How Long Can Blogs Survive as Parasites of the MSM?

Sunday’s New York Times published a thoughtful and balanced essay, “Bad News,” about the decline of the Mainstream Media, with special attention paid to the issues of political polarization, media bias and the role of blogs. (If all you care about is blogs, jump to page 5.)

Author Richard A. Posner, a federal judge, law school professor and blogger, addresses a number of critical blog-related issues — contrasting the error-correcting machinery of blogs vs. that of the MSM, for instance — but raises one in particular that has concerned me, a former member of the MSM:

The bloggers are parasitical on the conventional media. They copy the news and opinion generated by the conventional media, often at considerable expense, without picking up any of the tab. The degree of parasitism is striking in the case of those blogs that provide their readers with links to newspaper articles. The links enable the audience to read the articles without buying the newspaper. The legitimate gripe of the conventional media is not that bloggers undermine the overall accuracy of news reporting, but that they are free riders who may in the long run undermine the ability of the conventional media to finance the very reporting on which bloggers depend.

Who can deny it? Bloggers are parasites. Where would Virginia’s emerging digital media be without the MSM publishing online news and commentary that we can link to and respond to? In Virginia, a handful of e-zines — Bacon’s Rebellion, Augusta Free Press, Virginia News Source — provide a modicum of reporting, but it pales in comparison to the breadth and depth of news coverage provided by Virginia’s daily newspapers. As for that sub-species of digital media we call blogs, only a handful have created “news” content of any kind.

It is tempting for bloggers to cackle at the newspapers’ declining circulations and their own rising readerships, but the status quo cannot sustain itself indefinitely. Virginia newspapers are business enterprises. As circulation declines and ad revenues stagnate, newspapers are cutting resources dedicated to gathering news. More critically for blogs, newspapers are restricting the unfettered access to their online offerings. At some point, Virginia blogs must contemplate a future in which readers must pay to access MSM material online, thus negating much of the blogs’ value. What, then, will the blogs do?

One might observe, rightfully, that blogs do create original content. Occasionally, bloggers provide eye-witness accounts of political events. Increasingly, political campaigns are taking blogs seriously — witness Tim Kaine’s first-ever blog conference. Without question, Virginia political blogs have begun functioning as filters for campaign press releases, often beating the MSM to publication. But masticating press releases is essentially passive. For the most part, we aren’t digging up the news, we’re simply digesting scraps of the news that we stumble across or that are handed to us. We are adding to the body of knowledge, but not comprehensively enough to be considered a credible “news” source.

Ultimately, I believe, digital media needs to create its own content and its own economic base. That means (a) charging subscriptions (a non-starter), (b) generating advertising, (c) raising money through sponsorships and foundation grants, and/or (d) sharing resources. If this is not a topic that we can discuss in the upcoming Sorenson Institute blog conference, perhaps it is one that can be considered in a follow-up assembly.

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  1. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Shortly after I posted this entry, I read Barnie Day’s item describing how his column published in Bacon’s Rebellion and other digital outlets, along with his post on this blog, has prompted Virginia’s congressional delegation to confront the disparities in benefits paid to Virginia veterans. All Hail Barnie and the power of the digital media. Clearly, we (collectively speaking) are beginning to exercise an influence. However, I would hasten to add that Barnie’s crusade originated from a piece of reporting by the Chicago Sun Times.

    It is a miracle of our time that Barnie Day, living in Meadows of Dan can have such an impact — without ever leaving Patrick County! The rise of digital media made that possible. But the miracle lasts only as long as Barnie enjoys unfettered access to state and national news published by the Mainstream Media.

  2. Barnie Day Avatar
    Barnie Day

    Jim: intriguing post, and one we must contemplate. I would point out, however, that much of the MSM–especially broadcast media, but much of the print media, too–is also parasitical in nature. When I was at the J-School at UNC (BA, 1975) most of the national political reporting agenda was set by Scotty Reston, R. W. Apple and one or two others at The New York Times–and everyone else took their cues from them, even to the point of waiting until Reston and Co. wrote their leads before writing their own stories for distribution to the hinterlands across the country. To a certain extent this is still the case–and a model replicated in state house press rooms–though some of the players have changed. Broadcast journalism has rarely been more than a rip-and-read/talking head proposition. The other point I would make his this: The ‘business’ of journalism the good judge lays out for us is a two-edged sword. Advertising pays the rent–but it is sometimes the landlord, too.

  3. Jim Bacon Avatar
    Jim Bacon

    Barnie, Points well taken.

    Your allusion to the broadcast media raises an interesting point. Perhaps I’m revealing my own elitist snobbism here, but the broadcast media does not seem to be much of a factor in Virginia journalism. I never watch television news, and I rarely see Virginia television referred to in the blogs as having ever said anything noteworthy. Obviously, millions of Virginians do rely upon TV for their news, and politicians crave air time, so TV’s influence cannot be discounted. But I can’t remember the last time that Television News actually broke a story of consequence. Can you?

