[Neil Netanel, guest-blogging, May 12, 2008 at 12:42pm] Trackbacks
Online Journalism versus Newspapers:

I greatly appreciate the invitation to guest blog on Volokh Conspiracy about my new book, Copyright's Paradox.

A central theme of my book is that copyright law is no less a part of national media and information policy than are the Telecommunications Act and the First Amendment. In particular copyright serves as a major battleground between digital and traditional media.

Media lawsuits against Google are a prime example. Newspapers have sued the multi-billion dollar upstart over Google News, book publishers have sued over Google Book Search, movie studios over Google's YouTube, and adult magazines over Google Image Search. The outcomes will profoundly impact the shape of the media, how we receive and impart information, news, and opinion, and what types of speech are most salient to the public. Depending on how copyright law is configured, the new media may supplant the old or the traditional incumbents may stifle the new.

I will expand upon copyright's role in a later post. Here I want to focus on newspapers and ask whether we should care about their demise. In a recent article in The New Yorker, Eric Alterman surveys the evidence and concludes that "it no longer requires a dystopic imagination to wonder who will have the dubious distinction of publishing America's last genuine newspaper." As he demonstrates, a primary cause for newspapers' rapid decline in advertising, readers, market value, and, indeed, sense of mission is the Internet.

The Internet makes the daily newspaper look slow and unresponsive. Young people in particular (only 19 percent of Americans under 34 even claim to look at a daily newspaper) prefer to surf the Web and log in to social network sites for up-to-date, easily digestible news bites. Even aside from lost readership, the Internet erodes newspaper advertising revenue. Craigslist has wiped out classified advertising. Online news aggregators, like Google News, usurp much other advertising. And for newspapers, moving online is no panacea; newspaper Web sites benefit from the growth of online advertising, but not nearly enough to replace revenue losses from circulation and print ads.

Not all bemoan newspapers' decline. Many news bloggers and other self-styled online journalists trumpet their superiority over the mass media. Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post "Internet Newspaper," has been particularly relentless in attacking the mainstream news media for what Huffington characterizes as the media's purported prolonged servile acceptance of the Bush Administration's invasion of Iraq and domestic war on terror. And in his seminal book, The Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler argues that peer reporting from a multitude of online speakers does better than traditional news media both at bringing information and opinion to the fore and engendering an activist, autonomous citizenry.

Peer reporting and opinion no doubt form an invaluable component of public discourse, both in and of themselves and for calling traditional news media to brook for its failings. But so-called "news blogs" are valuable primarily as media gadflies and commentators. They do not and cannot substitute for institutional news media in performing the still vital Fourth Estate function.

The blogosphere is largely parasitic on media coverage. Blogs from the Huffington Post on down engage in little original reporting and link to stories from the mainstream press far more than to other blogs. Online opinion also appears to be highly fractured and balkanized. Conservative and liberal bloggers, for example, rarely link to blogs across the political divide --- and even when they do, views from opposing camps can generally be found only by following a link; unlike newspaper op-eds and letters to the editor, they are not interspersed side by side.

Bloggers also lack the financial resources for investigative reporting and fact-checking that mass media enjoy. Even the relatively well-heeled, The Huffington Post removes erroneous blog posts only after the fact if it receives a round of reader complaints. It does not commit to reviewing posts before posting (except perhaps for the posts on its home page). There are exceptions, like the largely user-contribution-financed Talking Points Memo, but I don't see these as a scalable model to take the place of the institutional press.

I wholeheartedly (but sadly) agree with media critics that the press miserably fails to live up to its fourth estate ideal. But the judgment we must make in evaluating flawed instititions is always "As compared to what?" Even with its flaws, the institutional press has the ability to serve — and aspires to serve — fourth estate functions that individual bloggers do not and cannot.

So while bloggers make an invaluable contribution to public discourse, their contribution is different than that of the institutional press. I think we need both.