The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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News, opinion, analysis, identity

Ezra Klein tries to figure out why The Economist and NPR are doing so well while so many other traditional news organizations are doing so poorly:

The first is that they both situate themselves firmly between news and opinion, in that netherworld I think of as analysis. This is a hobbyhorse for me, but my grand theory of the media right now is that the rise of online media made newsgathering an extremely crowded and quick marketplace. That’s left a lot of publications that either aren’t used to the competition (think newspapers) or aren’t suited to the pace (think newsweeklies) a bit confused about their identity.

Some of them have responded by embracing opinion. That’s also a bad move. The opinion marketplace is, if anything, more crowded than the news marketplace, and it’s hard to really break through in it unless you’re willing to travel pretty far along the partisan continuum. But because news stories move so much faster and opinion is so much louder, there’s actually more demand for media that explains what those fast-moving stories are actually about. This is a need that is going largely unmet. Both the Economist and NPR are imperfect products, but that’s fundamentally what they’re doing. It’s not quite newsgathering, and it’s not straight opinion, though there’s occasionally opinion in there. It’s analysis. It’s how to understand the stuff that other people are reporting and opining.

Meanwhile, both brands have morphed into statements. For better or worse, carrying the Economist is sort of like wearing a shirt that says “I’m smart and worldly and interested in knowing things about Ghana.” But unlike a shirt saying all that, it actually works to convey that impression. An NPR bag, for its part, is a signal of a particular brand of non-confrontational, college-educated, sightly-crunchy liberalism. Is that a stereotype? Sure. But it’s working for the station’s merchandise department.

This makes me think about the early history of newspapers — how big metropolitan dailies (and radio/television) eventually displaced extras and evening editions, minority and ethnic papers, more sharply political papers, and other variations that were more suited to either a faster pace of news reporting or a closer tie to readers’ identities. What emerged, especially at the national level, was something that was both denser (in terms of information) and looser (in terms of identity).


That last paragraph carries an interesting, slightly ambiguous charge. Do you mean to imply that we are reversing this trend now, going back to a less dense, more identity-driven equilibrium? Or is it that this movement continues in the same direction?

Tim Carmody says…

Yeah, I’m not really sure myself. I had a couple of additional paragraphs that I was going to write, but struck out BECAUSE I’m really not sure. It depends on how you read both history and the present.

I think — I want to say something like, “we have weak local identities.” At least insofar as something like “local identity” maps onto a metropolitan media market. Fewer of us identify as citizens of a metropolitan area. Maybe we identify more as residents of a municipality or neighborhood, or maybe we identify more as Tea Partiers or international cosmopolitans. I don’t know.

What seems clear is that at any time, if you can’t do ONE of the four — news, opinion, analysis, or identity — really well, then you can’t do much of anything.

Maybe there’s a fifth term — curation? — that something like network news offered a distillation of the day’s news; through selection, it helped you decide what to care about? I’m not sure about that, either.

And, alack and alas, there is no market, absolutely none, for uncertainty. (Except, possibly, a Snark-market.)

“There is no market, absolutely none, for uncertainty.”

I love categorical statements like this, because they immediately make me consider the opposite possibility… that is, what if there were a news source that specialized in uncertainty? Identifying the unknown? Tracing the shape of the possibility cloud?

If there were a brand that took uncertainty as their watchword, what statement would you make through association with it? “I am unafraid of the hidden and mysterious,” perhaps?

The snarkmatrix awaits you

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