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?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Lara Pawson November 19, 2008 at 10:42

I’ve always found Foreign Affairs incredibly dull. Perhaps I should spend more time in the supermarket? Tell me, Adrian, who is the elite? I know plenty of elites who seem to be remarkably poorly informed. Who are you referring to? And what do they read?

And anyway, what’s wrong with just picking up a bloody book? Or going out there and finding out for yourself – my preferred method?

But a final question. Why is it that in the USA there are loads of quality journals and here, in the UK, we have extremely little. We’ve got the LRB… and what else? Why don’t we have a New Yorker equivalent or a New York Review of Books (still better than the LRB, I’m afraid) or a Nation? Does this say more about our audiences or more about the market, or both?


Lara Pawson November 19, 2008 at 17:05

(or more about me…?)


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