Legacy Media Woes Point to Larger Political Dynamics

News-media watchers have been passing around an article titled “When Losers Write History,” by Matt Welch, adapted from a chapter of his recent book and published on Reason.com:

Imagine for a moment that the hurly-burly history of American retail was chronicled not by reporters and academics but by life-long employees ofA&P, a largely forgotten supermarket chain that enjoyed a 75 percent market share as recently as the 1950s. How do you suppose an A&P Organization Man might portray the rise of discount super-retailer Wal-Mart, or organic foods-popularizer Whole Foods, let alone such newfangled Internet ventures as Peapod.com? Life looks a hell of a lot different from the perspective of a dinosaur slowly leaking power than it does to a fickle consumer happily gobbling up innovation wherever it shoots up.

That is largely where we find ourselves in the journalism conversation of 2012, with a dreary roll call of depressive statistics invariably from the behemoth’s point of view: newspaper job losses, ad-spending cutbacks, shuttered bureaus, plummeting stock prices, major-media bankruptcies. Never has there been more journalism produced or consumed, never has it been easier to find or create or curate news items, and yet this moment is being portrayed by self-interested insiders as a tale of decline and despair.

Locally, WPRI blogger Ted Nesi has been covering what might be called “the Providence Journal beat” (see here for a recent iteration), and that paper’s recent Web strategy fits into Welch’s analysis in an interesting way.

With the explosion of blogs in the early days of the millennium, large news organizations began to lose their utility as news aggregators.  When the major newspapers and TV and radio news shows controlled the market, they picked the stories that were worth following.  Internet technology (including email newsletters, blogs, syndication feeds [RSS], Facebook, Twitter, and more), now amplified through smartphones, have enabled consumers to choose their own trusted “hubs” or even to create their own private ones.

Still, however, large news organizations could claim to provide the underlying content, requiring the nuts and bolts of reporting and editing, on which the upstart aggregators relied.  At the end of the day, after all, even a site like the Drudge Report, which is often maligned for pushing a point of view, is nothing but a collection of links to more mainstream publications.  In this context, the Providence Journal’s newly instituted pay wall, hiding the bulk of its content behind a subscription, appears to be an attempt to cut the aggregators off and increase the paper’s own take from the fruits of its reporters’ labors.

That strategy may backfire, though, because even the value proposition of its unique capability to report the news is beginning to erode.  No other organization in the state of Rhode Island can match the Projo’s corps of journalists, but many of its competitors are beginning to realize that they don’t have to.

Nesi’s Notes on WPRI’s Web site is an excellent example.  Talk-radio leader WPRO has brought on Dee DeQuattro to supplement its radio news team with online content; on the public-radio end, WRNI’s site adds another news team.  GoLocalProv has managed to fund a healthy amount of news content centered on the reporting of Dan McGowan.  The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity has joined a growing expansion of the think tank model by founding the Ocean State Current, thus lifting me from the field of hobbyist bloggers.  AOL’s Patch.com sites are pushing the model down to the city and town level, with an army of sites mainly operated by individual editors/reporters.  And all of that is on top of the legions of bloggers who have proliferated in the past decade.

In that field, the Providence Journal’s online Breaking News offering stands more as another quick skim in a collection of peers.  In short, the competition to the establishment is coming from a disaggregated collection of individual journalists, all funded through different channels and including the Projo’s staff, itself.

The next argument for the legacy media is the reliability of its edited-and-fact-checked content, but that claim is crumbling at both ends.  For one, whatever personal preferences may be, it is generally accepted that all of the players listed two paragraphs up are legitimate professionals, striving to offer accurate news content.  They will stand or fall, individually, on their ability to tell compelling stories that reflect what’s actually happening.

The opposing complement to new-media individuals’ credibility is well illustrated by disturbing indications of legacy media’s lack thereof when it comes to the controversy surrounding George Zimmerman’s killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida.  Even beyond the selection of dated photos to bolster the narrative of aggressor and victim, calls are increasing for major national news organizations to fire employees responsible for crafting audio of a 911 call from Zimmerman that amplified the role of race in the encounter.

Cornell professor, blogger, and Barrington resident William Jacobson stung even Drudge by emailing a Florida police department to confirm that, contrary to Miami New Times reports, there has been no indication of “Neo-Nazis…conducting heavily armed patrols in and around Sanford, Florida.”

Turning back to Welch’s article, the next question is what the big media players will do to combat the evolution of their industry:

… the problem here is that the legacy-centric view is bleeding into the sausage-making of public policy. The A&P Organization Men aren’t just spinning their own industrial decline and confusing it with the fate of democracy, they’re actively advising the Federal Trade Commission on how laws might be rewritten to punish news aggregators—from Google to individual bloggers—whose work is perceived to hurt them. Dollars from every single taxpaying American may be redistributed to an industry that until very recently was among the most profitable in U.S. history. And like the last round of newspaper protectionism—the Newspaper Protection Act of 1970—any rulemaking or legislation that comes out of this process will almost axiomatically reward deep-pocketed incumbents at the direct expense of new entrants, all in an effort to delay the inevitable.

Similar possibilities can be seen in Rhode Island in a little-noted provision of legislation to expand campaign finance laws.  Beyond increasing the burden for grassroots organizations to collect, report, and publish information about their donors, S2569 and H7859 explicitly expand the activities that count as political campaigning:

“Electioneering communication” means any print, broadcast, cable, satellite, or electronic media communication not coordinated, as set forth in section 17-25-23, with any candidate, authorized candidate campaign committee, or political party committee and which unambiguously identifies a candidate or referendum and is made either within sixty (60) days before a general or special election or town meeting for the office sought by the candidate or referendum; or thirty (30) days before a primary election, for the office sought by the candidate; and is targeted to the relevant 1 electorate.

The news media exception of the legislation reads as follows:

A communication appearing in a news story, commentary, or editorial distributed through the facilities of any broadcasting station, unless such facilities are owned or controlled by any political party, political committee, or candidate.

What venues qualify as “broadcasting stations” will be for the Board of Elections to decide, according to John Marion, of Common Cause, who helped to craft the legislation.  Coincidentally, around the time that he was doing so, the Providence Journal was describing the Ocean State Current as a “new GOP website.”  The following week, the paper noted that I “objected” to the characterization, but in a world of floating campaign-finance mines, such shots across the bow carry more of a menace than merely to pride.

The effects of that initial poke are likely to be limited, even if the bills do manage to return from “further study” limbo, but the example echoes a common refrain of small-government advocates:  The deeper the reach of government regulations, the deeper the reach of those better situated to manipulate their strings.

In news media, content is king and message the kingmaker.  Where that intersects with larger social trends and matters of public policy, the opportunity for manipulation is tremendous.  It behooves American society, therefore, to heed Welch’s call for an objective assessment of the news market and to be aware of ways in which the establishment’s preference for survival can influence policies that seem largely unrelated.