TCS Daily

More Bias, Please

By Tim Worstall - November 12, 2004 12:00 AM

Following on from Glenn Reynolds' piece last week on bias in the Mainstream Media I have what I consider to be good news and what y'all might consider to be, at best, questionably so. For I think that the MSM in the future is going to be more biased, that it will throw off any pretension to objectivity and I think it will be all the better for that.

I base this slightly surprising claim on two things, one being the dismal science of economics. As anyone who's had to sit through an econometrics class will tell you it had better be important out there in the big wide world because at times it is certainly not that interesting. The other is my background as an Englishman, for as we all know in our gut but so rarely actually recognize out loud, the ways of our childhood are best (there is actually a song with the refrain "The English, The English, The English are best" but more of that another day) and the UK has had for a century a newspaper market competitive in the way that the US has not.

I'm going to leave the networks aside for the moment, given that we can all see that cable is making inroads into their market. My interest is more in the blogger, the citizen journalist, the way in which this new technology of (almost) costless printing is going to hold the MSM to account.....sorry, no, that's what Reynolds was talking about. I'm interested in what exactly the same technologies are going to do to the MSM themselves.

American newspapers, as you will note, are generally one town monopolies. Yes, the really big places might still have two papers or more, yet even then there is one that is the main establishment. We have also noted that these papers are, by and large, drearily similar. In outlook, as we have been complaining these past months, but also in content. The same columnists, comics, wire reports are wrapped around a little local news with a new masthead and a classifieds section. I would claim that this came from the inevitable limitations of dead tree printing and communications networks. The distances of America simply meant that you could not publish one paper and distribute it across the country leading to the local monopolies we see. The costs of local distribution also militated in favor of a monopoly as did those above mentioned classifieds sections. Once one paper got a reputation as the place to look for an apartment, a car, to get rid of a kid's bike, which would then snowball, in just the same way that e-Bay has done. The largest most liquid market will win the battle for market share. (As an example of the importance of classifieds and their local nature, note that USA Today, the first real attempt at a national paper, doesn't really carry them.)

I think we would all agree that dead tree printing of newspapers is on its way out. It might take a decade or five for the public to finally give up the ghost but despite Robert Maxwell's comment (he said that computers would never replace newspapers because you couldn't read them on the toilet), give it up it will. So what will happen to US newspapers when all are delivered electronically? I think we'll see a mixture of disintermediation, disaggregation and competition by political or social bias.

Disintermediation is the economist's fancy word for doing it yourself. Instead of allowing some priestly caste (professional journalists?) to decide what we should read or what are the current talking points, we'll do it for ourselves. As we do now with blogging, but there will be hundreds of millions doing it, not just us switched on types. Disaggregation is an allied concept, that we won't want bundles of things, but to be able to choose and pick that selection that we actually want. RSS feeds, XML and all the blogging tools I don't understand will give you an idea of what is meant here. The truly personalized newspaper has been tried recently to varying shades of success yet I have no doubt that it will become the norm.

An example might be what is going to happen to classifieds sections. Many of us who do read the NY Times editorials (if only to jeer) don't care what an apartment on the Upper West Side costs. So we'll excise that from our feed. Yet there are many who are interested in those prices who couldn't care less what's driving Paul Krugman's dyspepsia today, so they will be looking for an alternative source of such information. So the NYT loses its huge guaranteed distribution and thus highly liquid market of classifieds at the same time as people are looking for unbundled access to that market. Craig's List anyone?

To see what effect this might have on the Grey Lady have a look at their revenues for 2003

Advertising revenues.

News Media 911,282

Retail and Reprints 471,225

Classified+Legal 562,585

Circulation Revenue 885,767.

(All figures in $'000).

I can see that general advertising revenue will remain but what of the others? Retail and reprints includes syndication revenues which I don't think are going to continue as why would 500 electronic journals all publish the same Maureen Dowd piece? If they can figure out a way of collecting micro payments from each reader then they might be able to manage it but then if they do, what is to stop MoDo from doing it herself? Circulation revenue is less of a problem for the papers as several have shown that you can get people to pay $20 - $50 a year for access to the on line version. Given the costs of printing and distribution this is about what they used to make out of the dead tree version anyway, so while revenues will fall so will costs. As above, I think that classified revenues are going to disappear.

What I don't believe is that these economic factors will do away with our desire to have teams of journalists and editors finding and presenting the news to us. I'm not predicting the end of the newspaper, just the end of it in its current US form. The electronic distribution systems are, as above, going to take away some sources of revenue, a smaller share of costs, change the bundle of goods that we want from a newspaper and most crucially, deprive them of their local monopolies. What will follow is the most almighty cat fight. There will be true competition for the eyeballs of readers right across the country as distribution becomes virtually costless. We'll be able to choose our national news from any one of hundreds of sources, some will be specialist blogs (Command Post on the War on Terror is a good example, Little Green Footballs on Dan Rather's latest blooper, Glenn on whatever is happening in nanotechnology, me for frothing rants about the iniquities of the European Union.), some will be that fraction of a paper that currently supplies local news, but on the general matters, the big news stories, there will be a cacophony of journalistic teams screaming "Keep my kids in food! Listen to me!".

Some of those teams will go down the route of objectivity (and perhaps actually stick to it this time) but as we know it is extraordinarily difficult for humans to actually be so. My view is that there will actually be more bias. There will be electronic papers to read for those of the Democratic Underground who can do so, for La Rouchies whose straitjackets allow keyboard use and for all and every opinion set in between. Up at the top I said that there would be more bias and that I thought this would be a good thing. Yes, indeed, I do think it will be a good thing for there will be a variety of bias, one which the reader can and will discount because said reader will be aware of it in a way in the current single echo chamber of bias he is not.

What makes me so certain of this? I agree that it is only a prediction, not a description of the way the world actually must turn out. Yet this is where the Englishness comes in. The UK has been a national market for newspapers since the 1900 -1920 period when it became possible to print one paper for the entire country and move it overnight by railroad to every corner of the Kingdom. This isn't quite the same as the cheapness of electronic delivery but it does give us a clue as to what might happen if the US ever became such a national market. There are 14 national newspapers in the UK (This figure comes from the pack of such that each Cabinet Minister receives each morning. I've delivered these myself before now, including once to the Queen herself on a visit to Moscow. You can now paint yourself a portrait of your correspondent trudging across Red Square in a blizzard to deliver HRM's set of tomorrow's fish wrap.) and their declared political and social leanings are obvious. The Telegraph is for the conservative upper and middle classes, the Guardian for progressive such, the Independent for confused ones, the Times for, well, providing Rupert Murdoch with social respectability? The Mail and Express fight for the middle ground (the Mail from the right, the Express not very hard recently). The Sun for right-wing working class, the Mirror for left such, the Star for those who find two syllable words too tough and the Daily Worker (if it still exists) for Communist Party supporters. All of these attributes are made quite clear and plain to readers and no one is in the least hoodwinked into thinking they have an impartial and unbiased report of what is happening in the world. You might also note that none of them carries a substantial classifieds section.

There's my prediction for what the new technologies will do to the US newspapers. There will be, as Reynolds says, space for all of us, for bloggers, for experts, for places like TCS which provide views on the news, for that vast explosion of information, opinion and content that we've all hoped the digital revolution will provide. Yet I think that it will mean that those of the MSM who do survive will become more biased, not less, to the benefit of us all as the bias will be more varied, we shall be more aware of it, and we shall be spared the absurdity of this past week; Paul Krugman telling us that he was not allowed to endorse a candidate, but he thought we might know who he wanted to win.

Or, in short, obvious bias is better than hidden.


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