New Media:Old Media, Parasite:Host? A Discussion Between Bruce Bartlett & Subroto Roy (Updated Sep 27)

From Facebook:

Bruce Bartlett: This is the best picture of the diminution of the formerly major media that I have seen.

Subroto Roy: The long run problem though is how does new media actually become profitable enough to supplant the old, not just supplement it as it does now.

BB: I think it’s a given that that will happen eventually. The problem is how to maintain quality control and accountability in the new media when editorial oversight has effectively disappeared.

SR: Editorial oversight is substituted for by mutual peer review and reputation protection (as well as a return perhaps to a pre-codification state of customary law). But still, small subscription or user charges for many millions of users may be the only long run way to sustain it, not old media advertising.

BB: I have doubts about peer review being a viable replacement for editorial control. It’s too easy to delete comments, links get broken, search engines only scan the surface etc. The virtue of traditional media is that they have systems in place that ensure a degree of responsibility at least in the hard news coverage. That simply diesn’t exist in the new media and probably won’t be created because such systems are costly and time-consuming.

SR: In that case new and old will coexist, with new continually lifting material for free from the old without recompense. (Arianna H. had a nice comparison/contrast some months ago.) The equilibrium outcome may be one of vertically integrated companies…. Come to think of it, where is Rupert Murdoch in the new media world?

BB: I am sympathetic to the idea of modifying the antitrust laws to allow newspapers to collude to create some sort of payment system that all papers could participate in. Congress created such an exemption for baseball and I think newspapers are at least as important.

SR: Well vertical would involve the Murdochs of the world buying up the Googles and the Facebooks (or perhaps being bought up by them instead).

BB: Murdoch tried that by buying MySpace, which hasn’t worked out so well.

SR: Vertical integration is not easy managerially but it may provide the only business model in the long run for new media to coexist parasitically with old media — old media does the basic research and earns the revenue, new media spreads the technology and earns the goodwill while living off the old.

BB: I don’t agree. I think some sort of horizonal integration among news providers may be viable. The new media are essentially parasitic, living off the reportage and infrastructure created by the old media. We all know that the old media need to charge for content. But they can’t without creating some sort of arrangement that would basically involve price fixing. This is where modification of the antitrust laws would help. The alternative, I fear, is government subsidies of some kind to preserve the basic news gathering function.

SR: Well there is agreement then that the parasite metaphor may be useful. Old media is the host where new media is the parasite. Good parasites tend to be in a symbiotic relationship with their host, feeding off it but also doing good to it. It would be a foolish parasite that kills off its host altogether. In case of media, someone (Publisher) pays someone else (Reporter) to witness/record Event A. That is Stage One. Then Publisher pays someone else again (Editor) to evaluate whether the report about A deserves or not to be published via the airwaves (radio, TV), cables (Internet) or dead trees (newsprint). That is Stage Two. Our new media parasite can do Stage Two well but relies on old media entirely for Stage One, and without Stage One there is no Stage Two. Vertical integration here would merely mean the host-parasite relationship becomes contractually acknowledged. I do think the dead-tree aspect will become reduced even further but radio and TV will survive.

BB: The biggest problem with my idea is the problem of leakage. One blogger like Drudge can subscribe to all the hard news web sites and just recycle their reportage for free. I don’t know what to do about that and it argues for your idea of vertical integration. But you have the same problem in that there is no way of controlling new entrants. It may be that the problem cannot be solved and we will have to muddle through somehow. In a column a while back I suggested that reporting will never pay for itself and will have to be subsidized through foundations, universities and the like.

SR: A point of yours on which I agree is this: consumers of the Internet are gaining a free good, namely the outcome of the parasitic process we discussed, and hence there is a prima facie argument for them to be taxed (by a license fee for example) and, say, newsprint or journalism schools subsidised with the earmarked proceeds.

BB: Insofar as news gathering is a public good there is a case for some sort of tax to subsize it. The problem is that I don’t see any practical way of taxing Internet access, which would be the logical tax base. Second, I don’t see any practical way of subsiding news gathering without the danger of government control. There are also first amendment problems. Perhaps there is some way that the major search engines like Google could finance a C-SPAN-type basic news gathering service.

