Tuesday, March 06, 2007

(too much?) more on the Cathedral and the Blogosphere

Apologies in advance for a long post. While my column space may be unlimited, I'm very much aware that the reader's attention isn't. On the other hand, I wanted to give this topic the space it deserves because good quality information distribution is essential to the proper operation of a democracy.

Tim Lee's interesting response points out two difficulties with my critique about bloggers and journalists. First, he feels that I give newspapers too much credit, and blogs too little, when it comes to depth, and second, he is skeptical that newspapers have the advantage in integrity.

Laying the Groundwork

To respond to these points, I need to lay some groundwork. I'd like to look for structural advantages and disadvantages on both sides, so let's also expand the focus to professional media outlets, including newspapers, radio, and TV, on the one hand and, on the other, blogs, podcasts, and vlogs. Since we need names for these groups to be able to talk about them, I'm going to call the first group "centralized media" and the second "distributed media." The question I'm trying to answer is what, if any, advantages does centralized media offer that distributed media doesn't.

Defining Centralized and Distributed Media More Closely

To define them a little more closely, here are the main traits I see of each group. First, centralized media:
  • a larger number of people operating within a business entity
  • the people have formal training in journalism
  • there's usually a hierarchical organization in which a small editorial staff must edit, review, and approve anything a larger staff of reporters writes
  • the business entity generates revenue and attempts to operate for a profit
For the moment, I'm ignoring the functions outside reporting and editing. They may be significant, such as (as Lee points out) advertising potentially distorting integrity, but I'll deal with them in the context of talking about profit motives. I'm also leaving ownership of a printing press or transmitter out of the equation.

Next, distributed media:
  • each producer typically has a small number of people, often just one
  • the people may have strong expertise, but it is usually in a field other than journalism
  • most of the organizational focus crosses producer lines, is informal, and is fluid, typically in the form of a web of trust
  • profit is usually not a strong motive
Again, I'm leaving out the actual medium, the web server and associated software, because there's little to stop a newspaper or TV station from running a corporate blog, and I've already agreed that easy linking and comment feedback are good things for both forms of media. On the other hand, if the fact that a lot of people are involved in a centralized media producer made it less responsive to criticism, that would be a more fundamental issue that's independent of the distribution technology it's using.

Clearly there's a continuum between centralized and distributed media. A one-person community newspaper published as a labor of love starts to look a lot like a blog, for example. Ars Technica, on the other hand, seems to have many of the traits I've assigned to centralized media (though unfortunately their "about us" page doesn't talk about their editorial structure.)

The Long Tail Phenomenon

Finally, Lee invokes the long tail phenomenon, asserting
The average blog post is almost certainly of lower quality than the average newspaper article. But because there are so many more blogs than newspapers, and because there is such a great diversity of bloggers, the best blog posts are often better than the best newspaper articles.
I agree that the number of blogs is an advantage we shouldn't ignore. However, there is also a small number of very good centralized media producers among a lot of marginal ones, so let's focus on comparing the best with the best on both sides in order to focus on the structural issues. I will pull in averages only where they illustrate the influence of the structure. For example, it might be necessary to talk about averages when discussing the influence of the profit motive on journalistic integrity or the influence of "link love" on fact gathering through a web of trust.

Analyzing News Versus Gathering It

I would expect distributed media to be very good at analyzing news, but less good at gathering it. By "gathering news," I mean interviewing people, conducting (or commissioning) and collating research, and digging up facts. It includes everything from sending a war correspondent to Iraq, to putting a reporter on Air Force One, to interviewing people, to flying a helicopter over the latest traffic mess or forest fire.

News Analysis

The main strength of distributed media in news analysis comes from the fact that the good producers often have a strong background in the fields they analyze. For example, many authors of academic blogs are world-class experts in their particular specialties.

One influence that works against distributed media in news analysis is a lack of review coupled with the large number of producers. Most academic journals (with law reviews a notable exception) are peer reviewed, but most academic blogs are not. Centralized media outlets also have a layer of editorial review, though I've suggested that editorial staff really works more towards giving the entity a consistent outlook than one that's necessarily always balanced. For example, Fox News is consistent in how it presents the news. Whether it's balanced seems to be debatable. Note, though, that there are fewer centralized media producers than distributed media producers, and each centralized producer pumps out more stories, making it easier to evaluate each centralized producer's point of view. In contrast, distributed media relies on the web of trust. Unless the person doing the evaluation happens to personally be an expert in , say, California Civil Procedure, Venture Finance, or Security, that person will have to rely on someone else's evaluation. I've suggested the web of trust makes it harder to properly evaluate the analysis the further in the web you are from its source.

