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That market forces drive the news is not news. Whether a story appears in print, on television, or on the Internet depends on who is interested, its value to advertisers, the costs of assembling the details, and competitors' products. But in All the News That's Fit to Sell, economist James Hamilton shows just how this happens. Furthermore, many complaints about journalism--media bias, soft news, and pundits as celebrities--arise from the impact of this economic logic on news judgments.
This is the first book to develop an economic theory of news, analyze evidence across a wide range of media markets on how incentives affect news content, and offer policy conclusions. Media bias, for instance, was long a staple of the news. Hamilton's analysis of newspapers from 1870 to 1900 reveals how nonpartisan reporting became the norm. A hundred years later, some partisan elements reemerged as, for example, evening news broadcasts tried to retain young female viewers with stories aimed at their (Democratic) political interests. Examination of story selection on the network evening news programs from 1969 to 1998 shows how cable competition, deregulation, and ownership changes encouraged a shift from hard news about politics toward more soft news about entertainers.
Hamilton concludes by calling for lower costs of access to government information, a greater role for nonprofits in funding journalism, the development of norms that stress hard news reporting, and the defining of digital and Internet property rights to encourage the flow of news. Ultimately, this book shows that by more fully understanding the economics behind the news, we will be better positioned to ensure that the news serves the public good.
"More than ever before, Mr. Hamilton argues, hard news is not what fattens the newsstands or fills the airwaves. Instead we have celebrity profiles, product hype or what we used to call human-interest stories. . . . Mr. Hamilton slices and dices cyberhit sums to show that the Internet marketplace is a lot like the older one. . . . The title tarts up what is essentially an academic analysis of changes in the media marketplace. But there is nothing wrong with that: Selling is, after all, what purveyors of information do, and Mr. Hamilton has something to purvey."--Tim W. Ferguson, The Wall Street Journal
"As Hamilton shows, news is now presented to specific audiences, depending on marketing decisions, with a resultant shift from political news to softer topics such as entertainment. He recommends ways to counteract this situation and increase the amount of hard news available to the consumer."--Library Journal
"Using a variety of surveys and statistical charts of who watches what and how the news menu has been altered, Hamilton doesn't just assert the change; he proves it. . . . [He] does not demonize news/marketing executives. He demonstrates that younger audiences prefer sports to international news, health and lifestyle to government news, more conflict and less exposition. The bottom line is that news brims with conflict and the adversarial pose that substitutes for hard information."--Ken Auletta, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Hamilton takes the analysis of news stories back to basics, reminding us that information is transformed into news--that most ephemeral and fragile of commodities--when there is an identifiable market for it and when it seems likely to yield a profit. In so doing, he opens up abundant possibilities for parallel studies and for a radical re-interpretation of the history of journalism."--Dilwyn Porter, Business History
ECONOMIC THEORIES OF NEWS
NEWS IS A COMMODITY, not a mirror image of reality. To say that the news is a product shaped by forces of supply and demand is hardly surprising today. Discussions of journalists as celebrities or of the role of entertainment in news coverage all end up pointing to the market as a likely explanation for media outcomes. Debates about a marketplace of ideas reinforce the notion that exchange drives expression. Yet most people simply use the market as a metaphor for self-interest. This book explores the degree that market models can actually be used to predict the content of news and evaluate its impact on society. Focusing on media economics shows how consumers' desires drive news coverage and how this conflicts with ideals of what the news ought to be.
News stories traditionally answer five questions, the "five Ws": who, what, where, when, and why. On the other hand, economic models have their own essential building blocks: tastes, endowments, technologies, and institutions. The bits of information packaged together to form a news story ultimately depend on how these building blocks of economic models interact. What information becomes news depends on a different set of five Ws, those asked in the market:
A journalist will not explicitly consider each of these economic questions in crafting a story. The stories, reporters, firms, and media that survive in the marketplace, however, will depend on the answers to these questions, which means media content can be modeled as if the "five economic Ws" are driving news decisions. If the five economic Ws dictate the content of the news, then we should be able to use our understanding of markets to analyze and even predict media content in the United States across time, media, and geography. The chapters that follow explore the power of market imperatives through three centuries of reporting, within different media such as newspapers, radio, broadcast and cable television, and the Internet, and across local and national media markets.1
The results range from the predictable to the counterintuitive to the speculative. News content is clearly a product. Its creation and distribution depends on the market value attached to the attention and tastes of different individuals, the technologies affecting the cost of information generation and transmission, and the values pursued by journalists and media owners. Though news is often defined as what is new and surprising, expectations of the familiar often drive consumption. While the expansion of news sources may open up alternative voices in the market, it can also create a tradeoff of breadth versus depth as the number of outlets increases. Economics does well in explaining the types of coverage that arise. Yet it faces limitations as a tool in evaluating the outcomes of media markets. Valuing the impact of news content involves valuing the outcomes of political decisions, decisions in which dollars are only one of the measures that help define social welfare. Despite these limitations in assessing the desirability of media and political outcomes, economics has a great deal to offer in explaining how the media operate. Chapter 1 develops the set of economic ideas and models that explain how the market generates news coverage and briefly discusses the policy levers available to influence media markets.
