Friday, August 29, 2008

WaPo's TMI Editorial, Part 2

Yesterday's post only got us halfway through this recent editorial in the Washington Post (a news source I'm having increasing trouble taking seriously, even though it's my hometown paper), so let's continue with this little gem:

The opportunity to educate millions of citizens, so essential to significant movements of the past, has dwindled. In the early New Deal era, the Roman Catholic "radio priest" Father Charles Coughlin promoted ideas for economic reform to a weekly audience estimated at 40 million, which helped pressure President Franklin D. Roosevelt to enact Social Security, the Works Progress Administration and other programs. Today's top talk-radio host, Rush Limbaugh, reaches only about 14 million people per week.

This comes after some more extensive comment on media fragmentation. I mention the context because one might well be moved to wonder how, in an age of information ubiquity, the opportunity for education has dwindled at all. But what Horwitt is really talking about is claiming and holding people's attention. Librarians are familiar with this problem, to be sure. On the other hand, here as elsewhere Horwitt's real complaint seems to be that journalists no longer have a monopoly on sharing, interpreting, and explicating current events.

Speaking as an information professional, I have two things to say on that: 1) it's not clear that journalists ever did have such a monopoly, and 2) get over it.

And Father Charles Coughlin? Really? Horwitt's idea of a good supporting example is a notorious anti-Semite who's better known for being against the New Deal than for it? Horwitt isn't a journalist, but if this is his idea of journalism, maybe that's a good thing.

It is true that Coughlin was one of the first to harness the power of radio for political ends. He certainly wasn't the last, though. And if Limbaugh only reaches 14 million people per week, I have trouble seeing that as a bad thing. That's a qualitative judgment on my part, but in a way, that's my point, and the biggest problem I have with Horwitt's argument: he's making a case for a situation that disallows and silences heterogeneous points of view. It's hard to see how such a situation can possibly further the cause of a democratic society.

Moving on:

Without broad media coverage, the civil rights movement might never have succeeded. In 1965, front-page newspaper coverage of the bloody march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., helped push Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act, write journalists Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff in their 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, "The Race Beat." Even the Fairbanks Alaska News-Miner carried the story on the front page for 10 straight days.

Fair enough. In fact, journalism today could draw a lesson or two here, and arguably has, if the State of the News Media report's content analysis of newspaper coverage in 2007 is anything to go by. Newspapers seem to have figured out that their reports aren't first on the scene anymore; where they continue to excel is in in-depth analysis.

But if Horwitt is arguing that such coverage no longer exists, that doesn't follow from his previous points. He goes on to say that in the wake of declining newspaper coverage, "other news outlets aren't picking up the slack", and for evidence cites the declining audiences of major television news--as though no other news outlets exist. Considering his earlier statements about radio, one wonders why he doesn't mention this news outlet that he clearly values. Could it be because listenership is largely holding steady, which appears to counter his argument?

He's right that TV news audiences have been on the decline for years, though. On the other hand, one wishes that he'd looked at which online news sites overall (instead of just blogs) get the most traffic. CNN and MSNBC may not have figured out how to make money with their online channels, but that doesn't mean they aren't attracting large audiences.

Anyway, while the editorial thus far is vague as to its point, weakly argued, and cites poor examples (it'd make a great example of what not to do in an information literacy workshop), the foregoing is as nothing compared to what Horwitt recommends to ameliorate this state of affairs. To wit:

Rather than call for government regulation of technology itself, perhaps the best way to limit the avalanche is to make the technologies that overproduce information more expensive and less widespread. It could be done via a progressive energy tax designed to keep energy prices at a consistently high level (while providing assistance to lower- and middle-income Americans).

At this point, what capacity for commentary I possess fails me. Horwitt is actually arguing that the best way to preserve democracy is to reduce access to information.


I found myself wanting to look behind the curtain, to see if perhaps Horwitt was making a play for Jonathan Swift-style satire. He writes social commentary disguised as country music and impersonates Bill Clinton; this suggests he has some sort of sense of humor, however unrefined.

Others elsewhere have pointed out why Horwitt's comparison to the cost of shipping (which is still, despite the skyrocketing cost of fuel, a relatively small portion of the overall cost of manufacture, delivery, and retail) isn't really germane, and his quote about computers being "the most energy-intensive of home devices" comes from a paper on the energy intensity of computer manufacturing, leads one to conclude that he's advocating reducing the information glut by taxing computer makers.

At this point, I'd like to know whether Horwitt drives a car manufactured in the past decade, uses a bank or credit union, or shops in a grocery store. For someone who claims to specialize in studying energy consumption, he doesn't appear to understand the implications of what he's advocating.

Or maybe he does. After all, he argues that "an energy tax, by making some computers, Web sites, blogs and perhaps cable TV channels too costly to maintain, could reduce the supply of information" (emphasis added). How on Earth could this be achieved, without also driving up the costs of banking, store supply management, and automotive onboard electronics, unless you're taxing energy use based on the use being made of that energy?

