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Deans in Fantasy Land

Jeff Jarvis ably deconstructs a NYT op-ed in which:

A herd of journalism-school deans wrote a predictable but also naive and possibly dangerous — and certainly not strategically forward-thinking — attack on media cross-ownership and the FCC’s loosening of its rules in today’s Times op-ed page.

They do mean well, and they are not off base on the idea that broadcasting’s former public service component has been tossed overboard in recent times.

Of course, the public service mission they wish for was never all that real in the first place. Perversely, the deans appear to be aiming to “save” local news coverage at organizations whose primary contributions to local journalism — in an era when network affiliates had to be run poorly to make less than 50 percent profit margins — is best summed up in the famous aphorism, “If it bleeds it leads.” Where were they when local new disintegrated into pap in the first place?

Even with that, their op-ed is misguided, as Jeff notes. And their brief dismissal of the Internet is just bizarre.

The rise of digital media means, barring a policy disaster, that we will clearly have enough outlets. The big issues are a) how to create new revenue models to support journalism in this medium, which has no scarcity the way old-time broadcasting did; and b) how to prevent new oligopolists from taking over.

We in the journalism education field need to focus on those topics, not whether future governments will force broadcasters to meet licensing terms written for an era of airwave scarcity.

I’m pleased to see that my new boss at Arizona State University is not on the list of deans who signed this piece.

17 Comments on “Deans in Fantasy Land”

  1. #1 Seth Finkelstein
    on Dec 23rd, 2007 at 12:21 pm

    What about “c) How to prevent NEW oligopolists from taking over”?

    Sigh. Why bother … :-( .

  2. #2 Dan Gillmor
    on Dec 23rd, 2007 at 5:03 pm

    The new gatekeepers you refer to (presumably the fabled “A List” that is not nearly as powerful as you claim) no longer guard the gates erected by scarcity. They can be dislodged.

  3. #3 Delia
    on Dec 23rd, 2007 at 6:18 pm

    re: “They can be dislodged.”

    … and what would *that* solve? you’d just have new *names* but the same flawed system — alliances are formed, interests are protected and fortunes are made (in the name of “serving the people”) — *largely,* that’s the name of the game… Seth is right on this. D.

  4. #4 Seth Finkelstein
    on Dec 23rd, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    Dan, I believe you’re deeply mistaken, they guard gates erected by scarcity, it’s just a NEW GATE! This is at the core my whole dissent from web-evangelism, that it’s as wrong-headed as perpetual motion machines, pyramid schemes, or gambling systems – all appealing concepts which enrich hucksters, but are mathematically nonsense. And do you ever defend the MSM by saying “newspapers can go out of business, and they’re not nearly as powerful as blog-promoters claim”?

    It’s a mathematical fact that per-topic there’s an exponential distribution of attention, i.e. an oligarchy. How much worse are these new gatekeepers going to be if they start out denying that reality? We’re getting very discouraging answer.

  5. #5 Jon Garfunkel
    on Dec 23rd, 2007 at 10:06 pm

    Dan:

    “Brief dismisal of the Internet is bizarre.”
    Here’s what they wrote: “the Internet is great for opinion journalism and for broadening public access to information, though not very good yet as an economic support system for news gathering.”

    And then you followed that with: “The big issues are a) how to create new revenue models to support journalism in this medium…”

    Sounds like you’re saying the same thing.

    A couple of other notes. One, the “six Deans” weren’t the first to brings this up. I’ve been getting emails from a number of activist groups decrying the FCC decision.

    Two, as usual, a very sharp commenter takes a pin-prick to Jarvis’s bloviating. Eric Jaffa wrote: “In New York, Rupert Murdoch already owns both the NY Post and the local Fox station. Are New Yorkers better served by that than if there were different owners?”

    Obviously, this is just one example. But that’s one more than Jarvis gave. And there are more examples to bring up regarding TV/news/web collaborations (Spokane Spokesman-Review comes to mind. It also charges for content.) At some point Jarvis needs to start doing more professing — and less guessing.

  6. #6 Steve Boriss
    on Dec 24th, 2007 at 7:07 am

    I don’t know about all these “gatekeepers” everyone seems so concerned about. There’s only one gatekeeper that really matters, and the j-school deans are as wrong as they can possibly be. I invite everyone to read my post New group forms: ‘J-School Deans Against a Free Press’.

  7. #7 Paul Jones
    on Dec 24th, 2007 at 7:27 am

    See also Leroy Townes’ take on the NYTimes letter at UNC-Chapel Hill.

    Close:

    But even if he is wrong, can’t leading journalism educators come up with a more forward thinking argument than a call for more-of-the-same government regulation?

    Imagine the fun the NY Times headline writer had when he/she labeled the deans’ op ed, “A License for Local Reporting.”

    But one commenter sees the letter as a call for control of media consolidation. If it is, is that a bad thing to restrain?

  8. #8 Jon Garfunkel
    on Dec 24th, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    Paul– Yes, precisely, that’s what’s at stake. Common Cause, Free Press have been pushing this issue for sometime now. It’s mildly amusing to me that this has been transformed into an internecine battle of J-school academics.

    And none of them, as I stated above, have made an effort to summon forth any evidence pointing to specific benefits/drawbacks of cross-ownership. Most of the reactions were derivative of Jarvis’s, not the original piece.

    As to the question, a quick Google search informs me that PEJ has studied this in 2003. In “Does Ownership Matter in Local Television News?” they specifically considered cross-ownership.

    Stations with cross-ownership-in which the parent company also owns a newspaper in the same market-tended to produce higher quality newscasts.

    On the whole, they were more likely to do stories that focused on important community issues, more likely to provide a wide mix of opinions, and less likely to do celebrity and human-interest features. Cross-owned stations were also, however, slightly less enterprising than other stations-perhaps in contrast to the expectation that the combined resources of a newspaper and TV station in collaboration would lead to more.

