Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Market Is Only Part Of The Issue

I was listening to The Diane Rehm show this morning during a discussion of "The Future of Newspapers" when they touched on the current state of Knight-Ridder. Via Knight Ridder Watch, Knight-Ridder is up for sale because its not generating a return comparable with its competitors, though the details are a bit more complicated. There seemed to be a general consensus amongst the participants that this was an unfortunate turn of events and that the quality of the Knight-Ridder's products had been reduced amidst efforts to make the organization more competitive. Here's where I find myself in a dilemma. I agree with the commentators that it's unfortunate that news outlets in general are having to reduce the scope of their operations; I'd love it if the average newspaper were closer to the NYT, WSJ, etc. But at the same time I'm generally in favor of competition and free markets, especially in an instance like this where the competitors are all large corporate entities and the competition can be characterized (to a reasonable degree) as "fair". What to do when it appears that the judgment of the market leads to a questionable outcome? The first thing to consider is whether the above is an accurate characterization. Has the general quality of reporting declined in response to market pressures? And here we run into some difficulties, because "quality" is in the eye of the beholder. For example, consider this article over at Poynter Online about the efforts of Knight-Ridder and Gannet to improve their editorial quality, which talks in generally favorable terms about efforts to increase readership with improved local coverage as an alternative to (I assume) wire stories. These programs may increase readership, but a strong argument can be made that such an approach encourages parochialism. I feel fairly confident holding up The Economist as a paragon of news and analysis, but it doesn't really do local interest/human interest stories. Now, its certainly a valid critique to say that The Economist is a specialist rag and that the general population is not affected by nor needs to be concerned about EU farm subsidy give-backs. But can that same critique not also be applied to Diane and company? The masses are choosing those news sources which they believe to be most relevant to their lives; they don't really need to be able to read Paul Krugman's latest column. The whole idea of increased or decreased news quality is a red herring if you measure it in terms of local/original content vs. wire stories or whether a paper has the budget to run syndicated columns. These measures are being used as proxies for a more basic notion of "newsworthiness" having to do with historical notions of the media's role as government watchdog and promoter of civic virtue. Here's where I get cynical, stop me if you've heard this one before: the root cause of lamentations about the state of Knight-Ridder et. al. is that most people aren't concerned about civic virtue or the government in any meaningful sense. Which resolves my dilemma, because that particular malaise runs deeper than market forces. You could tinker and subsidize and whatever else in an effort to improve the quality of news against the tide of the market, but even if you did you'd have a product which was only interesting to a small percentage of the populace. And it probably wouldn't be as good as The Economist.

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