Horwitt is starting to sound like those people who advocate closing all the libraries and replacing them with a personal computer for every family, people who have clearly never observed neophytes in public libraries attempting to use the Internet. And as the new media landscape evolves, it's also starting to look like he's complaining about a nonexistent problem. Consider the introduction to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's State of the News Media 2008 report, particularly this quote:

Looking closely, a clear case for democratization is harder to make. Even with so many new sources, more people now consume what old media newsrooms produce, particularly from print, than before. Online, for instance, the top 10 news Web sites, drawing mostly from old brands, are more of an oligarchy, commanding a larger share of audience, than in the legacy media. The verdict on citizen media for now suggests limitations. And research shows blogs and public affairs Web sites attract a smaller audience than expected and are produced by people with even more elite backgrounds than journalists.

By Horwitt's definition, it appears that democracy is safe. By my own, I'm reminded of a song by The Who. The one that goes, "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Yeah. That one.

I was going to end there, but I can't resist poking a little more, at this:

A reduced supply of information technology might at least gradually cause us to gravitate toward community-centered media such as local newspapers instead of the hyper-individualistic outlets we have now.

If Horwitt cared to look, he might see that this is already happening. In my own community, a diverse area encompassing multiple neighborhoods, languages, cultures of origin, and socio-economic conditions, we have a news resource that concentrates on news within the community. It's already been credited with helping to solve several burglaries, to bring traffic to new businesses, and has been cited by citywide media on issues of interest.

It also just happens to be a blog.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Oh, WaPo, We Knew You When

I've been thinking a lot lately about information quality, and information evaluation, and other such good and crunchy things that concern librarians. (Well, all right. I took some time off from thinking about these things to get married, hence the recent radio silence here.)

The Washington Post ran a...I guess it's an editorial, judging by the tone, on information overload. Except that what it really is is a thinly-veiled screed decrying the decline of information quality in the age of information profusion, complete with a eulogy for the selfless newspapers that still provide good, hearty information to the soup of public opinion. (Or should that be stew, or something even less savory?)

My first thought is that Dusty Horwitt should read some history. Specifically, of newspapers and journalism. Particularly of the 19th century.

My second is that Horwitt's piece is pretty profuse, itself. You can throw as many statistics on the printed page, or the computer screen for that matter, as you want, but by themselves they don't add up to an argument.

In fact, let's unpack this piece a little, titled: "If Everyone's Talking, Who Will Listen?"

Let's start with this little tidbit:

In August 2007, there were about 100 million blogs. Of those that reached 100,000 people or more in a month, only about 20 focused on news or politics, according to ComScore Media Metrix, a company that measures Internet traffic.

Why is this bad? If the point is that the profusion of information channels fragments audiences--and we see throughout the piece that this is Horwitt's point--then shouldn't we be pleased at that relatively low number? And notice, Horwitt doesn't tell us how many of those 100 million blogs actually do reach 100,000 people or more in a month. We can't find out from ComScore, either, since their data is proprietary, and Horwitt's article doesn't link to any citations. (In itself, very common in newspapers, even online ones, even those reporting on scientific research studies which are themselves available online in open access publications. Tell me how the Internet doesn't help spread information, again?)

Then there's this:

According to Nielsen Online, the average visitor to newspaper Web sites stops by for just 1.5 minutes per day on average. By contrast, the average print newspaper reader spends 40 minutes with each day's edition, according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

That does suggest fragmented attention spans, if not necessarily fragmented audiences. On the other hand, it really doesn't tell the whole story. Among its unanswered questions are the following: how much overlap exists between online and print newspaper readers? (Not a lot, as it turns out, but Horwitt doesn't even address the question.) Also--and this is a glaring omission--newspaper website are not the only source of news online. Even newspapers and blogs (Horwitt's targeted bugaboo) together are not the only sources of news online. Horwitt completely fails to mention television and radio channels which operate websites, not to mention news sites which aren't tied to printed newspapers at all.

Also not addressed is how many different newspaper websites that average visitor may visit in a day. I don't have data on this, but on an average day I'll visit at least two national newspaper websites, two city newspaper websites, anywhere from one to six regional newspaper websites, and a local blog operated by a couple of local media veterans who understand that beat reporting techniques do just fine in the blog format. Add it all up and I'd guess I spend more than 40 minutes a day reading the news, and that doesn't even account for the news radio I listen to on my commute.

Maybe I'm exceptional. Could be. But the State of the News Media 2008 report (which is, by the way, a product of the Project for Excellence in Journalism) suggests that if you take print and online newspaper readership numbers together, newspaper readership is growing, not shrinking. So what's the problem here?

