Tied to the mast
…but orange now and black

Google News has no bureau in Tehran

The public tragedy of the collapse of the big newspapers is in the loss of their vast reporting apparatuses. It is the pool of information these apparatuses gather and process from which aggragators and bloggers are commonly accused of leaching.

From Wire creator David Simon’s congressional testimony on the future of journalism:

What I say will likely conflict with what representatives of the newspaper industry will claim for themselves. And I can imagine little agreement with those who speak for new media. From the captains of the newspaper industry, you will hear a certain martyrology – a claim that they were heroically serving democracy to their utmost only to be undone by a cataclysmic shift in technology and the arrival of all things web-based.

These leaches suck content, obviating for readers the need to go to the newspapers directly (either virtually, or better yet, in print). This impacts revenues which, it is argued, necessarily feeds back on the content producing apparatus.

On this line, ultimately this apparatus will collapse, leaving no alternative means for the public to access reliable information on those things that affect their lives.

But it all goes back to the leaches… A fury for stopping them prompted Posner last week to suggest banning linking to copyrighted material—a suggestion slapped down yesterday by Yglesias.

David Simon suggests in the same testimony quoted above:

…relaxing certain anti-trust prohibitions with regard to the newspaper industry, so that the Washington Post, the New York Times and various other newspapers can sit down and openly discuss protecting their copyright from aggregators and plan an industry wide transition to a paid, online subscriber base.

Simon’s suggestion is much more sober, and in the broader context of his testimony (which I urge you to read) makes a lot of sense.

But there’s a major element missing from all of these discussions. The costs that bloggers avoid are not only those associated with creating original reporting, but very significantly, those associated with centrally organizing, formatting, printing, and distributing print. Of the NYT’s approximately $700,000 quarterly operating budget, raw materials alone account for about 10% (almost a third of the circulation revenue). [UPDATE: That number, on second look, obviously doesn’t make sense. I’m looking for a better breakdown of a major newspaper’s balance sheet, but am having trouble digging one up. I’ll update when I find one.]

Beyond that, it’s difficult from the report I’ve linked to to separate out what costs are associated with housing and maintaining the production machinery, and paying the union wages of those who operate it, paying for the vehicles, gas, and man-hours necessary to distribute the paper on a daily basis, etc. There is no intrinsic public good to these highly significant costs; especially as they come to be more and more vestigial in the larger information distrubition system.

Further, the administrative costs and inefficiencies associated with any rigidly centralized organization, we know, are not competitive in the 21st century economy. Fordism doesn’t cut it any more. Even the world’s largest companies are organized in such a way as to be much more flexible.

So what does this all add up to? Yes Google News doesn’t have a Tehran bureau, but Tehran bureaus—by which I mean generally those costs that serve the media’s core public function—are only a small fraction of the mountain of costs bringing the big papers down. And as we search for solutions, that can’t be forgotten.

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2 Responses to “Google News has no bureau in Tehran”

  1. $700,000 quarterly operating budget? That must be a typo. I went to the link, but am too drunk to read anything with numbers in it.

    That said, I agree with your point, which I take to be this: newspapers like the NYTimes could streamline their operations and be closer to profitable. I worry, though, that it misses the fact that, as you implied earlier in the post, web newspapers haven’t figured out how to make money yet. You can’t charge for content (as the Times learned) and remain as relevant, and Internet advertising isn’t nearly as lucrative as print. I think, then, that some of the problems you mentioned have yet to be overcome precisely because the business model, while dying, is not yet worth abandoning. It will be one day, no doubt, but it isn’t for the moment. And so we bloggers sit and watch from the comfortable vantage point of a parasite as an industry dies while we benefit from its output. It’s a fascinating dynamic.

    It’s one, moreover, that I don’t think things like the Twitter Revolution in Iran quite resolve, either. While Sullivan has been remarkable, I’ve gone to him for first impressions, for rumors, for thrills, for unverified information–I haven’t gone to him for the nitty gritty of who-is-who and wha-is-what. Traditional news outlets continue to trump the online crowd in that regard.

    This won’t always be the case. The SCOTUS Blog is a perfect example. A group of people decide that, given their expertise and their relative free time, they’re going to monitor one particular aspect of the government’s larger function and write about it in a thorough and thought-provoking way. Which leads people like Paul Krugman to cite it on the Sunday talk show circuit. It’s all getting better all the time.

    But beat reporters for the moment still reign supreme if you want to know what’s the what. And people still haven’t figured out a way to maintain the large operations that beat reporters require without all of the folly that print media entails.

    Them’s my thoughts.

    Tom

    • Yeah, you’re right… looking at them again, those numbers are ridiculous. I’m having a beast of a time finding a breakdown of a major newspaper’s operating budget. Let me know if you ever spot something like that.

      Re: Beat reporters… I think the future of the beat is independent and entrepreneurial journalism (whether for profit or not). The industrial institution of the large city paper—housing journalists in centralized newsrooms and paying them fixed salaries—is killing itself with its own overhead. Whether the business model is abandoned or no, it’s collapsing and so will take care of itself.

      Re: the SCOTUSblog volunteer model… I think there is a future in that. Considering that beats now are going uncovered, all it would take to drastically improve local reporting in a mid-sized city is a volunteer organization with a few dozen people agreeing to put in 10 hours a week on a given beat, and a some editors to put it all together. The only cost would be the maintenance of the website, maybe some training, and a warchest for possible lawsuits (the biggest danger–though an organization like that would be pretty attractive to civil libertarian lawyers looking to do pro-bono work).

      I would love to do volunteer work like that and I know a lot of other people would too. I’m convinced that if an organization proves the functionality of a model like that it would take nothing for it to go viral and be reproduced everywhere.


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