The state of journalism and Professor Pangloss

Matthew Yglesias of Slate wrote a provocative and widely circulated post last week urging media consumers to ignore “the doomsayers” worrying about the state of journalism and enjoy the incredible profusion of content the Web makes available to readers with even the most arcane interests.

The doom-saying to which Yglesias referred was the annual Pew report on the state of the media – a gloomy document that chronicled continuing revenue and job losses in the nation’s newsrooms, concomitant reductions in coverage and the reader defections those losses have caused. Grim stuff.

Nevertheless, “American news media has never been in better shape,” proclaims Yglesias. “That’s just common sense.”

Putting aside the Panglossian naiveté of Yglesias’ point of view – it is clear even as he celebrates this alleged high point in American journalism that he has little idea how journalism is funded – he makes a critical logical error and then compounds it by confining his analysis to the area of journalism that bests proves his point. Meanwhile he completely ignores another, equally important, if not more important, area of the business.

In attacking the Pew report, Yglesias calls it “a blinkered outlook that confuses the interests of producers with those of consumers, confuses inputs with outputs, and neglects the single most important driver of human welfare—productivity. Just as a tiny number of farmers now produce an agricultural bounty that would have amazed our ancestors, today’s readers have access to far more high-quality coverage than they have time to read.”

Let me count the ways in which Yglesias errs in this single paragraph.

First, he accuses Pew of focusing entirely on the producer side of journalism rather than the consumer side – which is true enough. But then he proceeds to do exactly the opposite, celebrating the diversity of news on the web from the consumer perspective without giving much if any thought to how that news is produced, and what the impact of declining financial support for that mechanism means for the bounty he is celebrating.

And, by the way, we’re not just talking about declining support for old media. Freelance blogger Nate Thayer – presumably one of those contributing to Yglesias’s marvelous cornucopia of content, recently wrote bitterly about being asked by Atlantic.com to repurpose a blog post he’d done so the site could run it for free. Notwithstanding Thayer’s complaint, this happens all the time. If this is the business model for Yglesias’ American journalistic renaissance, he should enjoy it while it lasts.

Then Yglesias says the Pew study fails to sufficiently celebrate productivity. I wonder why? Could it because it is all too familiar with assessments of this new productivity similar to Allyson Bird’s?

“You get called out of a sound sleep to drive out to a crime scene and try to talk with surviving relatives. You wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, realizing you’ve misspelled a city councilman’s name. You spend nights and weekends chipping away at the enterprise stories that you never have time to write on the clock…
I quit my newspaper job at 28, making less money than earned when I was 22.”

Yglesias then backs up his productivity argument with a simile about the small number of farmers producing more food than anyone ever thought possible. Except he fails to mention two things: These farmers get paid, and paid well, for what they produce – the average family farm had average annual income of nearly $82,000 in 2004, a salary most bloggers and reporters would kill for — and many are subsidized by the government itself.

But Yglesias’ biggest gaffe may be what he fails to address at all. In breathlessly describing the bounty of web news, he fails to mention a single instance of what we might call local news. Surely we can read broadly and deeply about the Cypriot banking crisis, as Yglesias suggests. But what about the crisis of corruption at city hall? What about the scandal at the local bank? Not so much, especially as local, old-media operations shrink and their would-be hyper-local successors struggle to find a workable business model.

In Candide, the title character rejects the mindless optimism of his mentor, Professor Pangloss and comes to the conclusion that “we must cultivate our garden.”
Yglesias’ celebration of the Web’s current news bounty is akin to the farmers he mentions eating their seed corn and mistaking it for a banquet. It’s not enough to be optimistic. Those of us who care about journalism and especially local news must cultivate our gardens.

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