Thursday, January 7, 2010

The biggest thing since wood pulp

One of my favorite podcasts, Planet Money, recently did a segment on bias in journalism. Apparently, back in the 1870's, most newspapers were blatantly affiliated with a political party. In fact, their bias was openly stated in their mission statement and it was part of the newspaper industry business model. In return for political support, a newspaper publisher would get lucrative contracts for printing government documents and cushy government posts like postmaster. You historians will remember that Ben Franklin, himself a publisher, was the first postmaster general. The newspaper publishers didn't do this because they were greedy or unscrupulous; it was hard to make a living publishing a paper any other way. The cost of printing and distributing a paper was more than the audience could afford. Given the options of the low return of serving an audience that can't afford your product or the high return of serving a political party, the choice was easy.

But then a big technology disruption happened that drastically cut the cost of publishing a newspaper and all of the sudden made the business more profitable. It wasn't the Internet, it was cheap paper made from wood pulp. Up until that point, the news was printed on rag paper like what our dollars bills are made of. With cheaper paper, a publisher could lower the price and get a higher volume of sales. You could sell even more papers if you had higher quality news. More newspapers entered the market but there were still barriers to entry to preserve profits. Even though the variable cost of the papers was low, the up front fixed costs of the presses and distribution channels kept competition manageable.

Like wood pulp, the Internet also disrupted the news business but in a different ways. While the Internet has reduced the cost of distributing the news (especially over large geographic areas), it has also driven the revenues down. Most importantly, the classifieds business has been eaten up by sites like Craigslist. Advertisers have other options to reach a more targeted audience than general news can. And, of course, there are no barriers to entry. Even an schmo like me can have a blog.

Will the decline of profitability push publishers back to bias? There are some concerning signs. Not so much with the big media brands (although you could definitely make the argument that all publications have their leanings), but there are plenty of examples in blogosphere (and Twitter) where bloggers are paid to promote a product or political agenda. The distinction between professional and amateur media is blurring. We tend to follow people (professionals and amateurs) who share our passion (usually on very narrow topics) and we unsubscribe when they lose our interest or confidence. But very few people are getting rich on having us as an audience — not until they sell out and exploit our trust. Then we will leave as quickly as we came because there is bound to be a fresh new voice that values our attention as unprofitable as it may be.

As an audience that wants to be informed, we need to do two things.... First, we need to figure out a way to compensate for the value that we enjoy. There have been some interesting ideas of establishing non-profits and public-media style structures. Second, we need to become very good critical thinkers. We need to be able to filter and verify the information that is bombarding us. We need to become our own editors if we can't immediately trust anything in print. I am sure that is what people did back in the 1860's did too.