Maybe it's this:

The overload siphons audiences and revenue from newspapers such as The Post and other outlets that can spread important information, forcing these media to shrink and to rely increasingly on advertising to stay afloat.

It's true enough that lower readership of print newspapers in particular means that print advertising is less effective. On the other hand, to suggest that newspapers have not historically had to rely on advertising to stay afloat is disingenuous at best. The real problem is that the print advertising format does not translate well to the way that people read news online: what's more, as the State of the Media report points out, newspapers have been losing classified advertising revenue for years. It's not a new problem, and it's only indirectly related to the proliferation of online information sources. Sure, Monster and Craigslist do provide information, but nobody would call their content news.

And we're only halfway through this editorial. More unpacking to come, hopefully tomorrow.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Three Questions to Ask Your Search Engine

I'm in a rush to wrap up the end of my day, but wanted to pass along this article from Slate, on how to test and compare search engines. More later, perhaps.

Jamie LaRue asks an excellent question.

We already think that Jamie LaRue is awesome for the letter he wrote in response to a patron complaint about the book Uncle Bobby's Wedding. But I have to say that I like the excellent question he poses in his column for the Douglas County News-Press even more. To wit: if we really should run a public service (i.e., a library) like a business, then shouldn't successful libraries attract more investment?

As anyone who pays attention to public funding knows, it typically doesn't work that way. When times are lean, it's hard to get funding because there isn't any. When times are flush, it's hard to get funding because, hey, things are clearly going great at current levels, so why does the library need more? (I've never met an overfunded library. Just sayin'.)

But, if you're an investor (and I am), you know that one common approach to long-term investing is: when an investment demonstrates value (which may or may not be correlated by price), you add money to it.

The thing is, though, "run your public service like a business" is really a euphemism for "do what you're doing with less money", under the tacit assumption that public service providers, even the good ones, must be bloated examples of waste. Such do exist, of course, but in my personal experience the problem most public service providers have is trying to do an increasing amount with less and less. They can't do it all and wind up looking ineffectual.

How about giving Douglas County Libraries, boasting numbers any business would be thrilled to have, more money, and see what happens. Particularly now, when a lean economy has sent library usage soaring nationwide?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Just in Time Requires Just in Case

I forget where I read the foregoing--some other library blog, perhaps--but I've been thinking about it a lot this morning, because I think it's true.

In my pre-library life, I worked for This was in the company's very early days: a single warehouse in Seattle's SoDo district, a customer service department that sometimes went to help pack book orders (and only book orders, in those days) when things were slow, Jeff Bezos's famous laugh echoing down the stairs from his crow's nest of an office. At the time, people didn't know what to make of a company that didn't even have a storefront, let alone any stock.

And here's how they did it: they relied extensively on distributors, especially Ingram, which has an enormous warehouse along I-5 in central Oregon, to deliver books every morning based on orders that had been placed over the previous few days. In other words, anything that was in's warehouse was there because there was already an order for it. This was quite a change from traditional bookselling, and not just because orders were only placed online (people were surprised that there was no print catalog, either); brick-and-mortar retailers place orders based on what they think will sell, not what has actually sold.

So that's cool. But in order for it to work, there needed to be a distribution network that could deliver books to's warehouse quickly, so that from the customer's perspective,'s service was in turn rapid and efficient.

What does this mean for libraries?

There's been a lot of discussion in recent years about resource sharing, moving beyond the basic ILL scheme to consortial agreements, alliance arrangements to speed up interlibrary lending, and so on. As library resources (particularly journals) get more and more expensive, it makes more and more sense to not buy something if the library down the road, with which you have an arrangement, has bought it.

But, that does require that other library to own, or have access to, that resource. Without that, you can't do your just-in-time delivery.

My library's ILL service is the fastest I've ever encountered. I've placed an article request in the morning and received it by the afternoon. Book delivery is necessarily slower but I still typically get my requests inside of a week. Our own collection is relatively small and curriculum-oriented, which means that, like most other faculty, when I'm doing my own research I make extensive use of ILL.

But in order for it to be as fast as it is, we need the access that we have: to an extensive regional network of academic and public libraries which includes a major Research I university with an award-winning library system, as well as one of the most highly regarded public library systems in the country.

It seems to me, then, that what just-in-time really does is push the just-in-case further back along the supply chain. There are advantages to this from the supplier perspective; publishers have just as much trouble figuring out how many books to print as booksellers have figuring out how many books to buy. And as long as there are libraries with a mandate to preserve as well as to provide access, as that Research I up the road has, then libraries like mine, where access is the main guiding principle, can continue to provide quality service even as the resources get more and more expensive.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

LCSH of the day

"Sun-tzu, 6th cent. B.C.--Views on management"

It's a perfectly valid subject heading, of course, and describes the subject of the book under which I found it about as well as one could expect.

Still, there are times when I think that folksonomy isn't such a bad alternative.