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 already won 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: Not only have “tens of thousands” of jobs been lost in traditional journalism, he said, but even people who still have media jobs can’t pursue the really tough or really interesting stories because they’re overworked and stretched too thin. Journalists are “feeling the strain and expecting to feel it more,” said Steiger.
The point is, the best journalism takes money and infrastructure—lots of it. In the case of the California nurses story, Steiger said it took two ace journalists and six months of work. And of course, you also need legal protection if you’re going to do whistle-blowing reporting. This is not something some dude with a blog can pull off.
And there’s another problem—one discussed today by Jackie Leo of the Fiscal Times. It’s very hard to get people’s attention now, Leo explained—you can do extremely good journalistic work online, and nobody notices.
Indeed, with so many content choices available, people are often opting out of serious policy coverage in favor of entertainment, sports, or screaming partisan news. And they’re also opting into ideological online communities where everybody already agrees with them—and they don’t even have to encounter contrary information or views.
The point is, it is not at all clear that when it comes to the distribution of reliable information to our citizenry, the new media are more a blessing than a curse. The truth is that we don’t really know yet—there is both good and bad, as you would expect during a time of bewildering change. But there are many reasons for skepticism about the media landscape we’re creating, at least when it comes to generating high quality reportage that can fundamentally drive better policy.
Perhaps one of the most important innovations that must emerge from techonomic thinking, then, is a media model that puts the army of lost journalists back to work--back in service of the public interest, whether online or otherwise.