All the News That's Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News/Audience Economics: Media Institutions and the Audience Marketplace/Toward a Political Economy of Culture: Capitalism and Communication in the Twenty-First Century

Article excerpt

Books Hamilton, James T. (2004). All the News that's Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, pp. 344.

Napoli, Phillip M. (2004). Audience Economics: Media Institutions and the Audience Marketplace. New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 256.

Calabrase, Andrew and Colin Sparks (2003). Toward a Political Economy of Culture: Capitalism and Communication in the Twenty-First Century. Boulder, CO: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Eleven years ago when Market-Driven Journalism: Let the Citizen Beware? was published, I thought the reaction would be a resounding "Duuuuuh. Everyone already knows that!"

But what seemed so obvious to me as a refugee from a newspaper career appeared patently ridiculous to many, if not most, American media scholars, particularly those who had never worked in a newsroom. The idea of treating news as a business, and the newscast or paper as an economic product responsive to markets, was dismissed as "economic reductionism" of the worst sort.

Professional journalists, I was told, insulate news from narrow business pressures. And professional managers ameliorate, rather than enforce, the short-term profit demand of owners and shareholders. In any case, markets are the free and natural means of connecting supply with demand. In markets we Americans trust, for news as well as almost everything else.

So it's particularly satisfying to see U.S. scholars finally addressing the rogue elephant in the newsroom. The Europeans, versed in Marx, saw the conflict between business' goal of maximizing profit and journalism's goal of maximizing public understanding much earlier.

In All the News That's Fit to Sell, Professor James T. Hamilton of Duke University's Sanford Institute of Public Policy uses economic theory to explain a number of the news media's principal failings. Borrowing from Anthony Down's 1957 classic An Economic Theory of Democracy, Hamilton describes "rational ignorance" as the root cause of the under-reporting of important political news. The public has little interest in political information because it has so little ability to influence government policy; it's not worth the time to stay informed. If the market doesn't demand it, news businesses won't provide it.

Another economic factor undermining public affairs reporting is the effort to add readers or viewers at the margins of the news audience. The effort to recruit new customers shifts news topics in a "softer" direction-toward more feature reporting. Those features are tailored not for the average citizen, nor even the typical news consumer, but for those the news organization is most interested in attracting-those with the best customer potential-younger and upscale individuals.

Investigative reporting is rare not just because of its cost relative to, say, copying the description of a crime from the police blotter, but because once a story is reported, competing news organizations can also publish it and collect some of the benefit without participating in the expense of digging up the information.

What to do? Hamilton proposes four broad remedies:

* First, government should reduce the cost of reporting information about public affairs. Enhance the Freedom of Information Act and publish more government records on the Web.

* Second, nonprofits should produce more of the raw material of serious news by assuming or sharing the cost of researching public issues with news media.

* Third, the development of professional norms should be encouraged among journalists.

* Fourth, adjust copyright laws to put more information in the public domain sooner.

I've been longing for reliable, intuitively satisfying measures of the level of market-orientation of various news media. The empirical studies Hamilton describes in his middle chapters left me with lots of questions. And I suspect undergrade might find these chapters hard going. …


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