Home > Uncategorized > “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Bloggers? Just Read My Post”–The Economics of Online Newspapers

“The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Bloggers? Just Read My Post”–The Economics of Online Newspapers

     The academic Internet exploded today (everyone else: “Wait, there’s an academic Internet?”) when Naomi Schaefer Riley, a higher-education journalist and blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Brainstorm,” published a screed against a handful of Black Studies dissertations which she posted under this tell-all, if ultimately misleading, title: “The Most Persuasive Case for Eliminating Black Studies? Just Read the Dissertations” (Riley, in fact, has not read any of these dissertations, a fact she is oddly proud of in her reply to critics).

    Part of what galled Riley’s critics was the response by the CHE’s editor, Liz McMillen, who hoped that readers would take this egregiously ill-informed post as an opportunity for rigorous discussion: “I urge readers instead to view this posting as an opportunity—to debate Riley’s views, challenge her, set things straight as you see fit.” McMillen makes no mention that a discussion built around such a flawed argument can hardly rise above its risible source material, but her plea for discussion, rather than an apology or retraction, was interpreted by readers as pandering for exactly the type of Internet explosion and enormous view counts for the website that the post produced (the topic of Black Studies and Riley’s critique rule the “Most Commented” sidebar of the CHE’s homepage). By emphasizing that Riley, as a blogger, is not a staff member and thus “does not represent the views of the staff or of the newspaper” lets McMillen have her cake and eat it to: the view counts pour in, but the newpaper’s reputation remains unvarnished.

     This episode highlights what appears to be a growing dilemma in the sustainability and legitimacy of online journalism as compared to print journalism. With print journalism, you bought the whole package every time you purchased the paper: news, opinion, sports, business, comics—they were all there together. This meant the reputation of each section and article rose and suffered with the quality of the rest (OK, maybe not the comics). A business section that delighted in tabloid reporting would inevitably be a drain on the reputation of the news section. And because readers made this purchase deliberately and almost daily before they could actually review its contents, their purchase relied heavily on the overall reputation of that paper. They weren’t purchasing that day’s paper—they were purchasing the expectation for that day’s paper based on its previous editions.

     Online newspapers, like online music and just about everything else taking place on the Internet, is much more fragmented—articles posted on their website share no physical context with other articles posted that day. The “success,” or popularity, of an article can be almost entirely separated from its publisher, and readers can dip into a newspaper’s website for one article before flying away without interest—or page count and ad revenue— being generated for any other of that paper’s pieces.

     This applies pressure on newspaper economics in two ways: one, newspapers can concern themselves less with the overall reputation of their enterprise because articles are less physically tied to them. This pressure is compounded with the rise of newspaper “bloggers” (the NYTimes’s “Opinionator” section, for example), which, like Riley, have only quasi-institutional status—they generate interest in the paper without actually “representing” the CHE in any meaningful way. The other pressure is that newspapers cannot rely on their reputation to generate as much revenue as before—people now have a menu of newspaper articles every day at their fingertips, and newspapers now have to produce the type of work that will generate the high-volume Internet traffic that attracts advertisers. This pressure is compounded by the fact that there is no personal consequence or payment connected with a viewer clicking on a link of the latest screed or polemic igniting the blogosphere—where we might have dumped an inferior paper into the trash, rueing the $1.50 we spent on it and promising to never buy that paper again, we just close the tab and move on. With view counts and links ruling the economics of online journalism, a newspaper—even one that strives for a high online reputation—can benefit financially from their website producing one of these polemics every now and then more than their reputation can be hurt by them.

     This doesn’t mean that reputation or newspapers or journalistic integrity don’t matter anymore. What it does mean, I think, is that will continue to see a rise of online bloggers as a sort of “shadow journalism” to a newspapers regular content, providing the opinions and subjective perspective that readers tend to find, if not more inflammatory, certainly more readable. This is also not to deny the journalistic integrity and careful writing of many bloggers out there—I, for one, find “Brainstorm” and “Opinionator” insightful and informative. But only occasionally. And I think that’s how these papers like it.

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