    They conceded that they were only able to study 6 out of 26 nationwide cross-ownership cases. So it’s possible that this evidence is incomplete, or out-of-date; that’s what should be debated.

    Jon

  9. #9 Dan Gillmor
    on Dec 24th, 2007 at 7:22 pm

    Jon, they did indeed dismiss the issue (using the Net for journalism) with such brief treatment. We’re only saying the same thing to the extent that they have a single mention in a backward-looking piece.

    Instead of dealing withe key issue of serious business models to support online journalism, they call for new regulation of a medium whose business model is going through some big changes, too.

    I’m not against consolidation of traditional media, actually, provided that we ensure some sort of packet-switched system that doesn’t discriminate the way the telcos have announced they intend to discriminate. I am even more vehemently against traditional media getting in bed with the telcos to create a cartel that would make the current concentration seem utterly benign.

    So the FCC is going in double-bad directions here: consolidation of traditional content combined with concentration of access. This is the worst of both worlds — and the fact that the deans couldn’t be bothered to focus on the real threat, assuming they grasp it, is more alarming than anything.

  10. #10 Jon Garfunkel
    on Dec 24th, 2007 at 10:44 pm

    Acknowledged. I am preparing a response– but, under the presumption that Christmas Day may be sacred for you or your readers (ie., free of worrying about online debates)– I’ll hold it for the next 24 hours.

  11. #11 Delia
    on Dec 25th, 2007 at 12:18 am

    Jon,

    While you are at it (well… whenever you get around to posting it) it would be good to know what you think of Seth’s position on this. Thanks!

    Delia

  12. #12 Jon Garfunkel
    on Dec 26th, 2007 at 6:44 am

    Dan,

    The piece was 8 guys trying to cram an argument into 670 words. I can’t imagine how they could be expected to deal with all issues facing journalism today. They were dealing solely with the pressing issue before the FCC.

    That said, they still fumbled. There were so many nuances to this proposal that they ignored. Now that I’ve re-read the column, and re-read the analsysis (from the Stop Big Media coalition), it’s clear that what they were asking for (news coverage as a factor in merger waivers) *was* included in the proposal. They should have addressed the facts of the proposal.

    And Jarvis’s column was similarly just pulled out of the air of his own convictions.

    Good journalism should help the reader learn / act / teach. I took a look at Lemann’s CJR, and found an interview with Mark Cooper, of the Consumer Federation of America, which neatly goes into the issues in depth.

    And here’s the real irony: when you look at it closely, a standard blog post is NO BETTER than a weak column. If “conversation” is supposed to be the prevailing theme in media today, why aren’t many more media innovators doing regular printed interviews? (because it takes much more work than doing a measly blog post.) The Cooper interview was vastly more informative. But since the NYT was bitten by the blog bug, it’s not added any straight interview/conversations to its online Opinion offerings.

    (re: Seth’s point — it’s germane to the larger issues, but I wanted to strictly address the cross-ownership debate here.)

  13. #13 Seth Finkelstein
    on Dec 26th, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    Dan, it seems to me this all sets up an unfalsifiable argument where all articles on these subjects must be about the BigHead’s catechism of how “The Internet” is the only thing which matters and makes everything else immediately obsolete. Otherwise, the article is subject to attack on the very basis itself of not repeating the catechism – i.e. it’s “backwards-looking” or oldthink or the mutterings of dinosaurs or that threatened priesthood trying to keep a hold on their church, you know the drill. Then follow by repeating the catechism.

    Repeat: Is there ANY article that doesn’t hew to that net.Party-Line, that couldn’t be flamed on the basis of not hewing to the net.Party-Line?

    Aren’t there entirely too many blog posts with this sort of canned response, and again, see my point about driving out thoughtful criticism?

    Note this interacts badly with the idea that it’s “early days”, and thus the marketing hype cannot be provisionally examined to see if it’s wrong. That is, anyone pointing out that the optimism has not been validated, e.g. per-topic there’s a few very OldMedia-like sites with enormous power, while in practice NOBODY ELSE GETS HEARD, can be brushed off with a glib dismissive phrase.

    Do you see the logical problems here, the argument structures which are optimized for demagoguery and not thoughtfulness?

  14. #14 Joel
    on Dec 27th, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    Dear Dan:
    I find it disappointing that you followed Jarvis down the rabbit hole on this one.
    Joel

    http://www.democracynow.org/2007/12/26/fcc_michael_copps

  15. #15 Delia
    on Dec 29th, 2007 at 9:21 am

    yeah… again, thoughtful criticism would have been refreshing… D.

    re: http://onlinejournalismblog.blogspot.com/2007/12/thoughtful-criticism-would-have-been.html

  16. #16 Dan Gillmor
    on Dec 29th, 2007 at 4:28 pm

    Joel, the Democracy Now story is not persuasive to me. Why is it to you?

  17. #17 Joel
    on Jan 1st, 2008 at 12:52 pm

    Dan,

    In our current political climate, it would be perilous to cede additional prerogative to the media conglomerates and their operatives on the FCC Commission.

    Commissioner Copps is leading the opposition to this latest attempt to usurp, an oligopolist equivalent of the mythical vampire’s urge to drink blood.

    The Deans spoke up in solidarity with Copps’ cause, and inadvertantly dissed the internet. Jarvis is gainsaying them simply to score points.

    I agree with you both that the importance of traditional media is fading, but most people still form their opinions based on the pablum they are being spoon-fed on TV, radio and in the papers.

    Why make it worse? With the FCC playing Russian roulette with all of our media: broadband, internet, television, radio, newspapers, this is no time to acquiesce on any front.