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How the government can save journalism

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Could Mark Zuckerberg save the news?

A surprising number of people who should know better seem to think he should. As The Atlantic reports, at a recent confab with news editors and executives in Palo Alto, the Facebook CEO revealed himself not only as someone who doesn't understand journalism, but who is "hostile to the press as a democratic institution." Why? Because Facebook, one of the largest media companies in the world, doesn't curate its content, but outsources that function to every individual user. What gets seen on Facebook is what people want to share, not what they need to know.

Worse yet, while Zuckerberg professed to care deeply about investigative journalism, he sees no role for his company in helping finance it. Asked whether he would pay licensing fees to publishers of content shared on Facebook, Zuckerberg replied, "I'm not sure that makes sense." And Facebook's response to allegations that it helped spread misinformation and outright lies and conspiracy theories during the 2016 election has been to change their algorithm to de-emphasize news altogether, further hurting publishers' bottom lines.

Instead, Zuckerberg passed the buck, suggesting that there might be a need for the government to subsidize journalism, as Britain does with the BBC.

It sounds like standard corporate dodging of responsibility. But that doesn't mean it's wrong. Facebook may be part of what broke the media. But fixing it may indeed require the government to make sure journalism gets paid for.

While Facebook has definitely made things worse for journalism, its problems far predate the advent of social media. News organizations have been shrinking for 20 years, and while more of the largest elite media companies have experienced a recent bump in subscriptions, and are investing more in reporting, much of the news landscape remains flat on its back. The internet itself is to blame for disrupting the vertical integration of the newspaper business that bundled investigative journalism with classified ads, box scores, and film reviews. Those things still come in a bundle, but that bundle is called internet access — and the companies who own the cables and cell towers have neither incentive nor obligation to subsidize investigative journalism. Social media didn't start the fight; it just delivered the coup de grace.

Ultimately, Facebook is a terrible way to get your news, so we should be happy it's trying to get out of the business of news dissemination. But the reason it was able to do so much damage is that media organizations had already retooled for an internet ecology in which individual pieces have to advertise themselves in order to get seen — an ecology of clickbait. The problem isn't that ad dollars aren't being downstreamed. The problem is that it will never be possible to generate enough ad revenue from the kind of journalism we need for a healthy democracy. Which means we have to fund it some other way.

How? One answer is through subscription revenue, which Megan McArdle, in a recent column, argued is the wave of the future. It certainly is the wave of the present — but it's only a possible future for a handful of elite media companies, and escalating subscription prices suggest it's a future where high-quality journalism is only available to an elite slice of the public. How can journalism inform the citizenry if most people can't afford to read it? And how can these organizations avoid catering to the sensibilities of this narrow slice of the public when that slice is paying the bills?

Which brings us back to Zuckerberg's allusion to some kind of subsidy. With Donald Trump in the White House, anyone should be wary of the idea that what America needs is state-sponsored media. Fox News is bad enough. Ultimately, if we want a robust free press, we can't expect the government to pay for it.

But the government could still make sure it's paid for.

When radio and then television first came on the scene, the government required broadcasters to devote a certain amount of time to programming that was in the public interest, like news, as a condition of licensure. The companies who own the last-mile connection to the consumer — corporations like Comcast, Spectrum, Verizon, and AT&T that own the cables, fiber, and cell towers that bring stories to your phone, tablet, or laptop — are in a similar position to the broadcasters of old, inasmuch as they are using a scarce public good (rights of way, slices of spectrum) to provide a private service. Why couldn't the government require them to provide some kind of public service in return?

One way to do that would be to require such companies to spend a specified percentage of revenue on journalism that serves the public interest.

This would effectively be a tax, and would be passed on to consumers. But it would not require the government to be involved in running or directly funding a news service. It wouldn't even necessarily require a government-chartered independent organization like the BBC. Meanwhile, demand for internet access is likely inelastic enough to support a fairly stable revenue stream. People might switch from cable to satellite, or drop cable television in favor of streaming, but how many people would respond to a modest price hike by ditching their smart phones?

