All the News That's Fit to Aggregate

Ezra Klein makes an astute point:

The news business, we all agree, is an inefficient enterprise. But it has benevolent inefficiencies. Not every story in the paper maximizes readership and thus advertising revenue. The low-readership stories, however, aren’t misfires. They’re aimed at a different audience: Empowered elites. They make the political system aware of problems, or they alert the political system to the fact that other people are aware of problems*.

And that only works because newspapers are hard to ignore. The result is a startlingly inefficient from a revenues standpoint but fairly important from a civic accountability standpoint. Newspapers run popular articles and use their resulting readership to make their unpopular articles matter to the relevant constituencies. Regulators, say. Or city councilmen who wanted the paper’s future endorsement. That’s the thing a blogger can’t do. They can get the information. But they can’t make it matter. They’re easier to ignore. In that way, the fear isn’t that we’ll stop having news. But that that news will stop forcing accountability.

Andrew counters:

I’m not sure I agree. A good blog, with a tenacious blogger, on a difficult subject, can keep at a subject with intensity newspapers are hard-pressed to match. And as long as there are meta-blogs or aggregators or edited blogs that can highlight niche blogging on important, less-read subjects, these issues can be brought to the fore. Ideally, blogs and newspapers form a helpful nexus. But both can and will evolve to save the old civic function of the press.

I hope Andrew is right about how the blogosphere will evolve, but at present I don’t think that blogs — Andrew’s blog possibly excepted — serve the civic function that Ezra is talking about. Yes, blogs have kept stories alive and pushed them into the mainstream media, but the blogosphere’s ability to influence events is partly predicated on the knowledge that blogs have the ability to drive newspaper coverage, which has the ability to drive television coverage. Take newspapers out of the equation and no one knows what happens.

And at the local level, an important story that the newspaper once would’ve written about but no longer does is unlikely to get highlighted by the kinds of aggregation sites Andrew is referencing. The information just isn’t relevant to an Internet wide readership.