Can Bloggers Push Information?

by Brien Jackson

Ezra, writing on a pretty common defense of newspapers:

The news business, we all agree, is an inefficient enterprise. But it has benevolent inefficiencies. Not every story in the paper maximizes readership and thus advertising revenue. The low-readership stories, however, aren’t misfires. They’re aimed at a different audience: Empowered elites. They make the political system aware of problems, or they alert the political system to the fact that other people are aware of problems*.

And that only works because newspapers are hard to ignore. The result is a startlingly inefficient from a revenues standpoint but fairly important from a civic accountability standpoint. Newspapers run popular articles and use their resulting readership to make their unpopular articles matter to the relevant constituencies. Regulators, say. Or city councilmen who wanted the paper’s future endorsement. That’s the thing a blogger can’t do. They can get the information. But they can’t make it matter. They’re easier to ignore. In that way, the fear isn’t that we’ll stop having news. But that that news will stop forcing accountability.

I’m not sure I really understand the nature of this argument. It’s certainly possible that, were The New York Times and The Washington Post to cease to exist next week, policy makers would stop consuming information relevant to their policy making, but that seems unlikely. Rather, they’d probably manage to find other sources of information. Higher profile bloggers could fill this role, as could cable news, non-profit media ventures like The American Prospect, and monthly/weekly print media. Are these mediums less efficient for getting information to policy makers? I don’t think so. Indeed, I think they’re likely to provide better information than newspapers can manage (with the exception of cable news).

All of this, it seems, is predicated on the notion that having these stories next to more popular stories will increase its viewership. But that seems to ignore the way newspapers are printed in sections. If I don’t have any interest in Metro news, I can set aside the Metro section and never bother with it. It also seems to me that there’s no reason you couldn’t put together an online venture with low overhead that packaged a wide range of local bloggers together, to cover a wider variety of topics of local interest. It also seems to me that local newspapers ought to be in a better position than publications like WaPo to find specific niches they can fill with little to no competition that can serve as decent revenue sources. If that’s not happening, it’s probably worth chalking up to bad management or newspaper myopia (“You can’t do that! That’s not The Way It’s Done!), in which case I don’t know how worried anyone should be that such insular “journalists” are losing the brands that promote them as being the Serious People you ought to listen to.