Right Down the Line

Tonight I went to a panel, “In Search of the Unexpected Future of Media,” hosted by The New Republic. TNR was recently bought by Chris Hughes of Facebook fame and Jumo infamy. He seems soft-spoken, thoughtful, and enamored of old-fashioned Serious Journalism. Bully for him, bring on more like him.

The panel itself was moderately interesting, the speakers were Jill Abramson, executive editor of the New York Times, and Richard Plepler, CEO of HBO. It was mostly about the business of new media, which, fine. “You can monetize smart” from Plepler – encouraging!

But what struck me is that both entities are thinking of themselves as 21st-century digital content generators but are shackled to 19th-century physical infrastructure: the newspaper printing press, and the cable/phone lines. In answering a question from a 20-something audience member who wants to watch Girls but doesn’t have a cable box, Plepler answered elaborately and at length. What it boils down to is that there aren’t enough “cord-cutters” yet to allow HBO to circumvent their cable and phone partners. Their business model is tied up with the physical infrastructure of cable and phone lines.

But here’s the rub: even as one might wish for the decoupling of the NYT and HBO from the physical infrastructure that seems to drag them down financially, I bet that a lot of those jobs, especially in the printing press, are good union jobs that support middle-class communities. (Cable companies probably less so.)

Makes me think of the latest episode of Downton Abbey, where (spoiler alert!) Matthew has invested in the estate to save Lord Grantham’s (and by extension his wife’s) bacon, but now is seeing that the estate is “mismanaged,” in his words. Lady Mary hints that what looks like inefficiency is a form of largesse that’s necessary for the local economy. Economic welfare at the level of the manor is sacrificed for economic welfare at the level of the village. I dunno, sounds kinda enlightened to me. I wonder to what extent old, infrastructure-dependent industries like newspapers and telephone companies function in a similar way.

In other words, when is inefficiency at the level of the firm effectiveness at the level of the community or town? Where’s the economics that helps makes sense of that? That would be genuine political economy.

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