On the whole, though, I think the level of expertise probably outweighs any web of trust issues. I would expect the web of trust to be able to flag egregious problems, such as a supposed environmental expert quietly being on Exxon's payroll, and I'd rather hear directly from the expert than to hear the expert's views clipped and distorted through a reporter.

News Gathering

When it comes to gathering information, I think centralized media has the advantage for two reasons: money and access. It is the rare blogger who could afford a helicopter to fly over a forest fire location, and even if the blogger could do so, getting the FAA to grant access to the airspace would likely present a problem. Similarly, the Whitehouse restricts access to press conferences, if for no other reason than security. We may see more distributed media in these roles over time, but for the present having the money and contacts to put a reporter on location gives centralized media the upper hand in this area.

Every generalization has its exceptions. For example, distributed media would probably do quite well gathering information about software or appliances, things that are relatively accessible and inexpensive. A prime example would be breaking the Sony DRM Rootkit story. Similarly, reporting on the latest court decisions using public filings as primary sources is an area where distributed media should do well, particularly when those filings are public records available from web sites. On the other hand, I would not expect a distributed media producer to spend a few hundred hours compiling an empirical study unless it had an outside source of revenue, such as a research grant. To be fair, the number of times centralized media is willing to commit a few hundred hours of reporter time to a project is pretty limited, too, but remember that we're comparing best to best here.

Journalistic Integrity

The fundamental issue with journalistic integrity is whether the media producer recognizes and discloses conflicts and produces fair and balanced reporting. (I am using the term "balanced" to mean the reporting is not too slanted. I doubt it's possible to eliminate all slant, but it is possible to make a conscious effort to limit it.) Let's look at the motivations in both cases.

Their Main Motivations

For centralized media, profit is an important motive, both for the media outlet as a whole, and for individual participants in terms of their salaries. Another factor is reputation, again both for the outlet and for the individual: if you plagiarize or fabricate stories, you might find yourself unemployable as a journalist. Journalists receive training in recognizing conflicts of interest and the importance of full disclosure, though Lee has expressed skepticism about how effective that training is at changing the conduct of the average journalist in the normal case.

For distributed media, currently fame and recognition, what Richard Bennett called "link love," seem to be important. Others might produce because of a strong commitment to a particular set of policies, but I'd lump that in with fame and recognition, not for the author but for the policies.* Reputation remains an important factor. Distributed media producers do not generally have training in recognizing conflicts of interest or full disclosure unless they seek it out.

Profit/Recognition Motive Versus Reputation

The profit motive for centralized media and the fame/recognition motive for distributed media seem to be a wash. For example, whether a newspaper has a reputation for being balanced or for being best used to wrap fish does not seem likely to affect revenue from its classifieds. A newspaper that's known for stellar reporting may get wider readership, but so might a newspaper that regularly prints a full-page pinup in each issue. On the other hand, one notable effect money often has is to get the individual participant to take the job more seriously. For instance, as I mentioned earlier, I can budget more time and attention to an activity that puts food on the table.

It's not clear to me what effects a decrease in reputation would have. This is an area where I'd love to see some empirical studies comparing reputation for balance with number of readers, listeners, or viewers. What I would expect for centralized media is that declining reputation would shift the demographics but would not be closely correlated with a shift in total audience size, so the impact on revenue would largely depend on what advertisers are willing to pay for a given demographic. For distributed media, a similar phenomenon might occur, where who's linking to the site might change but the total number of links might not. What effect that might have on fame and recognition seems would depend on what audience the producer is trying to reach. Note that distributed media's audience is part of the web of trust, so rearranging the web means reaching different people but doesn't necessarily mean reaching more or fewer people.

Training in Journalistic Ethics

Finally, education in recognizing conflicts of interest might shift the total balance for two reasons. The first is that it equips the reporter to recognize those problems ahead of time rather than learning about them by falling into them. The second is that the reporter might have a stronger commitment to fair reporting as a result of the training. Lee gives these influences less weight than I do, but I suspect we won't be able to resolve this disagreement without more information.


*There's a third group: people who blog to stay in touch with friends and family. I've left them out of the analysis because they don't seem likely to be the sorts of news gathering and analysis producers we're talking about here. Omitting them might be wrong, though, because if you believe they are an important part of the web of trust for distributed news gathering, it may be necessary to look more closely at how their motivation affects the way they filter information.

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