Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Mainstream Media: Responsibility and Buggy Whips

In an editorial in the WSJ today, Paul Mulshine of the Newark Star-Ledger pines that the era of the newspaper is ending. I agree that it is ending, and feel sorry for folks like Mr. Mulshine - experts in journalism that are experiencing tectonic shifts in the structure of the business model that has provided their livelihood for so many years. But newspapers and buggy whips share one critical similarity. In many cases, they no longer provide a valuable service to the market.

As an example, how many times have you read or heard the mainstream media comment that the current economic crisis is the "worst since the great depression"? Too many to count, most likely. In truth, many economists compare the current recession to the one in the 1960's. By many metrics, that is a more appropriate comparison. Where have I read the information I have used to frame my understanding of the subject? The blogosphere. There are several great economics blogs (written by economists) that choose to describe the problem uniquely, not in trite and overused terms that are chosen at best because the writers are underqualified, and at worst because the paper is looking for a sensational headline in order to sell copies. Blogs are great resources to further democratize the flow of information. Gutenberg had the printing press, and Barry Ritholtz and Greg Mankiw have Blogger.

The folks in mainstream media are forced to meet deadlines and write about a breadth of topics. In many cases, these demands water down their coverage. For many years, the irresponsibility with which my local paper, the Kansas City Star, has reported business earnings has greatly frustrated me. The business page picks up the headline of the quarterly press release announcing earnings and makes a one paragraph story. For companies whose revenue is greatly impacted by commodity cost - like Farmland Industries back in its heyday - top-line revenue growth is immaterial. Yet the KC Star consistently reported about sales growth - not profitability.

In the end, folks will gravitate toward the source for news that they can understand, and which they trust as a resource for responsible information. Years ago, it was possible for journalists like William Randolph Hurst to hold sway over the way a subject was reported. No longer. Because one no longer requires a printing press to memorialize the story, and it no longer requires space on the newsstand shelf to have nationwide clout.

Now all one needs is a command of the subject matter, an articulate nature, and an iPhone.

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