Thursday, November 27, 2014
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Don’t Save the Press

LJUBLJANA - Throughout history, political leaders have supported existing communication technologies in order to defend the system in which they rule. Today, too, governments may be tempted to protect newspapers and public TV on the pretext of “saving democracy as we know it.” But efforts to block technological change have been futile in the past, and they would be unwise today. Instead, the political system (and the media) must adapt to the new reality.

Faced with an existential crisis as new technologies lure away their readers and viewers, traditional news media – just like bankers, car manufacturers, and solar electricity producers – are increasingly turning to governments for help. But, such is the undertone, their cause is nobler. The media are a cornerstone of democracy. Left to the blogs and tweets, without journalists to report the news, how can citizens decide what politics to support?

Such thinking reflects an age-old fear: as Plato put it, citizens would get “ information without proper instruction and, in consequence, be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant .” It is a fear that has echoed down through history ever since, from the Catholic Church cursing Gutenberg’s movable type to the Victorian bourgeois complaining of the newly discovered freedom of the press.

Political rulers, too, have never liked new communication technology, because the political system in which they rule is adapted to the existing technology. Scarcity of parchment required all decision-making to be concentrated in a court consisting of a handful of people. When cheap paper and printing presses – the first true mass-communication technology – challenged this system, the Catholic Church and the monarchs defended the parchment-based monopoly. They failed.

Print, paper, and newspapers enabled the rise of new types of political systems based on expanded popular participation. The transition was not smooth, but those who understood the signs of the times early gained a historical head start. It is not a coincidence that Benjamin Franklin had a background in printing and newspaper publishing. The liberal-democratic political system that resulted from the American Revolution was well aligned with the emerging information technology of the time.

In the “scarce bandwidth” media of the past, in which space and time were limited, the media had to select stories worthy of reporting. Mass media could report few big stories in which a few big actors took center stage. In stories about politics, these big actors were political parties.

Indeed, it is not just traditional mass media that are in trouble. High-circulation newspapers correlate with high-circulation political parties. We are right, they are left; we think this, they think that: condensed narratives fit easily on a newspaper’s front page or into the tighter constraints of broadcast journalism.

This created a mutually reinforcing symbiosis between the old mass media and old mass political movements, one hostile to the entry of new players. Newspapers and broadcast organizations, like political parties, were expensive to set up, but, once established, they benefited from economies of scale – operating costs remained relatively fixed as circulation (or party membership) grew. They maintain a keen interest in the public’s eyes and ears – and thus in each other.

Unfortunately for both, their main strengths – transmitting information and connecting people – happen to be what the Internet does best. Blogs and social-networking platforms encourage seamless, cost-free association – the most efficient form of organization imaginable. No newspaper or broadcast news program can hope to report on what every Facebook group is up to.

So it probably would not take much for politicians to be persuaded that the press is essential to democracy, and that its survival – like that of public television in many countries – depends on government support. Advertising revenue would be replaced by government subsidies, raising predictable questions about the impact on content.

The alternative is to focus on what communication technology cannot do: create rather than transmit a good story or a good policy. There will always be a market for quality. The disruption caused by emerging communications technologies consists in the fact that the best pens may not be on the staffs of newspapers, and that policies need not be formulated only in the corridors of government.

In 1990s, Bill Gates said, “In the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” Deciding whom to empower, and whom to allow to participate, rather than deciding to save the existing media technology, will determine the future of political parties and the systems in which they govern.

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