In effect, a regulation requiring that last-mile service providers spend a certain amount on journalism would forcibly recreate the vertical integration that the internet destroyed in the first place. Once again, a public service would be bundled with other content that people are more interested in paying for. And they certainly pay enough to fund a lot of journalism. Comcast's annual revenue in 2017 was approximately $85 billion. When The New York Times subscription revenue topped $1 billion last year, that made headlines.

Such a regulation would certainly not be a panacea. What constitutes journalism that serves the public interest would no doubt be a subject of frequent litigation — and political agitation. Even if a lot of new journalism was funded, much of it might be like gold-plated C-SPAN, read only by obsessives and making little impact on the public. And politically speaking, passing a subsidy for journalists would be a heavy lift at a time of rampant distrust of the media.

But on the other hand the threat of litigation and agitation might actually force subsidized news to hew to a more journalistically ethical line, incentives precisely counter to those that dominate in our clickbait era. People might turn out to have more of a taste for well-researched and well-written journalism if companies could afford to produce more of it, and weren't so desperate to attract attention; lots of people do watch the BBC, after all. Finally, regulations could be tailored to encourage investment in local news organizations, which would put more reporters in close proximity to consumers, covering stories of particular interest to them. That, in turn, could build up greater faith in a press that has grown increasingly distant and insular, for economic as well as cultural reasons, from much of the public it aims to serve.

Regardless, the most important thing to recognize is that good news was never that attractive a product. Rather, it was a kind of public service. If we want that service to be provided by the marketplace — and we should — we have to make sure the marketplace is structured in such a way that it is possible to do so, and not just for the handful of elite media organizations that can successfully erect a paywall.

If the government doesn't do that job, there's no reason to think the marketplace will naturally reach an equilibrium that is healthy for our democracy, anymore than it will naturally stabilize the climate.

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gsanders
260 days ago
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I've been thinking about this challenge for a while. I think the biggest thing missing from this approach is the specific problem of the need for local news, but it's hardly incompatible with the suggestion proposed.
Silver Spring, MD, USA
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one more plea for RSS

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As I’ve said many times over the years, I’m a big fan of RSS as a way of reading the internet, though I have had little success convincing others that it’s the way to go — that’s why I’m back on Twitter. Most of us who praise, and for that matter just use, RSS have become rather self-conscious about our attachement to the Good Old Internet Days — we tend to use a lot of “old man shakes fist at cloud” images.

But darn it, there are good reasons for using RSS! As Molly McHugh recently wrote, in one of several pieces I’ve read about Digg Reader’s demise,

The end of Digg Reader is another blow to chronological consumption of the internet. Users are curators of their internet experiences, from who they follow on Instagram to what news sources they see on Facebook, but no one is entirely responsible for what content is put in front of them. User input is selected and fed into these machines, which then decide what is laid out in feeds and when; often, that tends to be viral, salacious content.... RSS readers are not social applications, and they certainly are not flashy—which is probably why they are a dying breed. Headlines aren’t altered for maximum shareability by the platform, and the simplest among them eschew images altogether. Readers are nothing more than a timestamped list of stories from places the user trusts.

Why isn’t RSS more popular? As McHugh rightly says, “There is no argument as to whether RSS readers are better than Twitter or Facebook for news gathering; they are.” However: “there is no currency in a self-contained internet experience; how far something can move across the web is its value.” As long as we want clicks and likes and shares and RTs more than we want genuine understanding, we’ll use social media platforms rather than RSS.

So does RSS have a future at all? Bryan Alexander considers that question:

A giant company (Google) exited the RSS space. One smaller company (Digg) jumped in, then exited. Are all of the other RSS readers provided by start-ups and tiny firms? Has RSS reading become that marginalized? Are we this bound up with the “helpful”, AI-driven feeds so many experience through Facebook and the like? For another science fiction reference, we might collectively accustom ourselves to benevolent AI oversight, as with Iain Banks’ Culture universe (thanks to Crainist for the idea). This is one future path.

