Posted by: structureofnews | September 9, 2010

Valuing Value: Or, The Rich Always Have It Better

Does open access to information exacerbate inequality?  That’s an interesting question, raised in this post and also here. The gist is that richer people have more resources to take advantage of the larger amount of information available; poorer people lose out, sometimes very directly.

A very interesting and well-documented example of this empowering of the empowered can be found in the work of Solly Benjamin and his colleagues looking at the impact of the digitization of land records in Bangalore. Their findings were that newly available access to land ownership and title information in Bangalore was primarily being put to use by middle and upper income people and by corporations to gain ownership of land from the marginalized and the poor. The newly digitized and openly accessible data allowed the well-to-do to take the information provided and use that as the basis for instructions to land surveyors and lawyers and others to challenge titles, exploit gaps in title, take advantage of mistakes in documentation, identify opportunities and targets for bribery, among others.

(Thanks to Yolanda Ma, SCMP’s social media editor, for pointing them out on her blog.)

At some level, this isn’t surprising: The rich have always had an advantage on any development, whether in information technology or opening new frontiers.  The real question is, overall, does greater information access (and presumably, more powerful tools to analyze it) help or hurt that situation?

Arguably – and this is all in the realm of logic and thought experiments, rather than empirical data – the greater the information asymmetry, the more advantage accrues to wealth.  If documents are locked away in a dusty warehouse miles away, and making a copy costs an arm and a leg, the rich are always going to dominate that area.  If records are free, online, and easily searchable, then rich people, with access to more computers, more staff, and well-paid analysts, will probably do better than poor villagers scraping by on a shared dial-up line.  But in theory, at least, the gap has been closed.

That doesn’t mean we should be complacent about all of this – anything that can be done to help those villages access the information more easily, or analyze it better, should be done.  And it is a warning not to simply subscribe to Utopian views of free information.  But nor is it an argument that we’d all be better off knowing a bit less.

There’s a broader question in here, though, and that’s the issue of what journalists should – or can – charge for what we do, theoretically in the public interest.

It’s really an accident of history that the work most of us do is subsidized by advertisers; and as a result most readers pay a pittance to get – let’s just stipulate for the purpose of this argument – tremendously valuable information.   If that model is going away – and it’s at least slipping away – what does that mean for both journalists and readers/users and our broader mission of public service?

To take an example: Bloomberg sued the Fed for information about TARP funds and where they went.  A great public service, and certainty something US taxpayers would want to know.  But – and I know Bloomberg has lots of other outlets, but bear with me – then again, that information (and analysis of it) is intended to go to people who pay a thousand bucks or more a month for a Bloomberg terminal.  That’s hardly getting it out to the teeming masses.

And as the industry fragments, and broad, mass-reach publications turn into smaller, niche-audience sites, what does it mean in terms of disseminating information to a broad group of people.  Do $1,000-a-year newsletter readers get better information that your average Joe?  Well, in theory they always have, but what happens when the average Joe’s (advertising-subsidized) newspaper gets thinner and thinner and the information asymmetry grows?  There are any number of former journalists now doing “bespoke reporting” – in effect, private investigations – for audiences of one.  Is that journalism? And to what extent should the “privileges” of journalists, such of them as there are – preferential access to events, records, etc – be extended to them?

And what’s a fair price to charge for all that?  I like to get paid as much as anyone else, and I realize that the dollar or so cover price that readers used to pay isn’t as viable as it used to be.   Doubling the price – to two dollars – may be fine, especially in a world where there’s also a lot of free information available; but what if it went to fifty bucks a day, which is closer to what a terminal would cost you?

At one level, of course, we should just let the market decide.   And there’s no shortage of non-profits, or organizations with other business models that can provide some information for free.  So maybe there’s nothing to worry about, or even think about.

But I’m a worrier.


Responses

  1. Too often the question is how to marry the business model with new forms of journalism, and so I appreciate your emphasis here on trying to marry the public interest journalism provides with a new understanding of both journalistic practice and ways people are accessing and using information.

    Bill Mitchell of the Poynter Institute has an interesting paper that tries to explore the intersection of some of these issues (I blog about it here: http://www.savethenews.org/blog/10/08/13/journalism-what-user-first-approach-future-news) and the question of value is central to that.

    My own musings on value, public interest, and funding have made me believe that in addition to a robust and diverse commercial media we’ll need to support a new kind of expanded non-commercial local journalism infrastructure. (Here is one take on that – thought admittedly only an initial exploration: http://stearns.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/asking-the-right-questions-valuing-journalism/)

    • Josh, thanks for the comment. Some thoughts from reading your blog: Why we need journalism is a crucial question, and it should certainly come before how we do it; but I think it’s also critical that we marry the how with the why – or else we find ourselves defending the status quo of journalism practices, when I think we can find smarter and more useful ways of fulfilling the whys of journalism.

      In other words, given 5 billion to endow the New York Times, say, I wouldn’t; rather, I’d look at what 5 billion could fund in alternative newsrooms (or non-newsrooms, for that matter) that would achieve the goals we think journalism should aim for.

  2. so wondering how do you think about the future of niche journalism?

    er, and, didn’t expect that you would look into my site… aiya, i should really update it more frequently.

  3. I think you and I are closer than my post may have made it seem. I’d agree about the need to fund innovation and experimentation, but I think most important is your point about ensuring that we are making the right connections/asking the right questions in our inquiries. I think as the how changes – so might the why – or at least, both may become more situational. Different structure will serve different goals, as I think we are seeing in some of the new news start-ups and is evidenced by their different mission statements.

    • Josh, didn’t mean to suggest we disagreed at all – and I certainly agree wholeheartedly with your comments here. It’s an iterative process – the how will (or should) impact the why and vice versa. Walkmans and iPods changed the way we listen to music, which in turn changed the products that were created, and on and on….


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