Since the posts are basically a response to a piece I wrote criticizing Marc Andreessen’s assertion that the news business will grow exponentially over the next 20 years, and since I get to play the straw man in all three of Thompson’s posts, I thought I’d respond. The arguments read like something of a greatest hits of technology-centered tropes offered in the future-of-news debate, such as it’s been, for the last, oh, 10 years or so.
These include a gratuitous sneer at newspapers and those who value them (“Newspapers are held up as an irreplaceable tentpole of a free society, especially by the journalists who work at them”); the obvious presented as revealing (businesses are supposed to make money); hyperbole (“Newspapers Are Dead”); comparisons of apples and oranges (clicks on a blog post as the equivalent of subscribers to a paper); the apparently obligatory misrepresentations of other viewpoints (see below); trashing of core values (“ETHICAL WALL=VALUE WALL”); an uncritical faith in technology (“The Internet… is the impetus behind a new golden age”), and an equally unblinking techno-libertarian faith in markets, even for public goods such as news (“the market will, for the first time in the history of news, be the ultimate arbiter of what writers are worthwhile”). And here it’s all topped with a Randian vision of an army of journalist John Galts as the “few big winners” with the rest of the poor schlubs weeded out by the Darwinian forces unleashed by the internet:
What then, though, of the tens of thousands of journalists who formerly filled the middle of the bell curve? More broadly - and this is the central challenge to society presented by the Internet - what then of the millions of others in all the other industries touched by the Internet who are perfectly average and thus, in an age where the best is only a click away, are simply not needed?
This is the angst that fills those in the news business, and society broadly. The reality of the Internet is that there is no more bell curve; power laws dominate, and the challenge of our time is figuring out what to do with a population distribution that is fundamentally misaligned with Internet economics.
Yes, what do we do with this “population distribution”?
Let’s see if we get this straight: laid-off state house or investigative reporters are by definition mediocre while gainfully employed BuzzFeed aggregators are proof of the internet’s talent-sifting prowess? Got it.
This ugly thought is at the core of Silicon Valley’s Panglossian worldview, though it’s not usually put so crudely. Perhaps rather than bending journalism to the needs of technology, technology can be bent ever so slightly to accommodate the needs of public interest reporting. Just a thought.
What the technology-centered view can’t account for is the high cost of reporting, a labor-intensive activity. And because it can’t, it all but dispenses with it.
Alas, the greatest reporter in the world can’t unearth City Hall corruption while writing about the high school lacrosse match, live-blogging a city council meeting, much less hopping that bothersome ethical wall to sell ads or the like. Reported journalism doesn’t pay for itself, and this is the problem that even technology hasn’t yet solved.
Thompson’s vision of the future belonging to individual blogger/reporters is at this point wildly out of date, with the exceptions pretty much proving the rule.