This piece by Carl Packman set me thinking: do conventional accounts of the threats to the future of journalism leave out some important causes of that decline?
What I mean is that it’s tempting to blame newspapers’ troubles on the rise of the internet and on regulation. But I suspect there are other things at work.
One is that news is not a feature of the world, but rather a modern artifice. Niklas Luhmann has written:
We are used to daily news, but we should be aware nonetheless of the evolutionary improbability of such an assumption. If it is the idea of surprise, of something new, interesting and newsworthy which we associate with news, then it would seem much more sensible not to report it in the same format every day, but to wait for something to happen and then publicize it. This happened in the 16th century in the form of broadsides, ballads or crime stories…(The Reality of the Mass Media, p25)
News, he says, is not so much something that happens as something that’s manufactured by journalists, according to quite strict conventions.
Secondly, the notion of news and reporting rests upon a contentious epistemological premise - that knowledge can be gathered centrally and expressed explicitly. In a sense, the very notion of news is a rejection of Hayek’s stress upon local, fragmentary knowledge and Polanyi’s idea of tacit knowledge. You don’t have to be an efficient market dogmatist to believe that share prices contain pretty much all the economic and business news you need.
Viewed from these perspectives, “news” is a peculiar and artificial historical contingency. Why should there be a permanent market for it, except through the dull force of habit?
Thirdly, journalism is, tendentially, prone to Baumol’s cost disease. The time required to research and write a good story probably hasn’t changed much down the years - I write as one who was a journalist in the pre-internet era. This means the productivity of good journalism tends to fall over time relative to the rest of the economy - which means in turn that its relative cost tends to rise.
Naturally, newspaper bosses have fought this, by cutting journalists’ pay and by abandoning expensive investigative journalism in favour of tittle-tattle. But there are limits to how far this can be done without alienating readers.
None of this is to deny the role of the internet in accelerating the decline of newspapers. All it is saying is that there are some deeper forces at work - forces which mean that newspapers cannot survive forever in a free market. Whether this is a good thing or not is another issue.