Monday, March 2, 2009

Cato on the Press

In June of 2008, Steve Boriss wrote an article for Cato's TechKnowledge entitled "The Future of News: A Golden Age for Free Speech". It's a great read, reminding us that "The Press" once simply referred to a technology, not a profession.
Thomas Jefferson had no interest in empowering a special class, "the press," who today present themselves as superior in their abilities to ferret out, understand, and communicate the single, correct way to look at things. Instead, he wanted our news to be filled with a multitude of alternative voices and opinions competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas.
Now, I'm not going to jump on the bandwagon of bloggers who trash the press out of hand. Like Jeff Jarvis, I think we need more reporters, more editors, more generation of news. We bloggers need primary sources for news. How often can we write without linking to some other source? We simply want to (re-)join the public conversation that was so key to our thriving democracy in its infancy.

Boriss reminds us that historically, the current business model of the press is an exception, not the norm. One of the things that allowed the press to become what it is today (that is to say, an industry) was the advent of technology that could lower the cost of printing, allowing for papers that could afford the overhead of high-speed presses to drastically reduce the price-per-copy. Economies of scale pushed more expensive papers (with only niche markets) out of business on this price drop. This process has been repeated over and over again, especially throughout the 20th century, when the idea of mass markets and mass production truly emerged.

The mass-production of papers allowed for a competitive advantage for papers that could afford the up-front costs of expensive high-speed printing, as well as garner the wide-market appeal to move that volume. But that advantage was first really brought to bear with the flowering of the Associated Press. To quote Boriss:
Competition was first stifled when AP papers signed an agreement giving Western Union exclusive rights to the AP's telegraph business in exchange for higher telegraph fees for other news providers.
You see, they realized that their advantage was in controlling the medium of delivery. Their content had to be "good enough" to appeal to large market, for certain, but their business relied more on the method of delivery, controlling not only the distribution of papers, but on the access costs competitors had to telegraph service for the same news. Compare that to the Associated Press of today. Now that the press has been steeped in that tradition so long, they can't separate the content from the delivery mechanism in their own minds, and are suffering greatly for it.

The press is losing their grip on the means of distribution, and building their business model on that platform is proving to be an ultimately unhealthy choice in the face of the Internet:
The Internet is now poised to undo all the "advances" that set news back. Having a voice in the marketplace of ideas no longer requires capital investments in printing presses and broadcast equipment, just an Internet connection and a free blogging service.
The ultimate collusion (or confusion) of the press with the medium is still going on today. This is where I suddenly veer away from Boriss's take on Net Neutrality, though my assumption is that Mr. Boriss and I are really talking about two different things. (See my critical definition of Net Neutrality here, and know that there are many who would confuse this idea with a version of Net Neutrality far more akin to the Fairness Doctrine than to one that would prevent the exact kind of stifling of speech that the Associated Press engaged in by controlling telegraph access). I am assuming that the what Boriss is referring to here, is that shared fear of a government-hedged "Fairness Doctrine" for the Internet:
We now have an opportunity to achieve historically unprecedented levels of free speech if we are vigilant in preventing government from regulating the Internet. So far, we seem far too eager to let government in, for example on issues as small and theoretical as "Net Neutrality" regulation — a command-and-control regime for the Internet so much like the one still weighing down the broadcast spectrum.
I promote Net Neutrality as a means to prevent ISPs and media (largely the same thing at this point) from working to approve only their preferred content, putting us squarely back into the grips of approved mass-market media. I'm fairly certain that Boriss is using the phrase with a greatly different meaning. Net Neutrality is both a niche issue, and a poorly defined one at present. We should work to clarify the terms we are using, and make sure that we're all really fighting about the same things.

(Hat tip to Jim Harper over at Cato, who tossed the link to Boriss today, in light of recent newspaper woes.)

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