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News Will Not Be Replaced by Anything

Or At Least Journalists Definitely Won't Be

Created: 2021-01-18
Wordcount: 1.3k

I

Imagine that you have a job as an equine veterinarian in 1920.

This is a little after the year in which the number of horses in the US peaked. You're aware that cars are on the rise. You're worried about your job. So you decide to learn a new set of skills -- you think you'll learn to be something equivalent in the world of cars, like a mechanic. A veterinarian helps horses get better, and a mechanic fixes cars, so you think this is basically the equivalent job in the new world. Right? So you learn how to fix cars.

But then you realize that any new job as a mechanic is nothing like your prior job as veterinarian.

As a veterinarian, you were relatively independent; but now you find that you need relationships with car brands to get parts, and that different car brands might have specific requirements for your repair shop. And as a veterinarian, you saw horses on the property of the horse-owner; but now you find that people want to drop off their cars, which means you need to have land on which to keep them, so your capital requirements are entirely different, and you need a loan from a bank to get started. As a veterinarian, no one expected you to heal their horse within a certain specified time; but now people drop off their cars and want them back quickly, no matter how many other cars you have to fix. And, probably worst of all, the kind of people who like cars are different from the kind of people who like horses, and you find that you're kinda unhappy for that reason.

II

Zooming out, even though you could say that cars replaced horses, economic networks and networks of prestige around cars and horses are totally different.

Consider some economic differences. Cars are centrally made, in factories that churn out hundreds or thousands per day, with very strong economies of scale. So there are necessarily a relatively small number of car companies, to take advantage of these economies of scale. The production of horses, of course, does not gain enormously from economies of scale; anyone who owns a few horses can make more, and you don't get exponential increases in the efficiency with which you produce horses if you make 10x or 100x as many. So the production of horses is widespread and distributed.

This overflows into differences in the jobs surrounding them, of course. Because the production of cars is centralized beneath a few brands, the efficiency with which they are sold becomes of paramount importance; "car dealership" becomes an important economic entity that survives in a way that a "horse dealership" never did. While horses could be improved with better breeding, it was necessarily a slow process that could not be sped up beyond certain limits; now the R&D departments of car dealerships become enormous in-house laboratories, with arms races between different brands. There are similar arms races as car companies try to add additional features, like radio and AC and cruise control and bluetooth audio and full-self-driving. And so on and so forth.

The differences in prestige are also enormous, however. Horse ownership is expensive, and so having horses is a sign of long-lasting money. But car ownership is cheap, and so having a car merely means you had money at one time. Thus the somewhat different prestige around ownership of either, best represented in the somewhat different feelings one has when contemplating someone owns horses, and someone else who has an expensive car.

III

Journalists who want to transfer to "online news" are like equine veterinarians wanting to be mechanics.

I position the "traditional" news organizations currently online in exactly the same place; they will inevitably either disappear or turn into organizations entirely dissimilar from their past selves. The things which replace the news will have such different networks of money and prestige around them that they only dubiously be said to "replace" the news, just as cars can only dubiously be said to replace horses.

(The news is a piece pulled out from the puzzle of the world, and a dozen different pieces slide in to take its place; but none of them replace it. The causal network of the world reknits and you cannot even find where the "news" used to live in the new map. Someone who creates art for wraps for cars does not correspond with anyone in the world of horses; someone who shoes horses does not correspond to anyone in the world of cars; the analogous positions mislead more than they illuminate.)

The traditional news within newspapers and TV existed in a world where information was rate limited. There were only so many broadcasts, because TV broadcasts are expensive. There could only be so many journalists, because printing a newspaper is expensive. This produces scarcity for the role of "journalist" or TV-personality, which further contributes to their social prestige. And this means that the kind of person who is a "journalist" needs to seem trustworthy, be comfortable with people, be good at communicating, and need not actually have deep expertise in any particular subject. Indeed, he cannot, because of the cost of acquiring expertise.

The traditional news within newspapers and TV also existed in a world where information was difficult to discover. When something happened in a particular field, an expert in that field could not simply print a one-time newspaper explaining what was going on. This meant that journalists actually had a somewhat important role in finding experts and allowing these experts to communicate their messages to other people.

None of this is true anymore. It's extremely cheap to convey information. We can convey as much as we want, as cheaply as we want, from anywhere to anywhere. Nor is it hard to find experts and get their opinion; many experts in many fields publish what they think online.

There could be roles in the future which in some way resemble those of journalists. For instance:

  • Experts with verified histories in prediction markets could be useful to people who are actually trying to plan out their futures.
  • Opinion bloggers, youtubers, and other propagandists could be useful to people who wish to be angry at the outgroup, and to leaders who wish to make people angry at the outgroup.
  • Actual experts in particular scientific or economic disciplines could maintain blogs or twitter accounts -- or whatever follows these -- where they convey occasional information about their specialties, which would be useful to people curious about these things.
  • Unmediated data feeds from distributed sensor networks could be useful for people who actually want accurate views of what is happening on the ground, for economic or political purposes.
  • Machine-learning algorithms will likely try to pick up on trends and indicators, likely competing with experts in prediction markets.

And so on and so forth. But the point here is that none of these have a space for an entity like a journalist, or like a newspaper, or a news organization. There is no space for a high-prestige person, whose chief skill is good communication; there is a space for a good communicator as a propagandist, but that's a little different. There are people who perform roles similar to part of the role that journalists used to have, but the economics that permit their existence are entirely different. The prestige around their existence is different. And the skills they must have is entirely different.

So my advice for myself, and for others, is to give up trying to replace the news. The news as this centralized repository of social authority, commonly-agreed-on-even-if-innacurate-knowledge, actual information, inoffensive entertainment for adults, and matter for casual conversation -- this news is no more, and likely never will be again. The point now is to build things which will do (in part) one of the many things it did, but do that one thing better.