One would think that the rising disgust at giant social media and other tech firms might drive people back to RSS, as an open, easy to use standard. Perhaps we’ll see the RSS reader equivalent of Mastodon. There will be a reactionary movement growing in strength. RSS could ride alongside people seeking social media detoxes and setting up their own, tiny social networks. Call it the Butlerian Jihad for RSS and the open web. That’s another way forward.

Or maybe a small number of us will tend the open flame, huddled around a shrinking number of oddball RSS reader, stolidly blogging away. We’ll be like the Amish in Pennsylvania, plodding along while the others whiz past. Or we’ll become something like a minority religion, somewhat tolerated, sometimes disdained, often sidestepped.

I’ll be content as a member of that despised tech-Amish tribe, if it comes to that, but I’m not going to give up on the possibility of a Butlerian Jihad against social media platforms and for the open web. And along those lines, if you haven’t read my recent essay on tending the digital commons, please do.

If a Butlerian Jihad is going to happen, the geeks will need to get on board with it, and perhaps lead it — but will they? Bone Gorges is a little worried about that, and has some important words for said geeks:

The more worrisome trend is content that's not available through RSS simply because there's no feed mechanism. A shamefully large number of my geekier aquantainces have moved their blogs to Jekyll and other static-site-generation tools, which don't appear to have feed support out of the box; and – this is the "shameful" part – since these folks, geeky as they may be, think so little of RSS, they don't bother setting up the secondary plugins or whatever necessary to serve feeds. I expect that kind of behavior from lock-up-my-content companies and technically-clueless organizations that rely heavily on proprietary and bespoke software, but not from people who ought to know better.

For all of its lumbering bloatedness, one of the truly wonderful things about CMSes like WordPress is that they give you things like RSS – along with a pile of other boring-but-critical-to-the-future-of-the-open-web tools – by default. You don't need to make the decision to support RSS readers (or responsive images, or markup that is accessible to assistive technologies, etc) – the system provides them for you, and you have to go out of your way to turn them off.

Those who build their own systems for old-school things like bloggish content distribution, or who rely on teh new hotness to do these tasks in ways that are slicker than the old-school tools, should beware the dangers of discarding the automated systems that are the result of many years and many minds and many mistakes. If you must reinvent the wheel, then do your due diligence. RSS feeds, like other assistive technologies, should not be an afterthought.

Geeky folk, please read and heed!
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gsanders
297 days ago
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Amen.
Silver Spring, MD, USA
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In praise of earmarks

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That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

In essence, earmarks give congressional leaders more control over individual members. Recalcitrant representatives can be swayed by the promise of a perk for their district. That eases gridlock and gives extreme members of Congress something to pursue other than just ideology.

But is more legislation always a good result? Advocates of smaller government should keep in mind that reforming spending and regulation requires some activism from Congress. Gridlock today is not the friend of fiscal responsibility, coherent policy, or a free, well-functioning capitalist economy.

But what if you’re a Democrat? In these days of Republican rule, you might have discovered a newfound love for stasis. Still, earmarks make it harder for, say, far-right party members to hold legislation hostage to their demands. In other words, party leadership can put up a more centrist bill and then buy off the extremists with local benefits rather than policy concessions.

There is much more at the linkAddendum: I thank Garett Jones for spurring my interest in this topic.

The post In praise of earmarks appeared first on Marginal REVOLUTION.

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gsanders
374 days ago
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I tend not to be that impressed when Tyler Cowen wades into political science, but he's on solid ground here.
Silver Spring, MD, USA
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Defending sexual assault is never worth it. Really.

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Defending sexual assault is never worth it. Really.
As president, John F. Kennedy made sexual advances toward a 19-year-old White House intern named Mimi Beardsley. He pressured her to provide oral sex to other men. Whatever else happened between them, these acts are sexual harassment and coercion, and if Kennedy were alive today, his behavior would disqualify him from public office. It’s entirely appropriate that […]
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gsanders
432 days ago
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I tend to agree.
Silver Spring, MD, USA
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Chihiro’s journey: A LEGO tribute to Spirited Away

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They say that Disney movies touch the heart, but Studio Ghibli films touch the soul. None more so than the Miyazaki classic Spirited Away. I’ve modelled the works of this legendary Japanese animator in LEGO before, but on the 15th anniversary of its US release I figured it was time to take a deeper dive into this particular masterpiece:

Spirited Away remains unrivalled for its blend of the spiritual, realistic, fantastic, and human. In balancing all of those realms, Miyazaki was the master. No surprise then that this movie won the Oscar for best animated film and remains Japan’s highest grossing movie to date.

