Journalists are Luddites #groggate

By skepticlawyer

No-one likes being made surplus to requirements, but being made surplus to requirements is at the heart of capitalism and ‘creative destruction’.

In the ongoing fooferaw over Grog’s Gamut’s outing (and Jacques Chester is right, the Australian has trolled the progressive blogosphere with some skill), I’ve detected a distinct whiff of the Luddites or ‘Frame Breakers’, those 18th and 19th century weavers and workers of hand-looms who destroyed new and more efficient equipment that could be operated by cheap (and relatively unskilled) labour.

Of course, in the case of journalism, the ‘new’ labour isn’t unskilled. Part of the issue — as Cast Iron Helen points out here — is that many of the bloggers are simply better than many — if not all — of the journalists. I think it’s best to get this point out of the way up front. Legal Eagle and I can write the pants off any legal correspondent in Australia or the UK you care to name. On the literary front, I have to admit I became heartily sick of the journalists who told me about their ‘novel’ mouldering away in the bottom drawer. More than a few wanted me to read it for them. It was really very sad.

Admitting that other people are more talented than you is hard, although in my experience it’s good for the soul. For those journalists who resent being outwritten and outthought, I recommend Tim Harford’s discussion of E.O. Wilson, biology and graciously ceding ground to superior talent in The Undercover Economist (2005).

To distill Harford, journalism — like most occupations — is an exercise in comparative advantage. That means that even though many other people are better at writing, investigating and weighing evidence than most journalists, it’s in journalists’ interests to keep doing what they’re doing, on the grounds that the more talented people will become lawyers, doctors and novelists — or even public servants, like Grog — and will forgo journalism. This applies even though someone like Grog probably has an absolute advantage at journalism — that is, he’s simply better at it. Until recently, the opportunity cost attached to someone like Grog moonlighting as a journalist while still doing his dayjob was simply too high.

Unfortunately, comparative advantage will only take you so far. Once the basis of your occupation is fatally undermined by the development of new technology, then attempting to defend it against the tidal wave of change means engaging in the same behaviour as the frame-breakers. Sure, there will be spasms of resistance — the frame breakers spawned William Morris’s ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’ — but the resistance will fail in the end. The Arts and Crafts Movement made lovely things, but it didn’t stop the Industrial Revolution.

Similarly, journalists have hounded and embarrassed novelists and bloggers from me to Grog’s Gamut (for entirely different reasons, I might add; Massola equating the two of us was intellectually lazy on a grand scale), but this won’t stop their rapid slide into obsolescence. They would have to stand athwart history and yell ‘stop!’ (and succeed, too) for that to happen. In other words, the opportunity cost of journalism (of whatever sort) has fallen through the floor, allowing Grog (and others) to show off their journalistic skills at next to no cost. Remember, what it costs someone to produce something is the opportunity cost—the value of what is given up. As the Liberty Fund points out at their link, to find people’s comparative advantages, do not compare their absolute advantages. Compare their opportunity costs. When The Australian outed Grog, it was borne of a desire to ramp up his opportunity costs.

As anyone who has been following the circulation figures and profitability of the print media in recent years knows, this is getting harder and harder to do.

Unlike many other people (of both left and right), I’m not terribly concerned about the eventual loss of journalism in its modern form. My lengthy encounter with it a decade ago convinced me that it attracts people who lack moral fibre. If technological change renders their jobs obsolete (or very cheap), I’m pretty sanguine. People have coped without news in its modern form for much of human history, and I have no doubt they will do so again. Blogs and amateur opinionistas seem to be fulfilling the role once accorded to pamphleteers in John Milton’s day, and a brief glance at the writings from his period reveals a public far more literate and engaged than ours is today.

And proof that journalism as we know it is on the way out? This observation, via UK blogger Iain Dale:

Difference between free media & paywall media: Iain Dale links to me: 2,651
hits. The Times links to me: 8 hits.


  1. Patrick
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 5:59 am | Permalink

    Whilst I agree with the overall sentiments, I think it is worthwhile distinguishing between journalisms.

    The soft-headed groupthink of papers like the Age must be doomed – I think we both agree on this, and that papers epitomises in Australia the ‘lack of moral fibre’ of which you speak – but there are at least two other classes of journalism whose future appears quite healthy.

    One is the obvious: professional or trade journalism. There is no clear sign that the AFR or WSJ or Economist are about to hit the wall, for example. I doubt that you disagree, I suspect you just weren’t thinking of this category as ‘journalism’ 😉

    The other is the authentic ‘rag’ – the Murdoch papers (other, perhaps, than the WSJ) being the best example. You note the Australian’s effective trolling of the progressive blogosphere which is a great example. That, combined with the fact that they express populist sentiments which most bloggers are by virtue of their ‘class’ not able to even understand, seems to me to guarantee Mr Murdoch’s heirs a long and wealthy life.

