How are media a commodity?

Economization and media: information becomes a commodity

In his contribution to this blog series with the name "The centenarian who marginalizes herself", Stephan Russ-Mohl takes the discipline of media and communication studies hard: In research and teaching, it is too far removed from the pressing questions of Time to speak up too seldom by bringing her research results closer to the public in an understandable way, and sink into detailed analyzes of (mass) media phenomena instead of keeping an eye on the big picture (media power, media impact, media manipulation, promotion of democracy, etc.).

In particular, she would not concern herself enough with economic issues and would address this in an interdisciplinary manner, although the so-called economization of the media was on everyone's lips. In my comment I would less like to address the underlying question than to address the latter sub-problem: Why does economics possibly play too little a role in the media context, and: What kind of economy do we actually need here?


First of all: What does the economization of the media actually mean? In the context of business ethics, the Swiss economic philosopher Peter Ulrich understood economization as the penetration of our social and interpersonal relationships with economic-rational thought patterns.

We calculate the benefits of relationships and interactions by, for example, using standardized key figure systems, (mis-) understanding profits and GDP growth rates as welfare and then pretending that this is inevitable due to the "practical constraints" of the market, because we (or the companies) would otherwise fall by the wayside, while others would be "successful" by strictly pursuing economic goals. In the media sector, you can feel economization based on further characteristics:

  • Journalism is under pressure to save and is increasingly oriented towards the advertising industry or is moving towards the level of PR communication;
  • Media companies are under pressure to grow in order to exploit the economies of scale inherent in the media industry and to be able to deliver good figures to the owners (as in other areas of the economy);
  • Information becomes a commodity (as the American media economists and sociologists Vincent Mosco and Robert Babe so beautifully describe it as "commodification") and valued with money - hence the increasing importance of big data analyzes, for example from Google and Facebook, as an important line of business;
  • Cultural, political, social and other problems are judged according to the "media logic", that is, whether they can be used in the media, whether they can be easily consumed, negotiated according to the laws of the mass media. A policy that cannot be expressed in short Twitter messages, blown headlines on TV, and caught likes on Facebook? Unthinkable. All of this is also apparently economically efficient, albeit ethically questionable.

The economy, in this case the media economy, can usefully not counter these tendencies towards economization with neoclassical models (relying on the market effect) - these would only confirm the efficiency of what has been described. This is exactly where the "too little" of economics in communication science lies: Where are the heterodox (i.e., contradicting mainstream) approaches that have meanwhile (and fortunately) existed in modern economics? What can behavioral economics, business ethics, and social choice theory contribute to analyzing media phenomena as described above and providing (media) politics with tangible suggestions for improvement?

Admittedly, the German-speaking media economy in particular has a certain tradition of incorporating non-mainstream ideas (such as the new institutional economy) and thus has a certain advantage over Anglo-American theories. But the field for cooperative research between communication science and economics is still rather unsigned or has not been communicated to the public enough - and in view of the economization of the media landscape, this is definitely deplorable. (Michael Litschka. July 11, 2016)

Michael Litschka is Professor at the Department of Media & Economics at the Sankt Pölten University of Applied Sciences and Second Spokesperson for the Interdisciplinary Media Ethics Center (IMEC).