  4. Will Vehrs Avatar
    Will Vehrs

    Blogging would indeed be severely constrained if MSM digital content were not available.

    I have always been sensitive to the fact that the MSM, for all the grief they take, provide the starting point for most discussions of the news and the issues. That’s why I rarely post extended excerpts from original content and usually try to credit the reporter and always the columnist by name.

    We’re going to have some MSM types at the summit and it will be interesting to get their perspectives on the issues Jim raises and Barnie expanded. Maybe we’ll develop the parasite’s pledge ….

  5. Barnie Day Avatar
    Barnie Day

    Well said, Will. I, too, am hyper-sensitive about crediting MSM stuff I lift. I’d go slow on the parasite’s pledge. Serious blogging may well be what saves the MSM. We have two good models. Television was supposed to have killed radio, and HBO was supposed to have been the end of The Big Screen. The chaff will separate out downstream. Serious blogging may actually revive the MSM long-term.

  6. I think bloggers add more value than the MSM realizes. Yes, a blogger may cause 50,000 readers to click through to a free article on a newspaper website. However 49,998 of those people never would have read the article otherwise. The question MSM has to answer is how do they capitalize on that readership? I’m not sure I have the answer, but I’m confident that it does not involve subscriptions and locking down access to the site.

  7. Ray Hyde Avatar

    Is MSM going the copyright violation path that the music industry has?

    Will we one day all be singing the same tune?

  8. subpatre Avatar

    Posner’s pulling a smoke-n-mirrors update of what we heard when radio was new, then later when television was young. Variations include broadcast crying about cable, and cable crying about satellite. Now they’re crying about blogging.

    Heaven help us all if this is typical analysis, the deep thoughts, of our federal judges and law professors. We’ll need Jack Handey* or Dave Barry to rescue us!

    We use newspapers as a standard because it is; print media is thousands of years old. The term standard carries no assurance of accuracy, it’s a relative measure like the density of air or hardness of rubber. Though printed newspaper is only slightly younger than Gutenberg, the term rag is almost as old too.

    Main-Stream Media (MSM) is losing readership because its content is irrelevant or opposed to it’s customers’ interests; because the medias’ idea of mainstream isn’t really mainstream.

    It’s true that anyone with a computer and some time can setup a weblog to snipe at the medias’ inaccuracy, its bias, its distortions, and its sins of commission and omission. There’s hundreds that have done this. It’s also true that if MSM didn’t make so many gross errors, there’d be far fewer weblogs highlighting the facts.

    *Author of Deep Thoughts© : “Probably the earliest flyswatters were nothing more than some sort of striking surface attached to the end of a long stick.”

  9. KathyinBlacksburg Avatar

    I agree with Barnie. So much of what appears is unoriginal rehash of AP wire stories or rips from other papers. Some investigative series appear. But for the most part, they do not “speak the truth to power” as investigative work once did. Had it not been for blogs and progresive websites, most people still woudn’t know how Americans were mislead about Iraq. stories appeared in the MSM here and there. The blogosphere put pressure on the MSM, which, ultimately, couldn’t ignore everything. Of course, they sopped up the Swift Boat lies. But, except for Seymour Hersh, and a few others, traditional journalists did not serve the public well.

  10. Becky Dale Avatar
    Becky Dale

    Blogger Sean Sirrine has interesting comments on Posner’s column. Here’s the last paragraph:
    “It is the traditional media that is the free rider; they are getting something without any cost to themselves that is inherently valuable. They get to see the instantaneous reaction of the public to their work in the form of blog critiques without paying a cent. They get free advertising from both their supporters and their opponents in the form of links to their articles without having to advertise themselves. The biggest benefit they derive for free is that they can continue to move towards the two political bases without having to attack the politically powerful. They can report a story from an objective standpoint, and then follow it up later by remarking on how the blogosphere has responded to the story. This new news format gives the traditional news media safety from reprisal while allowing them to trend towards a more ideological viewpoint. With all the free stuff they are getting from blogs, the traditional media shouldn’t be complaining about the entry of blogs into the news media, they should be paying us.”

    Here’s link to the whole posting:

    (If anyone would like to tell me how to make clickable links in these comments, I would love to know.)

  11. I read a lot of law blogs. I don’t know that they rely much on the MSM, although they certainly talk about the MSM. Even if “the news” becomes pay-per-view, “the law” is increasingly less so – all of Posner’s opinions in recent years are online for free. The blawgers often know not just a little bit a lot more about their areas of expertise than most of the MSM – e.g., Matt Conigliaro on the Terri Schiavo case, Lawrence Lessig and Randy Barnett on their Supreme Court cases, Evan Schaeffer on Vioxx litigation, and many others of greater or lesser unknown.

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