News Industry Productivity

The WikiLeaks document dump offered tons of new data points about conditions in Afghanistan but the quantity and nature of the documents meant that it’s difficult for an individual to gain insights without further work of analysis and context-building. Anne Applebaum’s interpretation of this is that “The notion that the Internet can replace traditional news-gathering has just been revealed to be a myth. . . . without more journalism, more investigation, more work, these documents just don’t matter that much.”

This seems like a myopic way of understanding technological change. In many respects, a car can’t “replace” the pleasures of riding a horse. And consequently, people still ride horses. People still watch horses race. People breed and sell horses. People train horses. There’s a whole horse industry out there. Horses remain a vital part of the emotional and economic life of many people. And yet, the whole horse thing has become pretty economically marginal whereas the automobile has completely reshaped global society. The horses don’t go away and for certain things they remain crucial, but still cars tend to displace horses.

The internet isn’t making traditional news-gathering irrelevant or unnecessary, but it is making it less central to how we get information about public affairs. To take a simple but clear example, in 1990 if I wanted to know what the BEA’s latest GDP figures said I think I would have to read about it in my newspaper. Twenty years later, I can look it up myself on their website. That one fact doesn’t overturn every aspect of economics journalism any more than WikiLeaks single-handedly renders traditional military reporting irrelevant, but it does change the game.