Future of News Princeton: Paul Starr

I’m at the Future of News workshop at Princeton University. I’ll be speaking about data visualisation tomorrow, but Princeton’s Paul Starr kicked things off. This is a bit of a ‘rush transcript’ as broadcast would say. I’ll go back and refine it over the day.

We are on treachourous ground. Many who have tried to anticipate the future of news, including leaders in the industry have failed. Hasn’t been for lack of effort. Back in 1970s, news industry invested millions of dollars into teletext or video text, electronic ways to supplement existing ways of delivering news. They failed to see the future coming. In 1992, news industry leaders failed to see the internet in the future of news. Network meant to them broadcast networks. They saw overall trends, but they said that the broadcast and print media faced no serious threats.

News media are in the midst of transformation greater than anyone in the history. Many in old media organisations are reeling from the impact. The future of news comes from instability of the present. The future of news is coming not from single change but serial changes. Consider earlier changes: Postal network, telegraph, radio in 20s and TV in 1940s. They all had a compressed period of development with with minor innovations following.

The succession of changes now are different; innovations are piled on top of innovations. Political and legal decisions could upset things as they have developed.

To consider the future of news, we can try to extrapolate trends that are underway. We can analyse changes in major social frameworks. We can brace ourselves for the unexpected.

He looked at trends and how they fit together shift in social frameworks. He looked at the peculiar features US news media. Central institution in news media: general interest newspapers. 1930s, broadcast networks radio and then TV. Both newspapers and broadcast benefitted from government largesse. They became hugely profitable. Leading national news media supported public interest. They used other revenue streams to cross subsidise news: Classified ads for newspapers and entertainment for TV.

It paid for international news gathering. High profits, high standards, high prestige. Up to early 20th, newspaper industry highly competitive. by middle 20th century, most cities had one major newspaper. Warren Buffet, newspaper business used to be an easy way to make huge returns. One great newspaper said, I owe my fortune to monopoly and nepotism.

Mr Starr quoted Buffet at length from a letter to Berkshire Hathaway investors:

For most of the 20th Century, newspapers were the primary source of information for the American public. Whether the subject was sports, finance, or politics, newspapers reigned supreme. Just as important, their ads were the easiest way to find job opportunities or to learn the price of groceries at your town’s supermarkets.

The great majority of families therefore felt the need for a paper every day, but understandably most didn’t wish to pay for two. Advertisers preferred the paper with the most circulation, and readers tended to want the paper with the most ads and news pages. This circularity led to a law of the newspaper jungle: Survival of the Fattest.

Thus, when two or more papers existed in a major city (which was almost universally the case a century ago), the one that pulled ahead usually emerged as the stand-alone winner. After competition disappeared, the paper’s pricing power in both advertising and circulation was unleashed. Typically, rates for both advertisers and readers would be raised annually – and the profits rolled in. For owners this was economic heaven. (Interestingly, though papers regularly – and often in a disapproving way – reported on the profitability of, say, the auto or steel industries, they never enlightened readers about their own Midas-like situation. Hmmm . . .)

As long ago as my 1991 letter to shareholders, I nonetheless asserted that this insulated world was changing, writing that “the media businesses . . . will prove considerably less marvelous than I, the industry, or lenders thought would be the case only a few years ago.” Some publishers took umbrage at both this remark and other warnings from me that followed. Newspaper properties, moreover, continued to sell as if they were indestructible slot machines. In fact, many intelligent newspaper executives who regularly chronicled and analyzed important worldwide events were either blind or indifferent to what was going on under their noses.

(The full 2006 letter from Buffett can be found on Berkshire’s site. It’s a PDF.)

Coming off of period of monopoly profits, there is no way that (newspapers and broadcast could duplicate those returns online. In the new environment, they are no longer protected from competition. On the internet, Craigslist and others are cutting into their ads and aggregators cutting into their readers.

Broadcasters also coming out of period of limited competition. Once, a broadcast licence was a licence to print money. Cable and then the internet caused decline. From spectacular height broadcast has fallen, and no one sheds a tear.

not only loss of audience but development more disturbing, long term decline in attention for news. Robert Putnam look at casual role in generational change. Those come of age during WWII and Cold War, high level of engagement. Younger generation, decline in participation in civic society. Also, younger generation decline in news consumption. Despite rising level of education.

How media contribute to these trends, Putnam sees television itself as reason for declining civic engagement. Princeton research found that TV first increased civic engagement that only decreased with multiple channels.

