Economists answer a rhetorical question

23 03 2009

The globalization of journalism is a two-faced Janus. The first face is abuzz with the creative promise and transformative potential of technological innovation. In essence, the development of ‘new media’ technologies such as content management systems, weblogs, podcasts, news aggregators and other internet applications has revolutionized journalism and other forms of public communication – public relations, advertising, business communication, politics. This digital revolution has paved the way for new journalistic practices like online and citizen journalism.

It has also produced cultural shifts in news production and consumption. One such important shift is that audiences, i.e. news readers, listeners and viewers, have morphed from voiceless, passive media consumers into rambunctious, active producers (a.k.a. ‘produsers’ or ‘prosumers’). In brief, new media technologies have given audiences a voice. This voice can be heard the world over, in ever increasing co-creative, interactive and networked ways.

In complete contrast, the second face tells a tale of doom and gloom. ‘Traditional’ media industries, inter alia institutional journalism, publishing companies, movie studios, television and radio stations are struggling with the digital revolution. Their political economy is fraught with declining numbers: circulation, audience figures, advertising revenue, staff count and market capitalization. A cottage industry of websites now tracks media lay-offs, shutdown operations and mergers.

Print journalism in particular has been bleeding red ink as the industry shifts from print to digital. Summarizing, print journalism is seen as a transitioning medium in search of new business models, one-upped by technological innovations and cultural changes, challenged by commercial and editorial adjustments, criticized for declining quality standards, and eroded by uncertain labor conditions and de-professionalization. In short, moribund discourses abound about the future of print journalism.

The thread that runs through these depressing stories is the (orthodox) view that print journalism in particular and democracy are inextricably linked. It’s a simple (and perhaps outdated?) idea: news informs us about who we vote for, what to buy, who did what to whom, and the like. In short, news affects public opinion and thus constitutes a ‘fourth estate’. Here to drive this point home are two Princeton economists, Sam Schulhofer-Wohl and Miguel Garrido. Alan D. Mutter has the lowdown, I offer the abstract and my sympathy.

The Cincinnati Post published its last edition on New Year’s Eve 2007, leaving the Cincinnati Enquirer as the only daily newspaper in the market. The next year, fewer candidates ran for municipal office in the suburbs most reliant on the Post, incumbents became more likely to win re-election, and voter turnout fell. We exploit a difference-in-differences strategy – comparing changes in outcomes before and after the Post‘s closure in suburbs where the newspaper covered more or less intensive coverage – and the fact that the Post‘s closing date was fixed 30 years in advance to rule out some non-causal explanations for these results. Although our findings are statistically imprecise, they demonstrate that newspapers – even underdogs such as the Post, which had a circulation of just 27,000 when it closed – can have a substantial and measurable impact on public life.

Schulhofer-Wohl, Sam and Garridoz, Miguel (2009). Do Newspapers Matter? Evidence from the Closure of The Cincinnati Post.  Discussion Papers in Economics, nr. 236 Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

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3 responses

23 03 2009
Janelle Ward

Looks like a really interesting article.

Great blog by the way! 🙂

23 03 2009
Janelle Ward

Forgot to mention – have you seen this? http://tinyurl.com/cmfzg7

23 03 2009
Tom Van Hout

Hi Janelle, thanks for the comments and the interesting Andrew Keen link. My post was partly inspired by Shirky’s post. As much as I am excited about ‘the future of journalism’ with or without newspapers, I fail to understand the logic/sense/optimism in comments like these:

“But in [end] the news will come in a way or the other from the same people who produce them now: governments, political parties, churches, corporation, pr, police and tribunals – they will simply discard the middleman, the journalist (who sometimes discovered and published ‘wrong’ news…) and the Web will rejoyce: at last, the world as it really is !”

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