Sunday, June 26, 2011

More Bad News on the Economics of the Internet, But Good News on Yellow Perch

Discount for the fact that I'm a little grouchy about Yahoo! News, as I mentioned a few weeks ago. (By the way, they have now "published" my piece on the debt ceiling, so you can go reread it and earn me fifteen hundredths of a cent.)

But this, by any standard, is egregious: A few weeks ago, the number one story in their listing of top stories, which runs as a sidebar to their other news stories from the AP and AFP and so on, was this one, which begins:

Bell Aquaculture, a pioneer in sustainable fish farming operations, is expanding its production facility in Albany, IN. Formed in 2005, Bell Aquaculture is the nation's largest yellow perch (Perca flavescens) fish farm. Ground was broken today on a $5 million expansion project.

Are you a excited as I am? The largest fish farm in America! Well, all right, the largest yellow perch farm in America. Those folks in Albany, Indiana must be bursting with pride. Maybe Gov. Daniels should reconsider his decision not to run for President. But wait, there's more:

Those in attendance at the ground breaking included: Ed Messer, Construction Management; Nick Zaccaria, Bell Aquaculture; Nick Pranger, Construction Management; Gabe Pranger, Construction Management; Steve Summerfelt, The Conservation Fund; Joe Hankins, The Conservation Fund; Mike Hines, Bell Aquaculture; Steve Hart, Indiana Soybean Alliance; Norman McCowan, Bell Aquaculture; Brian Baldwin, Bell Aquaculture; Ann Baldwin, Bell Aquaculture; Josh Pranger, Construction Management; Bruce Baldwin, Muncie-Delaware County Economic Development Alliance; and Mike Swinford, Briner Construction.

It reads an awful lot like a press release, doesn't it? Sure enough, the source of the story is something called PRWeb ("Online visibility from Vocus").

This must be a new low in journalistic prostitution. Among conventional newspapers of about the fourth rank, typically those that are given away free, it's not exactly unheard-of to run a press release unedited as a news story.  But I've never come across one that made a press release the front-page lead, have you? It's hard to imagine why someone would put a story about fish farming in such a prominent place without monetary compensation.

In fairness, some press releases do have news content, even if they don't have much Page One potential. There was the story about a naturalized U.S. citizen who was stuck in Kuwait until the embassy returned his passport. But rather than run the AP story, Yahoo! ran one from PR Newswire ("Demand for news from advocacy groups, industry associations, universities, government agencies, congressional offices, labor unions and nonprofit organizations has never been greater....PR Newswire offers the most experienced editorial and service professionals exclusively dedicated to Policy and Public Interest news.") giving great prominence to the role of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and concluding with these stirring words:

CAIR is America's largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.

Become a Fan of CAIR on Facebook
Subscribe to CAIR's E-Mail List
Subscribe to CAIR's Twitter Feed
Subscribe to CAIR's YouTube Channel

CONTACT: CAIR Staff Attorney Gadeir Abbas, 720-251-0425, E-Mail:; CAIR National Communications Director Ibrahim Hooper, 202-744-7726, or 202-488-8787, E-Mail:; CAIR Communications Coordinator Amina Rubin, 202-488-8787, 202-341-4171, E-Mail:

The democratization of the news media caused by the Internet, as well as the advent of News You Agree With,  has resulted in a disappearance of Authority in journalism. I suppose I must be either a conservative or an elitist, but I can't help thinking that this is not always a good thing. Walter Cronkite had a reputation to maintain, one that was worth a lot of money to CBS. Katie Couric did not get quite the same level of deference from her audience, but her reputation that had some value, not least to her. Clearly, Yahoo! News is not very worried about its reputation. But, as any economist will tell you, reputation is one of the things that make markets work, and keep people from being fleeced to the point that the market collapses.

We could also see this as a metaphor for the way that money and power can cloak themselves as democracy. In the early twentieth century, many people said it was more democratic to have elections  for city clerk and coroner and assessor. Actually, since people didn't have enough information about those offices to make intelligent decisions, that system just turned power over to political machines. Similarly today, people who think it's elitist to listen to scientists about global warming are, by and large, unknowing puppets of a couple of oil billionaires.

Power abhors a vacuum.

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