[Tim Lee]

Some of the commenters are not convinced by my assertion that web-based news sources will pick up the slack from mainstream newspapers. Peter Bautista, for example, writes:

Take all these blogs, for instance (including those here at The Atlantic). Almost none of them do their own reporting - they're commentary on original reporting done by others. Without those reporters, what are the blogs going to talk about? The Atlantic blogs have the institutional support of the Atlantic magazine, which can pay reporters, but a magazine's reporters can't don't cover the immediate breaking news that a newspaper reporter does. If there are no newspapers, who's doing the original daily reporting?

The first point is that as I understand it, at least one of the Atlantic's bloggers Marc Ambinder actually does do original reporting. But setting that aside, here's the macro-level trend in the news business: The 20th century's major information distribution technologies—newspapers, magazines, and television and radio broadcasts—were characterized by economies of scale. One large newspaper could operate more cheaply than 10 smaller newspapers that together had the same circulation. As a result, the industry got highly concentrated, with large, monolithic institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post hiring large staffs of reporters that covered every conceivable subject.

The 21st century's dominant information distribution technology, the Internet, isn't characterized by the kind of economies of scale. As a consequence, the optimum size for a news organization is likely much smaller than it was in the 21st century. What we're seeing is the disaggregation of the news business. Instead of dozens of media organizations with staffs in the hundreds or thousands, we're likely to see thousands of news organizations with a few dozen—or even fewer&mdash employees.

The 20th century model of the newspaper—a monolithic corporation with a thousand reporters that cover everything from sports to foreign policy—is comforting because there's a certain amount of predictability that comes with central planning. We can be sure that the New York Times will cover every topic because it has a hierarchy of editors whose job it is to make sure that all the important topics get covered. If there's a gap in the Times's coverage, they'll hire a new reporter to plug the gap. People who are used to the monolithic Times model find the unplanned cacophony of voices on the Internet bewildering. And they wonder how we can be sure that everything will get covered when there isn't a monolithic organization like the New York Times to guarantee that it will happen.

1798941703_2bcc8cb91c_m.jpgBut while central planning often produces a comforting uniformity, it isn't actually a particularly efficient way to organize the enterprise of news gathering. Bureaucratic organizations tend to have high overhead and to allocate resources poorly. In hierarchical news organizations, reporters tend to be confined to narrowly defined beats and are given limited flexibility to branch out into other subjects that might interest them more. Large organizations tend to waste resources—flying a reporter to a remote location and putting her up in a hotel when a locally-based freelancer could have covered the story just as well, for example.

News gathering on the web is a decentralized process. Most of the news organizations that have sprouted on the web have narrower, more idiosyncratic focuses. There are fewer organizations that aspire to cover "all the news that's fit to print." But while that might worry people who are used to the predictability of 20th-century organizational methods, the new system is likely to be better. Specialization allows publications to develop deeper bench of talent in the topics they cover. A swarm of smaller organizations gives the system more flexibility. And the lower barriers to entry allow a proliferation of new voices that provide unique perspectives on the news.

In March I argued that the world of technology news is a good blueprint for the future of the broader news industry. We've long since passed the point where the majority of tech news is broken first online, much of it by news organizations that didn't exist 15 years ago. I write for Ars Technica, a site that has 8 full-time employees, most of whom do original reporting, that was recently acquired by Conde Nast. Wired is technically a print publication, but they are increasingly a web-focused company with a stable of bloggers, many of whom do original reporting. CNet's News.com is the 800-pound gorilla of tech reporting, with several full-time reporters covering technology issues. I recently had a friend hired away from a technology blog to work full-time as a reporter for Paid Content.

When I pointed this out to a panel of pessimists at a recent conference on the future of news, sites like Ars, Wired, and News.com were dismissed as mere trade publications, narrowly focused on covering the lucrative IT business. But although the IT industry is certainly a major focus of these sites, it's a mistake to dismiss the tech news industry as a bunch of niche trade journals. Wired's Threat Level blog, for example, covers national security and privacy issues in greater depth than you'll find in almost any mainstream publication. Ars Technica covers civil liberties issues extensively, and also has in-depth science coverage. The same point could be made of other prominent technology publications. Certainly the IT industry is a major focus, but the tech blogosphere collectively covers a lot more than that.

Of course, technology is one narrow subject, and demonstrating that it's being well-covered doesn't prove that every other topic is being covered too. But here's where the point about central planning comes in. The disaggregation of the news industry means that I can't point to one publication that's covering every conceivable topic as the New York Times did 20 years ago. But that doesn't mean that any given topic isn't being covered. I used technology as an example because it's the beat I know best, but similar things are happening on other beats. Political reporting has seen significant new web-based efforts like the Huffington Post, TPM, and the Politico.

When industries decentralize, there's a natural human bias that makes things look worse than they really are. During the "downsizing" of the 1990s, there would be prominent headlines every time a large company laid of 5,000 people. Yet there would not be headlines if, during the same week, 5,000 small companies hired a single person each. Something similar is happening in the news business. There is no shortage of jobs for reporters, especially those with the skills necessary to thrive on the web. However, these jobs are at hundreds of small, growing, web-based publications that are far less prominent than the Washington Post and the New York Times. And so a lot of people—including the employees of newspapers—are focused on the grim headlines about laid-off reporters, without noticing the simultaneous trend of significant new opportunities for reporters at smaller publications.

Photo courtesy Ecnerwal