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?