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A plethora of beats

Gene Expression
By Razib Khan
Apr 7, 2013 5:43 PMOct 21, 2019 8:15 PM


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In the recent past the standard model of information distribution was one that had a few top-down nodes. There was print, television, and radio. Journalists collected a salary from the institution (obviously there were prominent exceptions in the form of famous columnists, but these were numerically not significant), which tasked them with specific beats. This traditional model is coming under great pressure, and to some extent dissolving. I don't keep track of journalism, as such, because I'm not a professional journalist.* But it's hard to avoid the headlines which chronicle layoffs, as well as the reality that professional journalist's are being undercut by high quantity and (often) low quality content. Combining this with the fact that the null model of a free internet in terms of media access is likely to be undermined quite rapidly in the near future, and we're in for some restructuring and updating of expectations.

One change has been the rise of subscription only emails by several young journalists. I subscribe to Conor Friedersdorf's The Best of Journalism. Now in a recent conversation with Michael Brendan Dougherty Friedersdorf describes the former's baseball newsletter, The Slurve.

Why would anyone subscribe to these services, when as Friedersdorf observes there's a high proportion of links to free content? Friedersdorf himself wonders about the sustainability of this model of journalism as the gates close down on free sources of content. The latter does not seem that large of a concern to me. First, the pool of information from which one can draw upon across the internet is enormous (it seems likely that the BBC will be free for the indefinite future). Second, many websites are designed to be semi-permeable. If Friedersdorf has a subscription to The New York Times his links will offer free access to his subscribers. From what I have read this form of price discrimination by The New York Times has been moderately successful, and The Washington Post is looking to reproduce the model. What's going to disappear is a one-size-fits-all menu. Some will be consumers of massive quantities of media, and they'll pay a fair amount for that. Others will rely upon institutions and curators, and they will pay a moderate amount for that. Others will put in labor hours to engage in their own filtering in lieu of payment. The monetization of personal curation seems somewhat novel. But there's nothing new here; journalists have always curated with their own "beats." To a large extent a blog is a form of curation for which many get paid. The content is much different. In some ways paid newsletters resemble the journals put out by one individual in the 19th century (e.g., Brownson's Quarterly Review). The difference is the nature of the distribution. The great centralization of corporate media through mergers and acquisitions is now being subject to a countervailing force, as individuals create personalized brands which they can monetize with widely available commodity technology. It is part of the same set of forces which is leading to the maturation of 3-D printing.

* There is recurrent debate on whether I am, or am not, a journalist. If I am, it's of an accidental kind, implying that I don't reflect deeply on journalism in a way that self-identified journalists would.

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