  2. Posted October 5, 2010 at 6:18 am | Permalink

    The Australian has even poorer circulation figures than the Age (even controlling for distribution), and the Times is also tanking badly. I think publications like the Economist, the WSJ and the AFR will be fine — they have content worth paying for.

    The others will die, and frankly, good riddance. I dislike the cut-rate conservatism the Australian offers as representative of my side of politics, and I won’t shed a tear when Murdoch cuts his losses.

  3. Patrick
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    And the Tele/Herald Sun?

  4. Miss Candy
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    Have you read this? An interesting meditation on the value of journalism vs information dumping. Slightly oblique from this post, but I found it compelling… you have to get The Monthly to read the whole thing…

  5. Posted October 5, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

    SL: What you said, with the caveat about AFR, WSJ and The Economist.

  6. Posted October 5, 2010 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

    Then there are the Michael Yon‘s and Michael Totten‘s who are directly funded by readers plus freelance writing.

    Posted October 5, 2010 at 6:12 pm | Permalink

    Am again voiceless.

    But let me congratulate you for at least giving Murdoch’s lot a serve; they are agents of destructive destruction, nothing “creative” about them apart from the discord and disruption they bring to many people and the society that enables them to function so successfully in financial terms, that they’ll gladly sacrifice in pursuit of their master’s interests.

  8. Posted October 5, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    I forgot the FT (the UK’s WSJ). It also has content worth paying for.

    Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    Am slow this week. Noticed this a little while back and wondered what it was about.

    Ironically, It was a quick visit to Helen’s ‘Iron balcony’ view on a quiet night, that alerted me to what was going on and hence back to here, to congratulate you on that laconic thread starter. Delicious!

    Must read you much more closely from now on..

  10. Dallas Beaufort
    Posted October 5, 2010 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

    Most of today’s so called journalists are writing gossip or producing a range of advertorials or pr, product endorsements who are really supporting displays ads.

    The journos, reporters etc who deliver, should be remunerated on a different grading scale commensurate with their talent.

  11. Posted October 5, 2010 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    In discussing this with a media friend off-line, we considered whether investigative journalism would one day become something television did. I thought not: I suspect telly will be suckered by too many future X-Factor type shows. He thought so: that there would always be a market for this sort of thing, even if the traditional ‘news’ structure around it disappears.

    A fair comment, methinks. What do our readers reckon?

  12. Patrick
    Posted October 6, 2010 at 4:04 am | Permalink

    Andrew Breitbart does tv – so yes.

  13. Posted October 6, 2010 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    Paul: reading your comment @9 made me realise that I dropped everyone in the middle of this issue, rather, on the basis that it’s been all over the interwebs and ‘everyone’ knew what was going on. I will be more careful in future!

    Until then, the posts at Pavlov’s Cat and Cast Iron Balcony are as good a place to start as any (linked in the post).

    There is also a fantastic compilation of all posts and articles on this issue here:

    I’m assuming he’s got everyone covered — it looks very comprehensive to me.

  14. ken n
    Posted October 6, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    In the last week Newsweek was sold for $5million. Techcrunch for somewhere between $25-40 million. What more do you need to know about old v. new media?

    Posted October 6, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

    It’s ok SL, have been a bit soporific since the election, (not?) readjusting to a new paradigm as well. Much more importantly, my footy side was up for another grand final.

    Now that the job has been done on that foundational front, I can settle back into the familiar role of armchair general and critic, rid of the encumbrance of the thought that my team’s decade long domination of its league might be coming to an end.

  16. TerjeP
    Posted October 6, 2010 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

    Assuming the old media dies, does that mean scary headlines become a thing of the past and we become a society less scared of itself?

  17. Posted October 7, 2010 at 4:25 am | Permalink

    [email protected] You haven’t spent much time hanging around the politically committed blogosphere, have you? Clinton Derangement Syndrome, followed by Bush Derangement Syndrome, followed by Obama Derangement Syndrome …

  18. TerjeP
    Posted October 7, 2010 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Lorenzo – it doesn’t matter where I hang around. What matters is what the masses focus on.

  19. Posted October 8, 2010 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    TP: It might be harder to generate quite the same level of moral panics: hard to say until we see what media structures we end up with.

  20. Posted October 10, 2010 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    Actually, that’s a good point, Lorenzo. A bit less confected outrage around the place would probably be a good thing.

  21. Alphonse
    Posted October 12, 2010 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    they express populist sentiments which most bloggers are by virtue of their ‘class’ not able to even understand

    I think most bloggers are in touch with their baser instincts but have enough class not to vent them.

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