Spontaneous Evolution vs. Intelligent Design of News Media
I was at the InMediaHK First Anniversary Forum at the Cattle Depot Artists Village. There were three speakers from InMediaHK, who explained their organizational history and philosophy. If I were them, I would be less concerned about defining the raison d'être. Here is my chain of logic:
It is that simple, and there need not to be too much soul-searching and existential angst. After one year, InMediaHK is already immensely successful and the most informative alternative media site within my bookmarks. InMediaHK is not expected to displace all of the mainstream newspapers completely (and many of them are multimillion dollar operations that employ hundreds of reporters), but it can supplement our understanding with alternative views about what happened out there.
At the forum, I asked a question. I articulated the question horribly, which made it impossible to answer. Here, I apologize for having distressed people. So I am going to go through the exercise again. I meant to ask:
Mainstream media usually do things in a top-down manner. The publisher decreed that the newspaper shall have 20 pages for local news, 1 page for international news, 4 pages for horse racing tips, a 100 page supplement for real estate listings, etc. There is a logic why such an allocation exists. But it is also a straitjacket that restricts certain types of coverage (e.g. international news); there is also little likelihood that a newspaper will cede significant space for non-traditional topics (e.g. BL comics). These are the factors that drive people to alternative media on the Internet.
Along comes InMediaHK, which is spontaneously organized in a bottom-up manner. A group of people with similar (but not necessarily identical) interests coalesce over time to form an editorial staff of about a dozen or so at this time. There is a great deal of flexibility in such an organization. Unlike mainstream media, there is no obligation to fill up 80 pages every single day of the year; there is no pre-allocation of space (such as one and only one page for international news, unless thousands of people die as shown in color photographs); there is no space limitation (so if you want to write a 10,000 word commentary on newspaper sectional readership, you can do that).
The problem with spontaneous evolution is that it moves without a true direction or goal. The end result will not be anything like a full-service entity like a traditional newspaper. If the present members of InMediaHK tend to be media workers, writers and social scientists, then that will be their strength. As they are unpaid volunteers, they will write about what they already know or do during their 'day' jobs.
My question was about how an organization such as InMediaHK can inject some direction into their activities.
At the forum, the speakers addressed the difference between InMediaHK and the Disney Hunter group. The Disney Hunter group is issue-oriented, but InMediaHK is not drive by a single issue or even a set of specific issues. Therefore, my question has to do with how important questions that the mainstream media are structurally incapable of addressing can be systematically dealt with by civilian reporters who are not beholden to special interests.
This is not a critique of InMediaHK. I think that they are great. I am just wondering out loud about how we will ever get a systematic sweep of all the hidden and unaddressed issues. We should not be counting on random chance that someone will emerge to take care of it.
The following sections have nothing to do with InMediaHK per se. I am just recounting my personal knowledge and experience with a top-down intelligence design and a bottom-up spontaneously evolutionary system.
Mainstream newspapers have similar formats. I will use some survey data here. My data source is TGI Argentina, a survey of 10,244 persons between the ages of 12 to 75 years old in Argentina during 2004. Among these respondents, 2,743 persons have read a Sunday edition of the newspaper Clarín over the past 6 months. That projects to 4.4 million readers for the largest newspaper in that country. However, this gross audience is not the only thing that the newspaper publisher or advertisers look at. The Sunday edition of Clarín contains many sections, and it weighs more than a kilogram. Nobody is going to read the whole thing. So what exactly do they read?
In the next table, I have shown the readership of the various sections inside the Sunday Clarín. There is no section that is read by every one. Domestic (=national) news is most popular at 81%, international news second at 72% and local (=city of Buenos Aires) news is third at 61%.
Clarín readers go through 6.47 sections on the average, and here is the frequency distribution.
A mainstream newspaper is therefore an omnibus vehicle that packages a number of distinct products. To attract people to read the newspaper, it is important to have as many sections that interest them. If I have to buy a one-kilogram newspaper just to read the opinion columns, I would feel as if I am not getting my money's worth. With so many sections inside a newspaper, most people will find something in there. I will not show you the obvious, which is that different sections appeals to different groups of people (e.g. horoscopes and comics skew young; fashion/style to younger women; sports to men; etc). This type of information is very important to advertisers. For example, if you organize cruise ship tours, you would want to advertise in the travel section; if you want people to watch your television program, you would want to advertise in the television guide; etc.
