Tilting at Windmills

March/ April/ May 2014 A bygone age … The unraveling … Faith in institutions

By Nicholas Lemann

The prospect of replacing interest group liberalism with something that was better targeted at the needs of the country, and also more effective, was deeply alluring. In those days we were about as distant from the heyday of the New Deal as the 1970s are from us today; you’d still see white-haired former aides to FDR (Joseph Rauh, Thomas Corcoran) wandering around the streets of downtown Washington. They had come to town to do good and had stayed to do well, and now it was time to sweep their old corrupted structures away and create new, purer ones. This was also the long-forgotten heyday of Ralph Nader as a super-respectable figure, who had an initiative staffed by bright young people aimed at reforming just about every department and agency of the government. Deregulating industries, using the power of markets to make government work better, embracing technology, targeting government social programs on people who really needed them, helping consumers rather than politically connected businesses, taking down trade barriers, reducing the power of the Democratic Party establishment and the labor unions, orienting government toward the public interest rather than toward interest groups—all of this was our dream.

I don’t mean to renounce these ideas entirely, but in retrospect they present a couple of problems. First, we had too much faith in the ability of people like us, smart and well-intentioned upper-middle-class (defined by family background, not by what the Monthly paid) Washington liberals, to determine what was and wasn’t a genuine social need. Our scorn for interest group liberalism led us to undervalue the process of people organizing themselves and pushing the political system to give them what they wanted from it. Second, we failed to anticipate the way that eliminating all those structures that struck us as outdated—the government bureaucracies, the seniority system in Congress, the old-line interest groups—would almost inevitably wind up working to the advantage of elites more than of the ordinary people on whose behalf we imagined ourselves to be advocating. The frictionless, disintermediated, networked world in which we live today is great for people with money and high-demand skills, not so great for everybody else. It’s a cruel irony of the Monthly’s history that our preferred label for ourselves, neoliberal, has come to denote political regimes maximally friendly to the financial markets. I’ve come to see the merits of the liberal structures I scorned in my younger days.

The unraveling

The recent history of journalism makes for a good example of what happens when society becomes less structured. In this case technology, especially the Internet, has been the main driver of change. As in many other realms—personal finance, telephone service, entertainment, and air travel, just for starters—the playing field has been rearranged in ways that advantage consumers, and there’s something undeniably attractive about that. I have constant open access to virtually everything in the world produced by a news organization (paywalls are not only rare, but also porous), which makes my life as a reader of news better than I ever could have imagined. But there is inevitably a trade-off between the interests of consumers and the interests of producers. The world of journalism online, thus far, has been so disadvantageous to traditional professional producers of news that they have had to reduce their staffs far beyond the literal meaning of the word “decimated” (reduced by a tenth). Information produced by volunteers and surfaced by search algorithms can fill some of the gap, but not all. So we’re now entering a world where the free and easy access we have to news is reducing the quantity and quality of news we have access to.

I think this situation is more dire than most people realize. Professional journalism has been supported overwhelmingly by advertising, not subscriptions or newsstand sales. In the pre-Internet days, commercial publishers would amass a large audience, often at a financial loss, and sell advertisers access to it. It wasn’t crazy for them to assume that far larger nonpaying audiences, assembled online, could lead to an advertising bonanza. But that didn’t happen. The reason is that most online readers are getting their news in the form of individual stories, which they are far likelier to have found through a search engine, an aggregator, or a social network than by going to a news organization’s site. If a big newspaper’s notionally enormous audience actually consists mainly of people who are spending just a few seconds looking at one disconnected story, then it’s hard to persuade advertisers to pay a lot of money to reach the paper’s entire audience, as they do in print.

Unstructuring tends to produce concentrations of power. Something like three-quarters of all digital advertising revenue goes to just two companies, Google and Facebook. Yes, it’s true that the smarter online-only news organizations, like Slate and BuzzFeed and Huffington Post, have figured out how to produce much higher ratios of audience to staff than the traditional, print- or broadcast-based news organizations. But keep in mind that as large as their audiences are, they are only a fraction the size of Google’s and Facebook’s—and those companies don’t create any journalistic content at all, they just focus on building a massive distribution system. Online news achieves its big numbers, in substantial part, by sending stories out on Google’s and Facebook’s vast networks, but that means Google and Facebook have the ability to sell advertisers access to any news organization’s audience, at a lower price. It’s not an accident that no online journalism organization has yet had the confidence in its present and future economic fortunes to organize itself into a publicly held corporation and sell shares (which would mean also releasing data about its economic performance) on the open market.

Limits of the market

Journalists starved for good news have been cheering about Ezra Klein’s departure from the Washington Post for Vox Media, to start a policy-oriented site. The hosannas are a tribute to the quality of Wonkblog, the site Klein built at the Post, and also to a deep collective yearning for the elusive new business model for online to arrive. Maybe this is it!

It’s great that Klein, and others, have demonstrated that a more substantive, policy-oriented form of journalism, if executed with authority and flair, can attract large audiences. This kind of journalism has always been a cause of the Washington Monthly’s. But I’m not persuaded, thus far, that his venture will make money. One very smart businessman, Jeff Bezos, the Post’s new owner, must have thought it wouldn’t, or he would have signed on to Klein’s proposal to make the new venture an internal project of the Post’s. It’s also not a positive development that journalism, like a wide range of other fields including finance, technology, law, and even academe, seems to be developing its own version of superstar economics, in which a handful of the most talented people pull away from the mass of their professional colleagues. Organization gives journalism a significant measure of its power to do good; that’s why Klein wanted more resources from the Post.

Nicholas Lemann a Washington Monthly contributing editor, is dean emeritus at Columbia Journalism School and a staff writer for The New Yorker.

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