And Now for a Little Pessimism

By Chris Mooney | August 6, 2010 2:09 pm

The Reinventing Media session at Techonomy this morning had a somewhat different tone than many of the others here: It was tinged with sadness. There is a lot of hurt in the media world today, a lot of pain. And…the Internet did it.

The traditional print media industry has been decimated by the growth of the web, which has undermined the business models of newspapers and magazines. And this is surely no unmitigated good, despite the massive amounts of information now freely available—because it means that despite the many advantages of online content, quality and professionalism often suffer.

As Scientific American VP and Publisher Bruce Brandfon put it at today’s session, “Information wants to be free, but it needs to be very expensive.” Otherwise, the best reporting, the best analyses, the journalistic endeavors that maintain the highest standards, may not be able to compete with less valuable but more sensationalized content. Information, Brandfon continued, “needs curators.” You can’t make it a full democracy, or you run the risk of being overwhelmed with misinformation and lowest-common-denominator fare.

To be sure, there are some major media innovators out there who have found ways to make it work in this upended landscape. People like Paul Steiger, editor in chief of Pro Publica, an online investigative reporting outlet that has managed to not only fund itself and thrive but break some very big stories—like this one about the state of California hiring nurses who’d already been sanctioned in other states. Pro Publica has alreadywon a Pulitzer prize for its work, partners regularly with traditional media organizations for its investigations, and has a healthy operating budget of more than $ 10 million per year.

And yet Steiger himself recognized the woes of the media industry…read on

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Media and Science

Comments (9)

  1. Maybe it’s just me, but aren’t these some of the same concerns that were raised when books were printed in the common language, that without an aristocracy protecting knowledge it would become worthless. I guess I’m just not all that worried.

  2. David

    Internet has only to increased the number of freelance reporters and added a few more outlets that shake up Reuters, AP and the other media conglomerates who have long enjoyed a monopoly. The pre-Internet media media merely had no competition. They could do as they pleased as long as the advertisers were happy. They apparently have not figured out that they are not the only game in town and will actually have to work at getting audience.They don’t understand that they are actually going to have to compete and put out a better product than people can get for free.

    The media in general have been making fools of themselves and departed from journalism years before the internet went public. Print media has long been the showcase for their advertisers. Television spends more time on self promotion, celebrities, and sports figures than any real reporting. Radio? Enough said.

  3. Brian Too

    I know this is true, and yet… I love my Internet. It has revolutionized the ease with which I can access information. My entire working life revolves around information so this is a non-trivial issue for me.

    The media are finding out that people will take free, less accurate information over paid, more accurate information. And for people like me, who frequent fairly reliable sites and sources, and can personally vet the rest, it’s not such a big issue.

    The popularity of social networking sites (of very little interest to me), tells me that for many people, they simply don’t care much about authority and accuracy. To them the Internet is a source of gossip, friends, relatives, hookups and an endless party. Or if not a party, at least a casual social occasion where interesting strangers can show up.

    The central problem remains. What will people pay for? How does the media stay relevant and adequately funded? Let’s be clear, this is a problem for the media players themselves to answer. I can sympathize, but I’m not going to twist myself into knots over the matter.

  4. I think Internet news and the media are common development, some time they can help each other.

  5. ChH

    This line of thinking assumes that the commonners are simpletons who believe everything they read, and need protection from their betters / parent figures in the media.

    The real story is that we’ve always known that you can’t believe everything you read, even in a newspaper. The advent of the internet has not changed that.

    I’d argue, in fact, the opposite – the internet has acted as a new form of quality control for the old media. They know that if they attempt to bury a story, it will get out anyway, which motivates them to break it first. And they know if they get it wrong that a multitude of people will jump all over it, which motivates them to be extra careful checking their facts.

  6. ThomasL

    ChH (#5),

    You would think they could figure such out, but they haven’t yet. Most people have given up on the printed press not because there is “free”, but rather the lies are ever more blatant (or “spin” or “framing” – however you wish to put the attempt to direct thought rather than provide information). Most people desire untarnished information, not instructions about how to think about something, unfortunately mostly what we get in the mainstream press is a world outlook with supporting spin…

    They’ve been declaring the end of literacy for as long as I’ve been alive, yet books continue to sell and strong writing still finds an audience (just look at the web for examples). I still believe in the free market of ideas, and over time those ideas which hold value will prevail. That there are many who are not interested is nothing new, nor cause for hand wringing (it follows the same flawed logic as everyone needs a college degree – which leads to one asking what such would be worth once everyone has one – does it mean anything anymore??).

    The last thing we need are more gate keepers. If they want to survive they will have to satisfy the readership and the advertisers will take a back seat, but I doubt they are willing to restructure their business model – too many vested interests.

    The ironic part of this is the idea of the publishers that someone needs to filter the info for validity and the problem with the internet is people not challenging themselves with alternative viewpoints (like the press has ever been a leader with that). They are so vested they can’t recognize the contradiction in their argument

  7. TB

    I think we’re at risk of buying “just so” stories while the reality of the situation developes in an entirely different direction. For instance I’ve noticed in the Chicago area that larger media corporations with the money to invest in programing have been the most likely to develop sites that rely on free or cheap news gathers. That’s not putting pressure on the big MSM, that’s squeezing the small businesses.
    I’m seeing the beginnings of the Walmarting of local media – low low wages with profits all heading to corporate headquarters.
    That’s not the Internet that some commentators seem to think is evolving.

  8. TB

    “The last thing we need are more gate keepers.”

    I don’t think you understand the role of gatekeepers. Even a site like dailykos has “rescue rangers” who give links to notable diaries that people might have missed.
    Every blogger is their own gatekeeper and TPM doesn’t let any stranger post something on their front page.
    There’s legitimate reasons for being angry at MSM – I know I am – but I’m not about to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  9. Anthony McCarthy

    When I had my first blog, I was tempted to try to find out what would get the biggest response and might attract the most readers. Then I remembered what James Wolcott said, of Pauline Kael, that she took risks to say what she thought was true even when she had to fight with her editor who was worried about offending potential readers.

    I figure if I start trimming the truth for popularity, there wasn’t any reason for me to bother writing blog posts, I’d have surrendered to the MO of the corporate media.

    On the other hand, while you most often don’t get what you pay for with the for-pay media, you’re guaranteed to not get it if the people doing the reporting aren’t able to earn a living.

    The bigger crisis in news is that real reporting, of facts, not “sides” or opinions or propaganda, has been killed off by the for profit corporations that have a stranglehold on newspapers. It’s not enough that a good paper makes a profit, it has to turn the largest profit and not displease its corporate overlords, advertisers or the friends of those. The bigger story is the cold blooded murder of news at the hands of NPR, PBS, The NYT, the WaPo, ABC, …. down to the sewers on cable.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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