When Apple CEO Steve Jobs put the New York Times at the center of the ceremonious unveiling of his company's iPad tablet device, the implication was clear: this is the future of the news--or at least Jobs wants us to think it is. He stands to gain not only financially but politically as Apple becomes a major gatekeeper for information.
The news media industry itself is divided on whether e-readers like the iPad and the Amazon Kindle can revitalize the news business. Newspaper sales are, after all, at historial lows. Over 90 newspapers failed last year.
While there are scores of competing theories for why newspapers (and books to a lesser extent) are seemingly on the decline, a prominent and plausible one seems to be that they have lost control of their content. Aggregators like Google News have provided news consumers with faster, more reliable sources for news. The proliferation of the blogosphere has loosened Old Media's grip on that news.
As traditional news outlets lose influence over the delivery of their content, they lose influence with news consumers. Since the Old Media is so obviously politicized (see Busters, News), a loss in influence means a loss in political power. So a change in the delivery of news could have very serious--and detrimental--consequences for the liberal media.
Some in the media business are adamant that the iPad and other such advances in information consumption will not further divorce content providers from the information they produce. “Without our content, it’s a black screen," Time Warner General Counsel Paul Cappuccio told the Wall Street Journal, "50 other people will be making it in five years.”
That may be the case, but the question is whether the multitude of e-readers and "tablets" will look more like today's smartphones--carrying insulated networks with dedicated users and predefined content--or personal computers--retaining access to a general and open network offering content compatible with all devices.
The micro-application format of the iPhone (unlike most other smartphones) relies on an exclusive relationship between the gatekeeper--Apple--and the content provider--the New York Times, for example.
The model could have considerable political implications for the delivery of news. Control over news distribution is a powerful position for gatekeepers. If the New York Times and other Old Media goliaths allow the Apples and Amazons and Googles to wrest control of distribution from content providers, those providers will see their political influence decline.
Before critics of liberal bias rejoice, however, consider that the tech world is probably just as far to the left as the journalism world. Jobs has given a total of $241,700 to the Democratic Party, and has donated to the campaigns of Nancy Pelosi, Ted Kennedy, and Rahm Emanuel, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Google only last year allowed Christian and pro-life groups to place anti-abortion advertisements on its search engine. It made the decision grudgingly, and in the face of a legal battle.
With records like these, the gatekeepers could actually consolidate a liberal hold on the news media, even while wresting control over distribution from (overwhelmingly liberal) content providers. The result: Old Media lives on, and very little changes in terms of its political bent.
"Silicon Valley used to be libertarian, but we are all Keynesians now," one technology entrepreneur told the Wall Street Journal. The Valley's liberal bent showed through late last year when Twitter ended a list service that blatantly favored Democratic politicians.
If the devices consumers use to consume news control what news is delivered and how--the Kindle's control over eBooks and Apple's control over music iTunes suggest that they will--the companies that manufacture those devices will in effect retain control over the consumption of news. If those companies continue to be made up primarily of people with liberal leanings, technology will only drive the news further to the left.