Recent State of the News Media report every sector of news media apart from two decline – online news and ethnic sector. Since 2001, decline in work force 7-10%. Number of American foreign correspondents has dropped 188 to 141. Broadcast networks have shut bureaux around the world. Amount of foreign coverage has declined from 27% of total in 87 and 97 to 24% in 2004. Internet provides access to international news such as BBC. Declining number of foreign correspondents, decrease boots on the ground.

But there has also been a decline also in state and local reporting. Tom Rosenstiel said: More and more reporters are following fewer and fewer events. All news organisations are becoming niche players.

Another trend, ideological. In 19th Century most of press is partisan, and there has been a recent return to partisan for confluence of factors. Until 1980s, partisan tendencies in broadcast held in check by regulation – FCC fairness doctrine. There were a limited channels and for competitive reasons they had to appeal to broad ideological cross-section of the population.

Abandon Fairness Doctrine 1987, rise of Rush and Fox News, a complete media system enveloping its audience. No liberal equivalent to right wing talk shows. Liberals on TV, but no liberal equivalent to Fox and right wing talk show. Part of broader trend.

Next he said:

Newspaper web site can get back into the business of breaking news and broadcast website can provide much more depth. Different rhythms of media are lost when media migrate to the web.

Each news organisation has an identity tied to legacy medium but these fade into the past. Broadcast and print will combine into single hybrid media. Distinctions are breaking down. One of most important distinction breaking down is between media and their audience. Journalists can no longer put themselves between public and public figures and opinion makers.

The future. the underlying financial and competitive pressures will increase.

They are living off aging audiences and obsolete business models. As older audiences die off, all of these news organisations face a mortal threat.

However, bloggers rely on old media. “Just as any parasite doesn’t want to kill off their prey”, but unclear if bloggers and citizen journalists can be profitable enough to support a viable news gathering function. News organisations still remain profitable, and they can eliminate 70% of cost structure, that which they use to support the print publication.

It is not a question of which organisations survive but how new framework affect what they do and how they do it. What are basic features of this emerging framework? One comes from Yochai Benkler: Mass media public sphere and networked public sphere.

Mass-commercial media had industrial model reliant on large audiences and large amounts of capital. The system has constraints on feedback.

The declining price of computation, production and storage has put into hands of up to a billion people around the world means of cultural and information production. Opportunities for feedback increased. Benkler says that internet has evolved systems for information synthesis and analysis.

There is a good interview with Benkler on Kottke that expands on these issues.

Big media has two capacities that might not be replaced: 1) They can mount long term investigation 2) They can stand up to government (see Pentagon Papers). Rather than replacement, networked public sphere may overlap and interact with mass-commercial media. Josh Marshall’s TPM bring down Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, but Josh Marshall depended on main stream media to deliver knock out blow.

Early history of the internet may have spoiled us into ultimate direction it will take. Lessig and Zittrain say that there is an ongoing struggle between open internet and those who want to lock the internet down. In connection of news media, cell phones and handheld devices become more secure platforms for news delivery than desktop computer (I think to myself what about Android or open mobile platforms? I guess it depends on open networks.)

Second set of issues, economics, if MSM no longer able to cross subsidise and Benkler’s collaborative network public sphere can’t produce, there will have to be other business models. In the US, only public radio provides quality radio news. That is one possible replacement.

What must not be lost in transition, values must not be lost. The press must remain independent and committed to a social mission.

Q: Issue of partisanship in news media. One hundred years ago, penny press quite blatantly partisan.

A: Disengenous of me as co-editor of American Prospect to criticise partisan press. Partisan press in 19th century marked an error of high civic participation. Not in itself a bad thing. Unruly aspect of democracy.

Q: Old media, more directly regul-able (easier to regulate). What is your opinion of the BBC?

A: The BBC is a great institution. Model of public service broadcast journalism in Commonwealth countries financed by tax. US has historically opposed to any special taxation for press, TV and radio. We never had support to finance anything like the BBC. Shielded from everyday influence of politics. It has established itself as authoritative source of news. Somewhat surprising, it has expanded its reach beyond the UK.

Q: Pentagon Papers quintessial reason for why we need press. But think not good example. If I had them, I could put them and no one could take them down. (Possibly a good example is WikiLeaks.)

A: What you are talking about is putting investigative reporters on story for several months. Can non-market model sustain that type of investigations is a question. Lot of reasons to worry whether that is true.

Q: You seem to say that more is better in terms of number of reporters, number of bureaux. Is there a level?

A: I can’t say what optimal level. But this is a period of time when Americans need to know more about the world given the circumstances we face.