As usual, Phil Meyer got there first. In 2005, the veteran journalist and professor spoke at an academic conference in San Antonio. “The demassification of the media did not start with the Internet,” he told a room full of people who’d long assumed otherwise.
As early as the 1970s, a proliferation of broadcast outlets and specialty magazines targeting niche markets had done much to individualize media consumption. Then came cable television, VCRs, and DVDs. The Internet accentuated a trend already underway, though with especially devastating effects on the business model of newspapers. “We’re going to need some new institutions if we’re going to save journalism,” he concluded.
“The hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient,” he told his assembled colleagues and former students. “Citizens can do their own hunting and gathering on the Internet. What they need is somebody to add value to that information by processing it — digesting it, organizing it, making it usable.”
Meyer pointed to Nobel Prize-winning economist Ronald Coase’s insight about why business firms exist: to reduce transaction costs for owners, workers, vendors, and consumers.
“If a manager had to negotiate with a freelancer for every task, the cost in time would be unbearably high,” he explained. “Searching for information on the Internet involves something like transaction costs because we have so many varied sources to evaluate. We need somebody we trust to organize them for us. That can be the task of the new journalism.”
In the 15 years since that symposium in Meyer’s beloved Chapel Hill, some entrepreneurs have built new media institutions that function much as he predicted, as trusted curators of information for audiences who share common interests or values. In addition, some preexisting outlets successfully reinvented themselves along similar lines.
They’re thriving, or at least surviving. The rest have disappeared, or seem destined to.
Meyer taught the first journalism class I took at UNC-Chapel Hill, a basic course on newswriting. As a professor, he was demanding — I can only hope those first marked-up stories of mine never again see the light of day — as well as engaging and patient.
Meyer was also intensely curious, making it clear that aspiring journalists ought to exhibit the same trait or aspire to do something else. I think it was curiosity that later led him to hire me as his assistant.
I managed his correspondence, chased down journal articles in the library, and helped him organize an annual conference of the American Association for Public Opinion Research. I suppose I performed these functions competently, but so could any of his other students. What really set me apart was that I was a young, Reagan-loving conservative. Meyer was neither. Every time I entered his office, he had a new political question to ask me. I reciprocated.
Phil Meyer’s illustrious journalism career took him from an assistant editor at the Daily Capital in Topeka, Kansas, to one of the first columnists for USA Today. Along the way, he was part of a Detroit Free Press team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for covering the city’s deadly riots.
Detroit politicians had blamed poor, uneducated migrants from the South for instigating the riots. Meyer thought their answer too pat. He got curious. Then he and his colleagues got busy, gathering data and feeding it into a computer. Their analysis proved most of the rioters were locally born and varied widely in education and income.
Meyer literally wrote the book on computer-assisted reporting (Precision Journalism) and, as a Knight-Ridder executive, helped develop one of the first online news services. Journalism owes him plenty. I owe him more.