Saturday, November 26, 2005

Filling the Media Vacuum

We in UXland like to think that the effects of technology are liberating and benevolent. Sometimes, though, we see unintended effects on our intellectual resources.

The pressure on the newspaper industry is growing far more quickly than these institutions can adjust. In the NYT this week, David Carr notes that "Google Base reverses the polarity" on the newspaper business model.
Instead of simply sending automated crawlers out across the Web in search of relevant answers to search queries, Google has invited its huge constituency of users to send and tag information that will be organized and displayed in relevant categories, all of which sounds like a large toe into the water of the classified advertising business, estimated to be worth about $100 billion a year.

This could be a fine thing for consumers, but for newspapers, which owe about a third of their revenues to classified advertising, it could be more a spike to the heart than just another nail in the coffin.
New York Times, November 21, 2005

One could ask "Why that is a big deal?" or merely conclude that the media is a bad business model. Still, we need to be aware that there will be unfortunate consequences when whole fundamental industries are uprooted.

Journalism has been long considered the "Fourth Estate" of government, a profession meant to keep watch on the public good. What will happen if writers can no longer find organizations willing to pay them for the work they do?
But if you consider newspapers to be a social and civic good, then some things are at risk. Google gives consumers e-mail, maps and, in some locations, wireless service for free. But for Google's news aggregator to function, somebody has to do the reporting, to make the calls, to ensure that what we call news is more than a press release hung on the Web.

News robots can't meet with a secret source in an underground garage or pull back the blankets on a third-rate burglary to reveal a conspiracy at the highest reaches of government. Tactical and ethical blunders aside, actual journalists come in handy on occasion.
New York Times, November 21, 2005

Carr's concern is very valid here, though he really should be saying that "professional journalism" rather than "newspapers." How will we find relevant, quality information? How will we trust that information? Who will doggedly pursue truth while we are doing our day jobs? Yes, newspaper reliance on classified ads as their main source of revenue is flawed and fast crumbling. But let's help the journalists find a business model that works. Maybe we need journalists, just not the media companies.

In Good Night and Good Luck, a major plot line revolved around the news and it's lack of contribution to the media company's bottom line. Edward R. Murrow had to do entertainment interviews in addition to his serious news pieces. To fund his attack on McCarthy, Murrow and his producer even personally bought advertising space.

Murrow's contribution helped hasten McCarthy's downfall. Who else besides the professional media were in the position to put a spotlight on the Senator and do the legwork to counteract the Senator's own investigative resources? Daily Kos even goes so far as to say that the media companies are even more cautious than they were back in the 50s.

If the UX community is serious about helping lead us bravely into a new world of citizen involvement by technology, we need to also be there to help business and government be inventive on the organizational side as well. Isn't organizing what we do?

Sometimes when we give up control, we might not like what fills the vacuum. Let's help fill it.

Thanks to Gawker for the reference.

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