Newspapers, Too, Are Parasitic

The latest piece from Paul Starr in The New Republic is well worth the read. Titled “Goodbye to the Age of Newspapers (Hello to a New Era of Corruption),” Starr examines the “death of newspapers,” as the economic realities of both digital publishing (i.e., online journalism efforts such as HuffPost and TPM) and the reliance on a shrinking advertising revenue stream are putting newspapers out of business all over the country.

There’s one point made, though, that I think is worth examining a bit. Starr states that while markets generally “under-produce public goods because private incentives are insufficient” to fully pay for the benefit to everyone, because newspapers play the role of an intermediary, they “have been able to produce this particular public good–newsworthy information, necessary to hold government accountable–on a commercial basis.”

Today, this model has been uprooted completely, as blogs and wikis and other Web 2.0 platforms allow cheap publishing of information. Here, Starr discusses Benkler’s “The Wealth of Networks“:

The non-market collaborative networks on the Web celebrated by Benkler represent an alternative way of producing information as a public good. Before Wikipedia was created, hardly anyone supposed it would work as well as it has. But it has severe limitations as a source of knowledge. Its entries, including news items, are re-written from other sources, and it does not purport to offer original research or original reporting. The blogosphere and the news aggregators are also largely parasitic: they feed off the conventional news media. Citizen journalists contribute reports from the scene of far-flung events, but the reports may just be the propaganda of self-interested parties.

Emphasis mine.

So this is what needs to be unpacked, because the above statement completely ignores the extent to which all media are parasitic. This is a point I’ve made before:

If bloggers are parasitic, then so are the opinion pundits, talk radio hosts, and television broadcasters. The latter, in fact, is quite common, or at least seems so. For example, recently The New York Times front-paged an article that took on Obama’s charge that McCain would be a Bush third term. Later that day, on CNN, here’s Wolf Blitzer:

Democrats say, if you vote for John McCain, you will really be voting for a third Bush term. So, how true is that? Mary Snow is looking at the similarities between the candidate and the president.

Coincidence?

Any attribution to the NYT?

And newspapers aren’t exempt from this charge. Today, the Washington Post published a story about Obama’s not-SOTU last night — a story created by simply reproducing tweets from “media figures.”

No reporting. Just looking stuff up in Twitter and publishing it.

The Washington Post isn’t alone. When New York’s Governor Elliot Spitzer fell from grace, The New York Times wrote a piece solely comprised of comments from various blogs. The story is filled with attributions such as “the anonymous poster wrote…”

While it’s certainly true that much of the blogosphere is about linking, and commenting on previously-published articles from newspapers and other news media, there is original reporting that gets done. Jay Rosen’s 2007 L.A. Times op-ed has a decent list.

The point of all this is not to “prove” one form or medium or model is better than than the other. A free press is important to a democracy — the central point of Starr’s article — and when the State doesn’t have a check and balance in place, corruption ensues. Quite frankly, we need all the media we can get, and while there is certainly a tension that exists between new media and old, the users of these sources of information — the citizenry — are better off. (That said, people certainly need new literacy skills to take advantage of all this new media.)

But this point about the blogosphere being parasitic really sticks at me, and is an unfair charge.

Putting newspapers in a privileged position of “original” while blogs and wikipedia are “parasitic” can only be done by ignoring the realities of the news business today.

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