So this explains how intelligent design brought most newspapers to look the way that they do. Of course, there are some newspapers that decide to forego the omnibus format and concentrate on a niche audience instead. Thus, The Wall Street Journal is all business and you won't find any crossword puzzles, horoscopes, lottery numbers or horse racing tips.
If the newspaper publisher is smart, then the intelligent design ought to be continuously updated. The newspaper would monitor market trends and add or delete sections appropriately. For example, we find mobile phone reviews nowadays whereas the subject did not exist ten years ago.
But as smart as this intelligent design is, it is also a straitjacket. Let us say that a Hong Kong newspaper decides to allocate 20 pages to local Hong Kong news, 2 pages to mainland China/Taiwan news, 1 page to international news, etc. That kind of allocation is actually quite realistic these days. So what can you say about the world in one page? The very small International News staff of a couple or so people will read the news services and select some stories and photographs. They have to imagine what their hypothetical readers are interested in. So there would be more stories from the United States and Europe, and little or nothing about Latin America, Africa or India. They may write a hundred words to report on some event; and if enough people die, they even write a couple hundred words to accompany the gory photos. The net effect of this is to turn off interest in international news. If newspapers are your main source of information for international news, then you will have a shallow and biased picture of the world. If you are serious about learning international news, then newspapers should not be your primary source and you better look to the Internet for the real deal (oh, I need to mention that you could subscribe to the International Herald Tribune, which is my client).
Such are some of the failings of newspapers. If you read through the list of newspaper sections above, you will have to wonder how many of them can survive the onslaught of the Internet? Why do I need your single page on International News? Why do I have to wait for your newspaper to come out in the morning to check my lottery numbers when I can check it on the same evening after the lucky numbers are drawn? And so on. The failing here is that the Intelligent Design may not be adapting fast enough in a rapidly changing environment.
And then there is the spontaneously organized approach. Here, I will recount my experience at a certain American marketing research company. The company is defunct now.
The story goes back to 1953, when four people founded a marketing research company. These four people are legendary in the industry, including a former President of the American Statistical Association. These were the pioneers who brought the science of survey sampling into the marketing research industry. The four of them toiled for decades, but eventually they came up against reality. How much can four people do on their own? They can build a company with millions of dollars in revenues, but at some point they cannot do any more than that.
So they sought a different business model. They hired a consultant to identify the best and brightest in the industry -- people who have terrific reputations working at other companies. They made these people a deal -- come and join us; we will guarantee you a basic salary so that you will never suffer for need or want, even if it is less than what you were making; we offer you the opportunity to build your own business and keep a significant share of the revenues. In other words, they offered people to start their own companies while providing the advantages of an established corporate brand name, corporate support services, guaranteed base salary, profit sharing and no interference. Eventually, they built up about a dozen such divisions inside the company.
For a while, the company grew rapidly and even went public on the NASDAQ. Most divisions were immensely successful. These were the dozen bright people in the industry, each one of them a star in their specialty. And then it all fell apart. What happened?
This was a case of a dozen egocentric individuals each pursuing their individual goals. They were brought in precisely on that premise -- maximize your individual utility and the hell with the corporation! The analogy was that this was a nation ruled by twelve regional warlords. Each protected his/her own turf and will not broach interference. Meanwhile, there were sea changes in the marketing research industry as a whole. For example, traditional methods such as in-store auditing of merchandise inventory were overtaken by supermarket scanners, door-to-door personal interviews were displaced by web surveys, etc. The warlords could not individually deal with those changes and the corporation had no collective response. Eventually, the corporation was taken over by a larger corporation, and then completely dismantled.
The lesson here is that a spontaneously organized entity may be temporarily successful, but it is handicapped by the lack of an overriding purpose and will. In fact, it does not have the organizational structure to accomplish that.