Posted by: structureofnews | August 18, 2010

In Praise of Spock

Spock was right: Humans are illogical.

We know this, of course – and the work of behavioral economists like Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and other smart books about how we actually behave, vs. how economics predicts we should behave, reinforces that idea with controlled experiments.

What has this got to do with The Future of Journalism As We Know It?  Simply that too much of the debate over what we should be doing is rooted in firm views about what people should do – if they were rational creatures.  For example, why should people pay for news if they can get it for free?  How can metering work if I can outflank it easily? And so on.

But there are limits to logic.   It’s important, of course, to apply some analysis to how you think people will behave when presented with a new product or idea, if just so that you don’t pour buckets of money into a sinkhole.  But predicting behavior can be a very difficult thing, especially when it comes to disruptive technologies.   Who would have guessed, pre-iTunes, that people would be happy to pay 99 cents for a song?

That’s not to say we shouldn’t try to analyze the impact of a new product – only that we shouldn’t immediately ignite ideological wars over what people will or won’t do, without even the barest of market research.

What we need is much more experimentation – and more importantly, much more data.   We had discussed at NYU’s Business and Economic Reporting Program collecting and creating a database of information about news media operations, from startups to non-profits to MSM.  The idea was to be able to get start getting real data – CPMs, traffic, business models, staffing, costs, revenue sources, etc – so that we could really begin to analyze what seems to work and what doesn’t. It didn’t get off the ground, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

Until we get much more real, hard information about how people are adapting to, and using, news media, we’re going to be just debating among ourselves about what works and what doesn’t.

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