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Non-Profits Need Eyeballs Too

Ampersand takes the vapidity of Politico's Top 10 Scoops of 2008 -- including such momentous revelations as "John McCain doesn't know how many houses he has" -- as an indictment of for-profit media. He laments all the important stories, like torture and detailed coverage of the candidates' health care plans, that don't get the same kind of coverage, and concludes:

But of course, reporting like that won’t sell papers, or pull in eyeballs, the way simple and fun narratives will. I’m not sure that good reporting is possible, except in erratic sparks, in a profit-driven news model.

In the comments, I replied:

But if the problem is that "it doesn't pull in eyeballs," why think non-profit media are going to do any better? Pulling in eyeballs isn't just some seedy thing for-profit media has to do to make a buck -- it's the whole raison d'etre of media. Presumably the reason we're concerned about the quality of reporting in the for-profit media is that we want Juan Q. Public to read these important stories. A non-profit group may do great investigative reporting on torture, but if hardly anyone reads it, all it does is gratify the consciences of the few enlightened members of its audience. In that case, the problem is the public who won't give their eyeballs to serious stories, not the media who don't offer them what they don't want. [ETA: And this isn't just some condemnation of the unenlightened "sheeple" -- after all, I visit I Can Has Cheezburger much more often than The Nation.]

I think an eyeballs-based critique of for-profit media would have to take a more subtle form. You could say the for-profit media is concerned with getting eyeballs *cheaply* -- Couric's interview with Palin was certainly less expensive to produce than sending a team of reporters to Afghanistan, even if both would get the same amount of eyeballs. Or you could say that for-profit media is *wrong* about what would in fact bring in eyeballs. Or perhaps you could advocate a sort of "brussels sprouts before desert" theory of media -- draw them in with Couric-Palin and hope they'll stay long enough to hear your explanation of health care policy -- which for-profit media wouldn't find as profitable as serving three courses of ice cream for dinner.

(Also, I think we need to differentiate "top scoops" from "top stories." A scoop is a story that one media outlet gets before anyone else -- so the Couric-Palin interview was a scoop in that it was on CBS before anywhere else. The "tiny twinge in our economic health" was the Associated Press's #2 story of the year, but it's not a scoop because every media outlet in the world covered it. So perhaps another eyeball-based critique could be to say that for-profit media is too obsessed with "scoops" that will draw readers from the competition rather than spending time doing a solid job on the stories everyone has.)


Blogger Alon Levy said...

I just don't see how Ampersand's point has anything to do with for-profit news. The public BBC doesn't report any differently on such issues from for-profit CNN.

The point that can be made about the list of scoops is that it's very insiderish: it's tilted toward stories where the media played an integral role, like Couric/Palin, as well as stories that caused a media furor. But even that is to be expected: the list is about the top ten scoops, not the top ten events. The collapse of Eastern Europe's economies was a crucial event, which should change the way we think about development policy, but it came in trickles and consisted of many minor sub-events, so it could never make a top scoop; it can at most make a top analysis piece.

12:07 PM  

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