The Death of Private Media?

by on June 15, 2006

James Pinkerton predicts the rise of the “state owned mainstream media.” He points out that ever-increasing pressures on the margins of traditional media outlets like CNN and the New York Times will create a void that will be filled with government-run media sources like the BBC, NPR, and Voice of America:

This is the future of media: Some elements of the MSM will survive, probably. Bloggers will thrive, of course, but 99.9 percent of them are amateurs, without so many as one full-time employee. What will survive and thrive for sure, however, is the SOMSM. Every country with ambitions on the international stage will soon have its own state-supported media.

If war is too important to be left to generals, then news is too important to be left to reporters. Governments, including ours, have their own ideas, and they want to share them with us, the people–like it or not.

In addition, around the world, states will want to “help” their media. Not satisfied with what the free market is bringing about, politicians will offer to help out the invisible hand–help it, that is, with their own iron fist.

This strikes me as silly. Pinkerton’s actually wrong about bloggers–the percentage of amateur bloggers is much higher than 99.9 percent. But then there are more than 40 million blogs in the world, so even if only a tiny fraction of them are professionals, that still leaves plenty of room for high-quality reporting. Some bloggers (like me) are lucky enough to have jobs that allow blogging on the side. Others, such as Andrew Sullivan, have become successful enough that they generate enough ad revenue, speaking fees, etc to support themselves as full-time bloggers. Others, such as the writers of political magazines like Reason and The American Prospect blog as part of their day jobs. And still other blogs, such as Slashdot have become successful, ad-supported commercial news outlets with full-time staffs.

Moreover, it’s just nuts to claim that private media is dying in a world in which Google News indexes 4500 news sources, and growing. Yes, those companies who thrived on 20th century media technologies are facing a painful transition as nimbler, more cost-effective competitors take readers from them. What’s happening is that the cost of gathering, organizing, and distributing news is falling, so organization with high fixed costs are having difficulty competing. But in the long run, those same cost savings are going to increase, not decrease, the number of media outlets.

Advertiser-supported media works because eyeballs are valuable. There are just as many eyeballs as there ever have been, and (more importantly) the wallets connected to those eyeballs keep getting fatter. So there will continue to be profits for those who can capture those eyeballs. All that’s happening is that the number of competitors has increased, requiring incumbents to work harder to retain their audiences. Some of them won’t be able to do it and go out of business.

But as long as there are eyeballs, there will be for-profit businesses offering content to attract them. We can’t predict what kinds of businesses will win out, but I see no reason to think that their quality will be lower than what we got in the 20th century. What we’re likely to see is news outlets that are smaller, more efficient, more specialized, and more responsive to their readers. That seems like a good development to me.

Incidentally, I was irritated by the gratuitous NPR-bashing:

So the SOMSM keep growing, along with the rest of the state. The biggest winner within the SOMSM realm has been NPR. Not only does public radio get a steady stream of government revenue, but it also gets lots of tax-deductible cash. Most profoundly, the $200 million that NPR received from the estate of Joan Kroc has enabled public radio to play in the big media leagues. “We’re probably the only major national news organization on a growth curve,” says spokeswoman Andi Sporkin. “We’re on a hiring binge, expanding bureaus, expanding beats.”

Pinkerton seems to consider this an alarming development, but I don’t understand why. I’m no fan of state-funded media. If I were in Congress, I’d vote to zero state funding for NPR tomorrow because I don’t think the state ought to be in the journalism business. But I also have to say that NPR does a pretty damned good job of delivering the news. Their coverage is slightly left of center but generally fair, and they tend to cover the issues of the day in greater depth and sophistication than most other broadcast outlets. Moreover, it’s downright perverse to bash NPR for accepting $200 million from a private donor. If we’re opposed to state funding of public radio, we should be encouraging them to seek out private donors. I think it’s great that Joan Kroc left NPR a big pile of money, because it reduces their dependence on government handouts and allows them to be more independent.

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