The Paradox of the Wheel is that, for all the activity it generates, the Wheel renders news organizations deeply passive. The greater the need for copy, the more dependent reporters are on sources for scoops and pitiful scraps of news. In a 2000 study in the British academic journal Journalism, researchers analyzed news articles about a hostile takeover that would involve a massive restructuring in the hotel and leisure business to demonstrate that almost everything printed about the event was drawn from competing P.R. campaigns aimed at a few institutional shareholders, while the interests of individual shareholders, 80,000 employees, millions of customers, and British taxpayers (big tax subsidies were involved) were ignored. The press was, in effect, “captured” on a Hamster Wheel of press campaigns. The author, Aeron Davis, made the commonsense observation that P.R. dominance “worked to block unwelcome mainstream coverage, exclude non-corporate voices, and helped to define the boundaries of corporate ‘elite discourse networks.’”
In other words, if news organizations don’t set the agenda, someone else will.
5. The Wheel isn’t free
The costs are in literate prose, proven premises, news that did not originate from an institution, and other airy-fairy things that build credibility and value over the long term. This is about resource allocation. Back in the Pleistocene Era, 2003, The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Golden convinced someone to allow him to review a 1998 document of sensitive academic information from the Groton School, the tony boarding school in Massachusetts. It revealed that one Margaret Bass, who was the only one of nine Groton applicants to get into Stanford that year, actually had an SAT score—1220—that was considerably lower than seven of the eight other students from her class who unsuccessfully applied to Stanford. Golden explained:
But Ms. Bass had an edge: Her father, Texas tycoon Robert Bass, was chairman of Stanford’s board and had given $25 million to the university in 1992. Mr. Bass has a degree from the Stanford Graduate School of Business. He and his wife, Anne, are both Groton trustees.
Groton’s headmaster told Golden that the document was not an “official school record.” So how did Golden know it was accurate? He called twenty other students whose information was in the document. The story was part of a series that won a Pulitzer, but more importantly, it changed perceptions about affirmative action.
The Wheel doesn’t do that. It’s worth noting that Golden’s Pulitzer wasn’t for investigation, but for beat reporting.
6. The Wheel pays the bills—or does it?
Sure, you need clicks. Yes, you should update. And of course you need to be on the news. But it is understatement to say that new financial models of digital journalism are still being worked out, and that no one knows which ones will endure. Consider that even the science of measuring Web traffic is still in its infancy. In May, competing measurement firms, Nielson NetRatings and comScore, measured Yahoo’s traffic and differed by 34 million readers, as a new study by Ph.D. students here at Columbia’s journalism school explains. And getting from clicks to dollars involves another set of calculations. “Everybody wants traffic,” Lucas Graves, one of the study’s authors, told me. “But the ways it translates into dollars are very complex and rarely direct.” (Graves’s piece for CJR, based on the study, can be found here.) The great hope for the Web future, The Huffington Post, still only manages to generate revenue amounting to $1 per reader per year, according to a recent piece in Newsweek. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but the site’s editorial formula—which involves search-engine optimization up the wazoo—is controversial, to say the least, and the revenue figures are still relatively small.