I took some criticism for a passing comment in a past post, “Backpacking and the Dreaded Giardia—A Parable.” Here’s the line:
“In this era of internet news and blogging, when information can spread around the world without encountering a skeptical editor along the way, care is more in order than ever.”
I’ll stand by that remark, though I received a number of critical responses from those who took it I was defending the traditional news media and defaming the internet as a source of information.
Good grief, I grew up on the Viet Nam war. It is axiomatic for me that the mainstream media don’t always get the story right and that subversive points of view can be important and insightful.
It is true I think some people are excessively hostile toward the failings of traditional media, and overly optimistic about the internet as an improvement. But does it matter? As Jeff put it in his recent comment, “We’re not going back to Huntley, Brinkley, Cronkite, and the NYT.”
He’s right: we’re not going back. Arguing about whether or not that is a good thing is somewhat like arguments in 1908 over whether horses make better transportation than the Model T. As the internet decimates the old economic models of publishing, something new is emerging, though we can’t really see what it is yet. (As few could see in 1908 how thoroughly our lives and our economy—even the air we breathe and the weather we enjoy—would be changed by the motor car.)
The present situation is unstable, as all transitions are. I’d point out two problematic nodes. I’ve written—“The Internet and Truth”—about the need for editors on the web. I’m confident they will emerge, because of sheer necessity. There is simply too much information available, and nobody can do a decent job of sifting through it and still hold a job. So far those editors have not emerged.
A second and far more important concern is the need for an economic model for news reporting on the web. Yes, the internet does offer some wondrous advantages of information coming from multiple amateur sources, instantaneously. You can go direct to sources yourself, and that’s sometimes a great thing. It’s also great that a million amateurs can critique and contradict a news story, and post their views and their information for all to see. Sometimes this produces spectacular results. For most news, though, it’s not much help. Take a very mundane example, the French plane that went down in the Atlantic Ocean a few weeks ago. Twitter might gild the story a bit with posts from heartbroken family members, but reporting the heart of the story involved hanging around waiting for officials to say something, attending dreary press conferences, calling up aviation experts, interviewing family members, and boiling down a great deal of information into a few readable paragraphs. It’s not rocket science, but it requires a certain amount of experience and moxie. And it’s pretty expensive, because it takes a lot of time. Thus far we don’t know how to pay such reporters from new media sources. But we are going to have to figure out how, pretty soon.
Today, almost all the news we get on the internet comes from a small family of traditional sources—AP, Reuters, BBC, NYT, Washington Post, etc. Internet writers critique those stories, or comment on their significance, but they originate very few news stories of their own. Internet news is parasitic on the old media it is busy destroying. That can’t last.
I’m confident that good news reporting will continue to be done, because we need it very badly. I’m hopeful that we’ll emerge with a better model, offering more in-depth sources of information simply because the costs of transmission are so low. But the transition from the old economic model to whatever new one emerges could be long and treacherous.