For this project I realized I’d need to do more just than generate a few brick-built characters and present them against a blank backdrop. In choosing a scale that would allow me to recreate as many creatures and environments from the movie as possible, I decided that the two main characters would be best represented as minifigures — specifically Friends “minidolls” which I find far more aesthetically pleasing than the regular old chunky figs.

Naturally this required completely repainting them to have movie-accurate outfits, which was one of several “non purist” techniques I used to create these scenes. See if you can spot where I had to cut or otherwise decorate key pieces in the boiler room scene!

To produce an image in which everything you see in the frame is made from LEGO, it’s often easiest for a builder to construct just the portions that are visible, resulting in sections that are incomplete and fragile. But for this project I decided to make sturdy display-ready pieces that LEGO fans will be able to enjoy in person at forthcoming conventions along the West coast.

The project kind of started small and then ballooned out of control. I started with just the characters, but soon found myself building increasingly complex dioramas to house them. It was hard to choose which scenes to attempt and which to leave out — but hopefully I captured your favorites! And as pleased as I am with the end result, I’m most proud of the little statuette I crafted of the master himself, Hayao Miyazaki:

Whether you are a fan of Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli, or anime in general, I hope you enjoyed this brick-built stroll through one of my personal favorites. Or if this all of this is strange and unfamiliar to you, I hope it encourages you to give this (or any Miyazaki movie) a try. Whether you are young or old, they will touch you in a way that no Disney or Pixar animation ever could.

The post Chihiro’s journey: A LEGO tribute to Spirited Away appeared first on The Brothers Brick.

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gsanders
506 days ago
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Fun mix of things I'm very fond of.
Silver Spring, MD, USA
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Ideally, the Federal Attorney General would be separately elected

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Changing the structure of the national government is almost impossible given the current conditions, but even in the best of circumstances it's very difficult.

When it comes to "society," we need to distinguish between "the people"/society and "government."  Government is created "by the people" so that we can be organized at the local-regional-state-national scale. 

I argue that law, since it is the way that relations are constructed and mediated between people within society, belongs to the people more than to the "government" ("Executive Power vs. the will of the people and the DC Attorney General," 2015)

It's why I argued that the DC Attorney General should be popularly elected although I am somewhat disappointed by the results thus far.

Elected AGs disconnect "ownership" and more importantly control of the law from the Executive Branch. 

As we can see from the Trump Administration, first in picking such a conservative as Jeff Sessions for Attorney General ("Jeff Sessions Confirmed as Attorney General, Capping Bitter Battle." New York Times), and now Trump's desire for the Justice Department to back off investigating Russian involvement in the 2016 Elections and culpability within the Trump campaign ("(President Trump and Jeff Sessions no longer on speaking terms," AOL), there is value to having "critical distance" between "the Justice Department" and the rest of the government, and this is in keeping with the concept that law, as a basic organizing instrument of society, belongs to the people first, and to elected officials second.

In short, I argue that the Attorney General of the US should be popularly elected, separately from the President.  And the Department of Justice should be under the AG.

Some years ago I mentioned this once at an event held by Ralph Nader, and he understood the value of the suggestion, even if the main speaker did not.

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I don't think Jeff Sessions ("Hearing Highlights: Sessions Questioned on Links to Xenophobia," NYT) could have been elected as Attorney General, given the various positions he holds on:

-- civil rights protections
-- voting restrictions
-- asset forfeiture
-- lengthening sentences regardless of case circumstances
-- private operation of prisons
etc.

It would be great for these kinds of matters to be discussed in the context of a campaign every four years.

To help increase voter turnout, I'd have this office be elected in the off-year cycle for national elections, not during the Presidential election cycle.
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gsanders
541 days ago
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Never considered this idea.
Silver Spring, MD, USA
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