how the new media ecosystem favors government

(Chicago) Media outlets have proliferated. Once, only press barons could publish news and opinions, but today, anyone can blog or post a video. A high proportion of the new content is critical and editorially independent–in the sense that no one tells the writers what they may say. Yet the paradoxical result is that government controls the news agenda much more than it ever did.

This pattern is clearest at the local level, where new media have killed the traditional newspaper’s business model, causing newspapers to lay off their “enterprise reporters”–those who dig up original information. In Baltimore, for example, a Pew study finds that 53 major outlets now cover local news and information. But they can collectively afford almost no enterprise reporting. As a result, they all repeat the same content (albeit with diverse opinions tacked on), and the content comes disproportionately from the mayor’s office. “We found official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such.” The news environment feels free because bloggers get to say nasty things about the mayor. But City Hall decides what they are talking about in the first place.

The same trend is now happening at the national level, although to a lesser extent because  some enterprise reporters still work in DC. In Politico, Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen write:

[The] White House … has taken old tricks for shaping coverage (staged leaks, friendly interviews) and put them on steroids using new ones (social media, content creation, precision targeting). And it’s an equal opportunity strategy: Media across the ideological spectrum are left scrambling for access.

The results are transformational. With more technology, and fewer resources at many media companies, the balance of power between the White House and press has tipped unmistakably toward the government. This is an arguably dangerous development, and one that the Obama White House — fluent in digital media and no fan of the mainstream press — has exploited cleverly and ruthlessly. And future presidents from both parties will undoubtedly copy and expand on this approach.

Again, the story is complicated at the national level, because reporters are still paid to dig for information in Washington. Lots of important information is available, regardless of the White House’s attitude to press conferences. Also, the two rival national parties have incentives to uncover some kinds of damaging information about each other. But VandeHei and Allen make a fair point. Far too few reporters are available to cover far too wide a range of stories.

In the longer term, a new model may develop for funding an actual watchdog press. But that won’t happen automatically, because enterprise reporting in the public interest is a classic public good–valuable to everyone in general, but not to anyone in particular. In theory, the government could subsidize the news as a public good on the model of European national broadcasters or American public broadcasting (which receives a pittance from the federal government). But publicly funded media becomes corrupt unless it is challenged by some kind of independent news: see the travails of the BBC. Thus the challenge of funding enterprise reporting remains even if the government helps. Our traditional model involved some lucky cross-subsidization: classified ads paid for journalists who covered city council meetings. That model was killed by Craigslist. I don’t believe crowd-sourcing or unpaid citizen journalism can fill the need–Baltimore illustrates what that leads to. And I don’t believe in technological fixes, because they can only cut the costs of publishing and dissemination, which are already extraordinarily low. New organizational forms are going to have to develop. I think universities have a role to play, because we have 2,000 institutions, nearly 3 percent of GDP, skills for analysis and communication, and a self-interested need to be able to share our ideas with the public.

See also the costs of neglecting journalism, a media reform primer, and five strategies to promote civic communication.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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