Monday, April 20, 2009

grad school strikes again

The Bill Moyers interview of David Simon dovetails with a number of things I have been thinking about recently.

The current situation that most news on paper organizations have found themselves is an interesting combination of two classic graduate school thought exercises. The "Free rider problem" and "The tragedy of the commons."

The wiki definition of Free riders is: “[they] consume more than their fair share of a resource, or shoulder less than a fair share of the costs of its production. Free riding is usually considered to be an economic "problem" only when it leads to the non-production or under-production of a public good.” Sound like anything we are familiar with?

The 'Tragedy of the Commons' is similar in that it is a case when multiple people all acting in their own self-interest can destroy a common or limited resource.

So what do we have going on in the news industry? People are able to free ride the system in a number of ways: including reading content for free, even though there is a cost associated for gathering it, sites can link to other people’s content without incurring any cost, the web is seen as ‘free,’ even though practically there are costs.

From the tragedy of the commons side, news on paper organization have been providing free content on the web even though collectively they are all cutting each other’s throats because the ‘other’ is giving away content for free. There is a great deal of commentary on the web, and that makes it appear as there is also news, but the gathering of the commodity of news is not borne by the commons that utilizes the commodity.

So where does this leave us? David Simon argues "since we basically have become a market-based culture and it's what we know, and it's what's led us to this sad denouement, I think we're going to follow market-based logic, right to the bitter end." He is speaking about our economy in general, but it speaks volumes to news on paper and society.

One of his other great observations is that:

"You show me anything that depicts institutional progress in America, school test scores, crime stats, arrest reports, arrest stats, anything that a politician can run on, anything that somebody can get a promotion on. And as soon as you invent that statistical category, 50 people in that institution will be at work trying to figure out a way to make it look as if progress is actually occurring when actually no progress is."

Why does that matter? If you read Martin Langeveld's Print is still king: Only 3 percent of newspaper reading happens online
and you see a fine example of David Simon’s argument. He raises some good questions about how much people are really getting their news from online. His numbers seem high to me, and his numbers from the web seem low. Now if he were able to stratify his numbers over social and economic classes I might be more willing to believe him (just from anecdotal observations on my own part.)

So, I will consider this part 1. Part of the solution is identifying the problem, so perhaps next time some solutions.

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