Sunday, August 12, 2007

(08.12.07) Recommends:

Read All About It.

This small article appearing in the most recent New Yorker looks at Rupert Murdoch's purchase of Dow Jones Inc. (and it's crown jewel, the Wall Street Journal). I guess I've had journalism on the brain lately.

This article is obviously conclusory in that frustrating fashion of many New Yorker articles (Rupert Murdoch has killed the WSJ! before the first article with him at the helm has been published). However it's also brilliantly succinct -- another hallmark of the magazine -- and nicely sets the stage for what I hope will be more in-depth and nuisanced looks at the current state of journalism in our country.

I'd probably be overstating things to suggest that this issue might be something debated in the upcoming presidential election. But it's hard not to notice that the current state of journalism is a microcosm of the current state of our culture.

The story features the convergence of technology, law, politics, and capitalism.

There is so much about which to be hopeful: more sources of information than any other time in the history of mankind and available more conveniently than any other time.

But there is also so much about which to be cautious.

I think it's legitimate to be cautious about the role that profit margins and bottom lines play in the definition and distribution of "news." I tend to see journalism as the free market of ideas. So in the end, I believe that the market will always create a source that focuses on more than simply hype, PR, celebrities, and the weather. But quote unquote Serious Journalism is time consuming and expensive.

Therefore, I think that it is legitimate to be cautious about the way Wall Street values things. Wall Street hammers newspaper stock prices and we're told over and over again that newspapers are dying dinosaurs. Yet, from that PBS series I learned that the LA Times was doing $1bn in revenue, $200mm in profit, 20% profit margins and everyone concedes that these are really strong numbers. And meanwhile firms on Wall Street are at best hemorrhaging and at worst blowing up because they were investing in instruments that were heretofore completely incorrectly valued. Are we sure that the LA Times is a bad investment now?

I think that it is legitimate to be cautious about the role that digital technology will play going forward.

On one hand, there is no question that digital technology allows for some awesome things. Take The New York Times online for example. It features longer, investigative pieces. Shorter, right to the point news pieces. Compelling editorial writers. All pretty standard newspaper stuff. But then it has adopted to the net and features blogs, video-journalism, and podcasts and audio-journalism (in fact, Backstory might be my favorite part of the Times; my only wish is that they'd keep the Backstory link more up-to-date.). It's one-stop-shopping for overburdened consumers of news.

On the other hand, I think that digital technology has the potential to turn the Copyright Act into the Internal Revenue Code, with arbitrary laws and distinctions, and reading more like a negotiated contract than a principled legal document. And the result of this is clear: people are becoming increasing cynical about copyright law (it seems like some people believe that copyright law is a weapon solely created by the "RIAA" and wildly swung around in an attempt to kill us all rather than something that was expressly recognized by the federal Constitution). I think this is a very bad thing for both journalism and our culture as a whole.

I don't want to go on too long, but I think there's a lot to unpack here. I'd love to hear what other people think about this.

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