SR: We simply do what the BBC did when it started 70+ years ago, namely, license fees for radio and then TV. So each Internet connection gets taxed or pays a one-time or annual license fee. It is the logical tax base for sure. Re. subsiding news gathering, that is why I said subsidise newsprint (expensive raw material common to all newspapers), and perhaps subsidise young journalists in training (left, right or centre). That’s about it. Yes the C-Span model is good too but will depend on largesse of very rich people.

BB: Per our discussion.

SR: Cool.

(That is where the conversation stands as of about Sep 27 2009. Feel free to join in or model better.)


Satyam and IT-firms in general may be good candidates to become “Labour-Managed” firms

Satyam may be able to summarily solve the problems caused by its high-level corporate fraud by transforming itself into a “Labour-Managed Firm”.

One of the new Government-appointed board members has stated publicly today that the company has little or no debt.  If this is true it would be interesting because not only were the vast cash-assets non-existent, the liabilities-side of the balance-sheet also may be small, which could mean the company was simply far smaller in terms of value than it had made itself out to be.  In a bankrupt firm, the remaining assets normally come to belong to the creditors but what if the main creditors happen to be the work-force?  If that is in fact the situation in this case, Satyam may be a prime candidate to be transformed into a “Labour-Managed Firm” of the sort discussed by Jaroslav Vanek (The General Theory of Labour Managed Firms and Market Economies, 1970) and James Meade (The theory of the labour-managed firm and profit-sharing, Economic Journal 1972), and surveyed by e.g. Louis Putterman in the New Palgrave Dictionary and by Martin Ricketts in The Economics of Business Enterprise 2003.

As I had briefly mentioned earlier here, the transition could be made by Satyam’s existing  technical and other staff being allowed to participate (with their personal savings and claims to future income) in any auction of the “works-in-progress” that constitute the client contracts the company presently has around the world and which constitute its major intangible asset.   This may be the single best way to preserve the firm’s value as well as the income-streams of its staff.

The staff would have to make a transition from being employees to becoming self-managers which may not be easy in practice, although in theory the information-technology industry may be well-suited to labour-managed firms given the peculiarly intangible nature of their products.  The marginal cost of production of (true) information is typically very high but the marginal cost of dissemination of information  is near- zero.

If this happened and a corrupt bankrupt Satyam-I transformed itself into a viable Labour-Managed Satyam-II, the newly appointed board would become redundant even more quickly than it would have done otherwise — though this board may be even less likely to know of Vanek and Meade than to be familiar with modern corporate finance.  Time perhaps to hit the textbooks, gentlemen, and burn that midnight candle!  Is that something we can expect from some of the key lobbyists of India’s organized business sector?

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Postscript  1 :  Of course if the asset-side has been fraudulently exaggerated while the liabilities-side has been small, the fraud has been directly perpetrated on equity-holders who held stock that was overvalued  by the market as a direct result of the fraud.

Postscript 2:  I find (grotesquely) amusing the new found emphasis on “Independent Directors” in view of the obvious fraud in the advertised biographies of some rather notorious Independent Directors in the IT-business and other sectors of corporate India and the higher bureaucracy!   There seems in fact to have been a wild hyperinflation of reputations generally, especially in Delhi,  Mumbai,  Bangalore, Pune and other such hip with-it places  — people claiming to have earned PhDs when they have none,  people calling themselves “Dr” on the basis of some defunct Soviet management institute  having once paid them off, people claiming to be Harvard postgraduates on the basis of  some outsourced executive development programme of a few weeks’ duration, people claiming academic publications and academic affiliations which are non-existent, etc etc.   All that for another day!  (But any former students of mine who may find the above pertinent to themselves may please know their old prof is cross with them! Tsk tsk!)  (And then there was the one of the senior government economic planner who told his astrologer on the  telephone his correct date  of birth but had lied to the Government of India by a couple of years…. clearly he did not want to get his own Ptolomaic horoscope wrong even if his plans for India in the Copernican world went awry!)