Sunday, January 16, 2011

Is Keeping Informed: Worth the Cost?

Is the cost of staying informed worth the price of staying informed?

Or to put it in a cost-benefit perspective, is the cost in money (Internet access, owning a TV, buying a newspaper and the cost in time (watching or reading the news) worth the benefits one receives?  What benefits? 
  • The Warm and Fuzzy Benefit.  In other words, the sense that you've done your bit to participate meaningfully in a democracy
  • The Work Benefit.  A lot of jobs, especially in an information society, require you to be up-to-date on what's happening.
  • The Interpersonal Benefit.  Or, simply put, having something useful to say in a conversation, especially when it turns to the day's events.
I'm sure there are other benefits, but let's go with the three above.  Is the cost of staying informed worth the benefits one receives?  Yes, if you look at The Work Benefit. Maybe some, if you consider The Interpersonal Benefit, particularly if your boss (or significant other) begins to think you're something of a dolt.  But The Warm and Fuzzy Benefit?  I'm doubtful of that one.

How about the cost?  In some ways, it's become more expensive to stay informed.  Newspapers and magazines cost more, for example, but the 24-hour availability of cable television news reduces the cost of at least being somewhat informed (the best TV can manage, given its constraints) to next to zero since most Americans, even the poorest, have access to cable or satellite TV.  In all, the costs have gone down, in part due to all the money people spend on smartphones and the Internet also, coincidentally, gives them access to quality news and information.

So costs have, in many ways, decreased.  And the benefits, for many, are significant.  But a lot of people have simply given up on keeping up.  They find the news irrelevant -- to their lives, to their work, to getting by on a paycheck or getting by on government support.  In part I blame Journalism with a capital J and the kinds of stories we cover and the ways in which we tell them.  And in part I blame the partisanship of the times.  And let's not leave out schools and parents and a host of other responsible parties.

All this begs the question -- is it really worth the hassle to stay informed, at least for a lot of people out there?  A Downsian economic approach would suggest no, it's not worth the time, it's not worth the cost, at least not for many.  And there are so many other ways to spend one's time -- entertaining ourselves to death -- that I can see the argument by many that the News simply doesn't mean anything to them.  And so, why bother?

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