News as an Information Good
This book's title, All the News That's Fit to Sell: How the Market Transforms Information into News, raises questions about what is information and what is news. There are many ways to describe an event and many ways to convey these descriptions using words, images, and sound. I view information as any description that can be stored in a binary (i.e., 0,1) format.2 Text, photographs, audio soundtracks, films, and data streams are all forms of information. I define news as the subset of information offered as news in the marketplace.3 As a guide to what information products can be labeled as news, I use the market categories employed to devise Nielsen ratings, define advertising rates, and organize Internet sites. Much of my analysis will focus on news specifically relating to politics, government, and public affairs.
The news lends itself to economic analysis because it has the general characteristics of information goods, characteristics economists describe using terms such as public goods, experience goods, multiple product dimensions, and high fixed costs/low variable costs. Each of these features has implications for how information is transformed into a good through the marketplace.
Public goods are defined by a lack of both rivalry and exclusion in consumption. One person's consumption of a public good-for instance, an idea-does not diminish the ability of another to consume the good. A person can consume a public good without paying for it, since it may be difficult or impossible to exclude any person from consumption. In contrast, one person's consumption of a private good prevents another's consumption, and one cannot consume without paying for it. To see that news is more like a public good than a private good, consider the contrast between two products-an apple and a news story about apple contamination. If I consume an apple, it is not available for consumption by another. If I do not pay for the apple at a store, I cannot consume it. The apple is clearly a private good. A news story about contaminated apples is more like a public good. If I read the story about apples, my consumption does not prevent others from reading the same story. I may be able to read the story, view it on television, or hear about it from a friend without paying any money or directly contributing to its cost of creation. In this sense, news goods are public goods.
You can divine a great deal about some products by conducting a search before you consume, since you can observe their characteristics. Furniture and clothes are examples of these search goods because you can learn about a product's quality by observation and handling prior to a purchase.4 To assess the quality of other goods such as food or vacation spots, you need to experience or consume them. A news story about a particular event is an experience good, since to judge its quality you need to consume it by reading or watching the story. The notion that news stories vary in quality underscores that news products have multiple dimensions. Stories can vary in length, accuracy, style of presentation, and focus. For a given day's events, widely divergent news products are offered to answer the questions who, what, where, when, and why. News stories are thus highly differentiated products that can vary along many dimensions.5
The structure of high fixed costs/low variable costs that characterizes the production of information goods readily applies to news stories. Imagine that you set out to produce a day's edition of a newspaper.6 There are tremendous fixed costs, that is, costs that do not vary with the number of units produced once you decide to make the first unit. You need to pay for reporters to research topics, editors to make sense of the offerings, a production staff to lay out and compose the paper, and a business staff to solicit ads. The variable costs, which by definition will depend on the number of units produced, include the paper, ink, and distribution trucks used to deliver the finished products. The first copy costs-the cost of producing the first unit of a newspaper-are extremely high relative to the variable costs. Once you have made the first copy of the paper, however, the additional costs of making another are the relatively moderate costs of copying and distribution.
These basic features of information goods-public goods, experience goods, product dimension differentiation, and high fixed costs/low variable costs-go a long way toward explaining which types of information ultimately end up being offered by the market as news. The difficulties of excluding people who have not paid for information from consuming it may discourage the creation of some types of news. We often define news as that which is new. The uncertainty surrounding the content of a story prior to its consumption, however, leads news outlets to create expectations about the way they will organize and present information. Firms may stress the personalities of reporters since these can remain constant even as story topics change, so that readers and viewers can know what to expect from a media product even though they may not know the facts they are about to consume. The role that journalists play in attracting viewers to programs creates a set of economic "superstars" who earn high salaries for their ability to command viewer attention.7 This use of celebrity to create brand positions in the news also relates to product differentiation. The many different aspects of an event, such as which of the 5Ws to stress or how to present a topic, allows companies to choose particular brands to offer. Yet the high fixed costs of creating an individual news product may limit the number of news versions actually offered in a market.
