Good journalism’s demand ‘problem’

November 18, 2008

Columbia Journalism ReviewThe Columbia Journalism Review takes on a familiar tropethe scarcity of attention – and riffs on it in relation to journalism.

Attention—our most precious resource—is in increasingly short supply. To win the war for our attention, news organizations must make themselves indispensable by producing journalism that helps make sense of the flood of information that inundates us all.

Attention, with respect to Herbert Simon, is not scarce. It is a constant.

It’s just managed in ways that readers of the Columbia Journalism Review may find disappointing.

Contrary to the earnest claims made, the current news media offers many quick and easy solutions for anyone suffering from ‘information overload.’ Matt Drudge has carved an online niche offering exactly that. Traditional television newscasts have long offered another version. Time and Newsweek yet another. There are plenty of filters for people who want their information ‘filtered.’

The question is why they should want the stuff in the first place.

So IMHO, the CJR piece is a typical, well-researched, arse-about-face piece of thinking on why people bother to pick up political and public policy information.

Increase in the supply of news does not mean increasing public knowledge of public affairs, or political participation, for reasons Anthony Downs outlined back in 1957, in An Economic Theory of Democracy – there are no incentives.

After all, why can’t you buy Foreign Affairs at the supermarket counter? And why are elites so irritatingly well-informed?

It’s because supermarket shoppers lack incentives to gain expertise in foreign policy, and because elites get social value from being ‘in the loop,’ and because they honestly believe – hey, they are elites! – that they can use the information they acquire.

No one in journalism has bothered listening to Downs, and journalists still act amazed when people don’t soak up vinegar like wine.

Look at the recent example of India,and its much-vaunted news media explosion. How does an India commentator view the impact of the growth in news on the political process?

There is little doubt that the growing number of television news channels as well as newspapers have provided wider and deeper coverage of elections. But how has the media boom impacted a critical aspect of democracies: voter turnout?

A look at voter turnout trends in the last four Parliament elections and also data on voter turnout in some assembly elections, including Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and the most recent elections held in Karnataka, viewed in light of sharp increases in television audiences and newspaper readers during the same period leads to one startling conclusion: There appears to be very low correlation between Indian voter turnout and growing media—and presumably information—sources.

So enough with the supply-side nonsense. This is a demand-side problem. People need incentives to acquire the political stuff, and if you want to incentivize them you have to also grapple with the consequences of a more informed public (just ask a doctor).

If you’re an optimist, you might agree with Paul Krugman‘s explanation for the general lousiness of British food before the 1990s. Krugman observed:

[A] free-market economy can get trapped for an extended period in a bad equilibrium in which good things are not demanded because they have never been supplied, and are not supplied because not enough people demand them.

The journalism analogy? Educated news palates will bring a taste for meatier coverage.

But if you’re a pessimist you might take the view of the editor of Britain’s Daily Mail, Paul Dacre:

[I]f mass-circulation newspapers, which, of course, also devote considerable space to reporting and analysis of public affairs, don’t have the freedom to write about scandal, I doubt whether they will retain their mass circulations with the obvious worrying implications for the democratic process.

And – by the way – being an academic, I’m neither optimist nor pessimist. What about you?

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