background of this mixed record is whether the system that will replace the mass mediated public sphere can do at least as well.
There is reason to think that it will. Like other information goods, the production model of news is shifting from an industrial model--be it the monopoly city paper, IBM in its monopoly heyday, or Microsoft, or Britannica--to a networked model that integrates a wider range of practices into the production system: market and nonmarket, large scale and small, for profit and nonprofit, organized and individual. We already see the early elements of how news reporting and opinion will be provided in the networked public sphere. Its primary elements will be:
1. Surviving elements of the old system, changed. These include papers like The New York Times, which see a much larger readership of their online platform, supported by a slowly improving level of targeted advertising to its new, larger audiences, and international sources like the BBC or Al Jazeera, some of which at least depend on state funding.
2. Small-scale commercial media. These types of organizations will be are able to operate at much lower cost than small papers of the past while maintaining high journalistic professionalism. Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, which Starr notes, is the poster-child for this form. The idea here is that with sufficiently high quality professional commitment to reporting, combined with contributions from engaged readers, various freelancers, and academics who can use the platform as their own stage, a small outfit can draw a sufficiently large number of readers to sell advertising at levels that can sustain this level of operation. Marshall, for example, has a site rank roughly in the neighborhood of that of The State, South Carolina's biggest newspaper, but needs to support a comparatively minuscule paid staff. As Starr notes in his main piece, this style of low cost, highly-socially-leveraged reporting also lends itself to philanthropic support, because you can get so much bang for the donor's buck when you don't need to have a styles section or a restaurant review section, but can focus your energy on political reporting coupled with user-contributed tips and insights. The Washington Independent, funded by the Center for Independent Media, is an excellent example. Part of what is important to remember is that journalists, like all people, come in many motivational profiles. Some scientists go to work for startups and look for the big bucks, but most who do basic research trade-off potential riches for a steady academic position and the respect and independence that come with it. Certainly, many journalists too are driven to write about the news of the day because they care and because they want to get it right; and this model allows them to do so even if it does not quite get them the levels of compensation that the older model might have.
3. New, volunteer-driven party presses. While motivation sources may be mysterious to economists when they think about Wikipedia or the Linux kernel, there is nothing mysterious about what drives the contributors to the newly emerging party presses. Over 10,000 Daily Kos contributors have strong political beliefs, and they are looking to express them and to search for information that will help their cause. So do the contributors to Town Hall, although the left-wing of the blogosphere has more of this phenomenon at this point in history than does the right. For digging up the dirt on your opponent's corruption, this is a powerful motivator, and the platforms are available to allow thousands of volunteers to work together, with the leadership and support of a tiny paid staff (paid, again, through advertising to this engaged community, or through mobilized donations).
4. Newly effective nonprofits. The best example of this is The Sunlight Foundation, which supports both new laws that require government data to be put online, and the development of web-based platforms that allow people to look at these data and explore government actions that are relevant to them. In one example, Sunlight ran a project to identify which members of Congress had paid their spouses out of their campaign coffers. Not an illegal act, but when carried to extreme, an unsavory one. What they did was build a web-based interface that allowed users to pick a representative they care about, and then they led their users from one publicly-available database to the next to research the question. Within one weekend the community of volunteers had done the entire research project for each member of Congress, finding some rather awkward payments in the process. A similar approach can allow people to look at earmark projects in their neighborhood, where they can then bring local knowledge to bear on whether a sum like the one assigned is a plausible one; or what local shenanigans might be at work. Given the magnitude of the stimulus bill, for example, I suspect that a well-designed public database recording and reporting who is being paid and what, for which projects, would allow for much more extensive and comprehensive analysis by the network of volunteers with well-structured tools than the happenstance of any given reporter, in any given locality, getting a tip from a long-time source.
5. Individuals in networks. Less prominent than the large collaboration platforms like Daily Kos, individuals play an important role in this new information ecosystem. First, there are the experts. For instance, academic economists like Brad DeLong, on the left, and the contributors to Marginal Revolution, on the right, played a much greater role in debates over the stimulus and bailout than they could have a mere decade ago. But it's not just experts who benefit; any individual who by happenstance is at the right place at the right time--like the person who made the video of John McCain singing "Bomb Iran," or the people who are increasingly harnessed by forward looking organizations, like the BBC or now CNN iReport, to share their stories, images, and videos--can become a reporter or photojournalist. While professionals can take much better photographs or videos, professionals simply cannot replicate the probability of being in the right place, at the right time that the population at large has. All we need to do is remember the Rodney King beating, the Abu Ghraib photos, or the images of people walking through the underground tunnels during the London bombings to understand this. And there will always be people with an intense concern on a single issue, like Russ Kick from the Memory Hole who spent months on Freedom of Information requests, until at long last he, and not any of the traditional media, was the first to publish images of American military personnel returned in coffins from Iraq.
Our experience with other information, knowledge, and cultural goods, as well as the shape of debates in the past four or five years, suggests that this new system is likely to produce an effective mix of reporting and opinion. Admittedly, I think we do not have good research to know whether this system is also working for local politics and potential corruption as well. This, as Starr shows, is an important area we need to study and understand. But policy interventions, if any, need to be designed for this networked environment of diverse models of news production. More important than a national fund to assure the continued existence of certain journals in their present mode would be transparency regulation that would assure that data about public action and behavior will be made available, at all levels of government--federal, state, and local--to the public in forms that nonprofit groups like the Sunlight Foundation can not only disseminate, but more importantly make available for people to inquire into by themselves. Perhaps, as Starr proposes, there is room to enlist philanthropic support for local reporting. I would suspect, however, that doing so would achieve more if it created state-level online muckraking organizations with a generation of young journalists who have grown on the Net than by propping up older establishments that still depend on much higher ratios of organizational, financial, and physical capital to talent than the new, lighter, networked models permit. We are still very much at the beginning of the new era. It is indeed possible that news reporting, national or local, will prove more resistant to a shift to mixed networked models with a large role for social production in its creation than was true of operating systems, web server software, or an encyclopedia. But I doubt it.
Yochai Benkler is a professor at Harvard Law School and Co-Director of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He is the author of The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.