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Aug. 7, 2013, 11 a.m.

Summer Reading 2013: “The Information Machines: Their Impact on Men and the Media” by Ben H. Bagdikian (1971)

“The most innocent view of the economics of news is that the consumer pays his daily dime for his paper and gets broadcast news free. That is not true, of course.”

Editor’s Note: The Nieman Foundation turns 75 years old this year, and our longevity has helped us to accumulate one of the most thorough collections of books about the last century of journalism. We at Nieman Lab are taking our annual late-summer break — expect limited posting between now and August 19 — but we thought we’d leave you readers with some interesting excerpts from our collection.

These books about journalism might be decades old, but in a lot of cases, they’re dealing with the same issues journalists are today: how to sustain a news organization, how to remain relevant, and how a vigorous press can help a democracy. This is Summer Reading 2013.

The Information Machines: Their Impact on Men and the Media by Ben H. Bagdikian

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Forecasting the future has always been a difficult business. This did not stop Ben Bagdikian from laying out a vision for the future of information and technology in 1971 with his book The Information Machines: Their Impact on Men and the Media. Bagdikian’s book is less of a hard and fast blueprint of how computers and other machines will change the media than an examination of the possibilities new technology can provide. The Information Machines was born out of a study Bagdikian worked on for the RAND Corporation.

There’s a measured, thoughtful optimism in Bagdikian’s assessment, even as it covers the challenges broadcast and print will face in the future. “Somehow computers will be involved in the storage, delivery, and switching of popular communications,” he writes; “somehow there will be additional capacity for the consumer in his home to receive a greater variety of information than he does now. He may be able to control the timing, content, and form of this information flow in ways not now available to him.”

Some may know Bagdikian for his role helping to publish parts of the Pentagon Papers while an editor at The Washington Post. He’s also the author of The Media Monopoly, one of the first books to look at the subject of media consolidation and what corporate ownership means to journalism. He also served as dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the UC Berkeley.

In trying to imagine a possible future, Bagdikian also tries to take stock of the past. In particular, Bagdikian considers the economics of news, and how media companies will finance innovation of new technologies to help deliver the news.

The most innocent view of the economics of news is that the consumer pays his daily dime for his paper and gets broadcast news free.

That is not true, of course. One way or another, the consumer pays more for the system that bring him his daily news than he does for his telephone service. This is not a small consideration in the future of news. The way Americans will get their public information in the next generation will depend less on the technological question about machines, “Will they work?” but more on “Who pays?”

If it were not for the question of who decides on money spent for news, if the future were determined solely by the ability of new devices to work, the country could start at once installing a far more sophisticated and satisfying system of distributing public information. But that isn’t enough. Some of the new machines at present cost too much for ordinary use. Others could be afforded by most families, but they are useful only when part of a large and elaborate network that no one has yet organized.

Innovations will have to appear profitable to those who sell, operate, and buy them. Inventions must convince the public that they will perform old functions more efficiently or will offer new services that are extremely attractive. Electric refrigerator were adopted because in annual cost and performance they were superior substitutes for iceboxes. On the other hand, telephones, radio, and television provided functions the consumer had never experienced before but they looked appealing enough for the average family to make room for them in their budget, their home, and their daily schedule.

Deciding who pays for news is not simple. If news proprietors went to the wholesale market at dawn to buy large quantities of information and retailed it to consumers later in the day, the transaction would be relatively simple. But almost all news is distributed along with unrelated products — merchandising, information, entertainment, etc. — that have their own costs and benefits. Today the average consumer cannot select and pay solely for his daily news. In general, no systematic daily news is distributed unless it is associated with other activities whose primary objective is to collect large audiences for the purpose of selling merchandise.

POSTED     Aug. 7, 2013, 11 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Summer Reading 2013
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