“With The Utmost Respect”, the Model is Broken
At this very moment, the only reason the West has news of any kind of the turbulence within Iran is due to the individual initiative of members of that community – powered by the Internet. Rather than celebrate the wonderous power of free riding, driven by the Invisible Hand to overcome the concerted effort of government censorship Gary Becker and Richard Posner have chosen to post an article on their blog wringing their hands over the likely demise of the newspaper industry. Their argument seems to be that, precisely because newspapers are becoming increasingly irrelevant and cost-ineffective, the legislature should step in and disrupt the rest of the economy in order to perserve them. The solution they pose is that consumers should pay more in order to preserve an inefficient industry past its use by date. This is no solution at all.
In essence, their proposal is to take a leaf out of feudalism, randomly taking rights from citizens for the benefit of Newspaper Barons. The right they propose to take is, quite literally, the right to give directions to others. Under their dystopia linking would be illegal – that would be like making it illegal in Real Life to tell someone where the nearest school, or hospital is. Such a proposal in the real world is so exceedingly bizarre no one would have the courage to float it in public, let alone posit it as a serious option. That such a proposal can today be put forward at all indicates not only how completely disconnected from reality has copyright ideology become, but also how far that ideology, with its unhealthy obsession with demonising legal, justifiable, laudable free riding has permeated “official” opinion. It is also testament to the far reaching power of copyright feudalism.
If newspapers serve no function they should be left to rot, or be shot. The people they employ should be assisted to transition into a new world where they get paid like everyone else. Some will thrive and some will falter and these are unlikely to be the same as thrived and faltered under the old model. The world survived well enough before newspapers and I cannot see any reason why the world will not fare equally well in a future without them. As is the case for news from Iran at the moment, there is no reason to think the absence of newspapers will result in the absence of news, or of opinion. I did not go to a newspaper to read Becker and Posner’s article. I read it where they published it – on their blog. I went to them because I trust them to have an opinion as experts (notwithstanding that I find their approach affronting). They’re both clever men, whose time is valuable. Somehow they don’t seem to notice that they have managed to publish a piece of some non-trivial effort, despite not being supported by advertising (if it is there it is pretty subtle). Depressingly, they serve as an obvious counter-example to their own argument.
Moreover, I can’t see my quality of life changing noticeably if I were never to read another newspaper (Nassim Nicolas Taleb has a similar view). I do not, for example, have any newspaper in my list of rss feeds. This is not to say I won’t have news or opinion, but, rather, that I will get it from a better source than a newspaper. The “news” of today is such that it can be summarised in a ticker along the bottom of CNN. To lose it is no loss. The news of tomorrow will be more tangential and more relevant, closer and more distanced, more nuanced and more blunt. It will be all those things because individuals are all producing news and perspectives on everything. It is astounding to realise that there still exist people who think content creation stops in the absence of some Media Baron guiding it.
Becker and Posner’s proposal is not so much a proposal in favour of newspapers, as an attack on the individual rights of journalists. Rather than saying that journalists ought to be able to compete with each other in an open market, they are in effect crueling the free market and, as a consequence, requiring that journalists be indentured to newspapers. The natural consequence of their proposal is that a small number of places will become valuable as aggregation sources. Over time it will cost journalists dearly in order to have access to a market through those aggregation sources. The Becker-Posner proposal would be better placed in those societies which believe that individual initiative should count for nothing, and that the only actions individuals should embark on are those permitted by their betters.
No doubt they would charge for a link to the place where you get a linking licence.
[PS: 5 Feb 2011: the answer to their criticism about how to fund investigative journalism now seems somewhat ridiculous in light of Wikileaks – which has demonstrated the relative uselessness of newspapers as revealers (as opposed to disseminators).]