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Yochai Benkler on the new news infrastructure

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
21st March 2009

The newspaper example suggests that even if we could completely shut down peer-to-peer networks, we should still expect the recording industry to decline over time as consumers gravitate toward more efficient and convenient sources of music. Piracy obviously accelerates the process, but the underlying problem is simply this: the recording industry’s core competence, pressing 1s and 0s on plastic disks and shipping them to retail stores, is rapidly becoming pointless, just as the newspaper industry’s core competence of pressing ink on newsprint and dropping them on doorsteps is becoming obsolete.*

The U.S. media establishment is panicking about the dire straits of newspapers and the decline of other mass media models such as network television, which they also see as an indispensible prop to democracy.

But in the New Republic, Yochai Benkler argues that much of the fear is mis-placed and that the networked media age will produce its own infrastructure, that may look like the following, see below for an excerpt.

Yochai Benkler:

“Like other information goods, the production model of news is shifting from an industrial model–be it the monopoly city paper, IBM in its monopoly heyday, or Microsoft, or Britannica–to a networked model that integrates a wider range of practices into the production system: market and nonmarket, large scale and small, for profit and nonprofit, organized and individual. We already see the early elements of how news reporting and opinion will be provided in the networked public sphere.

Its primary elements will be:

1. Surviving elements of the old system, changed. These include papers like The New York Times, which see a much larger readership of their online platform, supported by a slowly improving level of targeted advertising to its new, larger audiences, and international sources like the BBC or Al Jazeera, some of which at least depend on state funding.

2. Small-scale commercial media. These types of organizations will be are able to operate at much lower cost than small papers of the past while maintaining high journalistic professionalism. Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, which Starr notes, is the poster-child for this form. The idea here is that with sufficiently high quality professional commitment to reporting, combined with contributions from engaged readers, various freelancers, and academics who can use the platform as their own stage, a small outfit can draw a sufficiently large number of readers to sell advertising at levels that can sustain this level of operation. Marshall, for example, has a site rank roughly in the neighborhood of that of The State, South Carolina’s biggest newspaper, but needs to support a comparatively minuscule paid staff. As Starr notes in his main piece, this style of low cost, highly-socially-leveraged reporting also lends itself to philanthropic support, because you can get so much bang for the donor’s buck when you don’t need to have a styles section or a restaurant review section, but can focus your energy on political reporting coupled with user-contributed tips and insights. The Washington Independent, funded by the Center for Independent Media, is an excellent example. Part of what is important to remember is that journalists, like all people, come in many motivational profiles. Some scientists go to work for startups and look for the big bucks, but most who do basic research trade-off potential riches for a steady academic position and the respect and independence that come with it. Certainly, many journalists too are driven to write about the news of the day because they care and because they want to get it right; and this model allows them to do so even if it does not quite get them the levels of compensation that the older model might have.

3. New, volunteer-driven party presses. While motivation sources may be mysterious to economists when they think about Wikipedia or the Linux kernel, there is nothing mysterious about what drives the contributors to the newly emerging party presses. Over 10,000 Daily Kos contributors have strong political beliefs, and they are looking to express them and to search for information that will help their cause. So do the contributors to Town Hall, although the left-wing of the blogosphere has more of this phenomenon at this point in history than does the right. For digging up the dirt on your opponent’s corruption, this is a powerful motivator, and the platforms are available to allow thousands of volunteers to work together, with the leadership and support of a tiny paid staff (paid, again, through advertising to this engaged community, or through mobilized donations).

4. Newly effective nonprofits. The best example of this is The Sunlight Foundation, which supports both new laws that require government data to be put online, and the development of web-based platforms that allow people to look at these data and explore government actions that are relevant to them. In one example, Sunlight ran a project to identify which members of Congress had paid their spouses out of their campaign coffers. Not an illegal act, but when carried to extreme, an unsavory one. What they did was build a web-based interface that allowed users to pick a representative they care about, and then they led their users from one publicly-available database to the next to research the question. Within one weekend the community of volunteers had done the entire research project for each member of Congress, finding some rather awkward payments in the process. A similar approach can allow people to look at earmark projects in their neighborhood, where they can then bring local knowledge to bear on whether a sum like the one assigned is a plausible one; or what local shenanigans might be at work. Given the magnitude of the stimulus bill, for example, I suspect that a well-designed public database recording and reporting who is being paid and what, for which projects, would allow for much more extensive and comprehensive analysis by the network of volunteers with well-structured tools than the happenstance of any given reporter, in any given locality, getting a tip from a long-time source.

5. Individuals in networks. Less prominent than the large collaboration platforms like Daily Kos, individuals play an important role in this new information ecosystem. First, there are the experts. For instance, academic economists like Brad DeLong, on the left, and the contributors to Marginal Revolution, on the right, played a much greater role in debates over the stimulus and bailout than they could have a mere decade ago. But it’s not just experts who benefit; any individual who by happenstance is at the right place at the right time–like the person who made the video of John McCain singing “Bomb Iran,” or the people who are increasingly harnessed by forward looking organizations, like the BBC or now CNN iReport, to share their stories, images, and videos–can become a reporter or photojournalist. While professionals can take much better photographs or videos, professionals simply cannot replicate the probability of being in the right place, at the right time that the population at large has. All we need to do is remember the Rodney King beating, the Abu Ghraib photos, or the images of people walking through the underground tunnels during the London bombings to understand this. And there will always be people with an intense concern on a single issue, like Russ Kick from the Memory Hole who spent months on Freedom of Information requests, until at long last he, and not any of the traditional media, was the first to publish images of American military personnel returned in coffins from Iraq. “

More Information:

Source from first quote above is here


One Response to “Yochai Benkler on the new news infrastructure”

  1. Michel Bauwens Says:

    Excellent companion article on the death of newspapers, but not of journalism, by Clay Shirky, which generated more than 500 references and comments: http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2009/03/newspapers-and-thinking-the-unthinkable/

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