Four Types of Information Demands
At a newsstand, the New York Times, People, Fortune, and Car and Driver are all within arm's reach. These publications compete for shelf space in displays and attention in readers' minds. One way to make sense of the many different types of news offered in the market is to categorize demands for information by the types of decisions that give rise to the demands. Anthony Downs (1957) noted that people desire information for four functions: consumption, production, entertainment, and voting. An individual will search out and consume information depending on the marginal cost and benefits. The cost of acquiring information can include subscription to a newspaper, payment for cable television, or the time spent watching a television broadcast or surfing the Internet. Even information that appears free because its acquisition does not involve a monetary exchange will involve an opportunity cost; reading or viewing the information means one is forgoing the chance to pursue another activity. Since a person's attention is a scarce good, an individual must make a trade-off between making a given decision based on current knowledge or searching for more information.8 The benefits of the information sought depend on the likelihood that a person's decision would be affected by the data and the value attached to the decision that is influenced. A person deciding how much information to consume will weigh the additional costs associated with gaining another unit of information with the additional benefits of making a better informed decision.9
To benefit fully from most types of information, a person needs to consume it. Consider how a person demands information for consumption, production, or entertainment. Information that aids consumption includes price, quality, and location data. Consumers searching for a good movie on Friday evening might buy a newspaper to get film reviews, viewing times, and theater locations. If they do not search out the information, they will not easily find a movie screening that matches their interests. People also search out data in their role as producers or workers. A computer network administrator might subscribe to PC World to get reviews for hardware purchases. If the administrator does not consume the data, the benefits from possibly making a better computer purchase for the office network are not realized. Entertainment information, information desired simply for itself and not as an aid in making another type of decision, is another clear example in which a person needs to consume the data to realize the benefits. A fan may follow the career of a celebrity for fifteen years or fifteen minutes. If the fan misses an interview of the favorite celebrity in the People edition or Entertainment Tonight episode the chance for enjoyment is missed, too. Because the people who benefit from the information express a demand for it, the markets for consumer, producer, and entertainment information work relatively well.10
A different calculus dominates the fourth type of information demand identified by Downs, information that helps a person participate as a citizen. A voter thinking about casting a ballot for Candidate A versus Candidate B might consider how information will aid this decision.11 The costs of gathering information about the candidates include reading and viewing time and subscription costs. For a given voter there may be a large difference in value between the policies of Candidate A versus Candidate B. Additional information about the details of the candidates' policies may help a voter choose the correct candidate from the voter's perspective. The probability that a given voter will change the final election outcome, however, is extremely small. The net expected benefits to a voter of becoming more informed about political policies are defined as (Benefit of Candidate A versus Candidate B) X (Increase in probability that voter makes the correct decision) 3 (Probability vote is decisive in election) X (Costs of becoming informed). This value would be negative for nearly all individuals in an election, since their odds of influencing the outcome are infinitesimal. Downs established that voters do not demand information on policy details and choose to remain "rationally ignorant."12
The logic of free riding in politics predicts that an individual will not vote, since the likelihood of making a difference is so small. The theory of rational ignorance says that a person will not learn the details of policy since the returns for casting an informed ballot versus an uninformed ballot are negligible. These theories are born out in part by the levels of political participation in American politics. In 2000, only 51.2% of eligible voters cast ballots.13 Survey evidence in 2000 confirmed a state of affairs evident since the origin of national opinion surveys-most Americans cannot answer questions about the details of government or the specifics of policy proposals. Although rational ignorance and free riding may describe the lack of demand for political information among the majority of Americans, there is a sizable minority that votes and stays informed. For the producers of news, this translates into a large absolute number of potential viewers and readers interested in public affairs coverage.<<br>
Excerpted from All the News That’s Fit to Sell by James T. Hamilton Excerpted by permission.
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"At what price do we get our news? The role of economics in defining the nature of contemporary journalism has never been better explained. A valuable, important book for those of us who watch, read, or listen to the news."—Marvin Kalb, Senior Fellow, Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy
"Forget everything you thought you knew about the news media. Jay Hamilton's lively, sophisticated analysis shows how powerful economic forces determine what we read and see on the news every day. The ills of media bias, celebrity journalism, and fluff coverage are just pieces of a much larger puzzle that Hamilton creatively assembles for us. Once you read this brilliant book, you'll finally understand what must be done to change and improve the news media."—Larry J. Sabato, Director, University of Virginia Center for Politics
"This is by far the best book in a new and growing field—economics of the media, one of the most important and neglected parts of economics. James Hamilton, the leading authority in the area, has produced a seminal analysis."—Tyler Cowen, author of Creative Destruction
"This is a superior piece of work. No other book does as good a job of analyzing economic factors shaping the news. One of the very few economists seriously examining the media, James Hamilton not only offers the single best analysis I have ever seen of the economic reasons objectivity became the hallmark of professional journalism, but has also done a superb job of looking at the economic factors shaping television news."—John Maxwell Hamilton, Marketplace Commentator and Dean, Manship School of Mass Communication, Louisiana StateUniversity