It’s probably obvious to most readers just how much the web has changed journalism. But my recent debate with David Cay Johnston both on Econlog (here and here) and over at Cafe Hayek is a nice illustration.

Think how the world changed between February 1995 and April 2008. Why those dates? Because it was during that time, according to Wikipedia, that Johnston was the tax reporter for the New York Times. Here’s a link to his New York Times articles.

Imagine that I had read a news item by Johnston in the February 1995 New York Times and I found a conceptual flaw in the item. Let’s say that I wrote a letter to the New York Times laying out the flaw. The first thing to notice is that I would need to quote enough of his piece so that I could explain the flaw. I wouldn’t be able to link to the piece because links didn’t exist. Then I would have to use part of my word count explaining the flaw. The second thing to notice is that the odds are that the Times wouldn’t publish my letter. Also, there’s a good chance that Johnston wouldn’t see my letter. And, even if he did, he could ignore it. If the Times didn’t publish the letter, then very few people would even know about my criticism.

Now fast forward to April 2008. That was only 6 months before I started blogging and so one can easily imagine that I had started by then. I see a flaw in a Johnston article. I publish a criticism. The first thing to notice is that I publish a criticism. Many people can read it and a fair number do read it. Also, I put a link on Facebook so that other people can and do read it. Also, some other people, in this case Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek, link to my criticism so that more people read it.

Notice how, in getting my criticism published, I am far ahead of the pre-Web era.

The second thing to notice is that David Cay Johnston feels the need to respond. So he does respond. Then people can judge how good his response is. But it’s not over. I can respond to his response. And so on.

The Web has not created an even playing field. But it has reduced the tilt.

I wonder also whether this “reduction of tilt” explains part of David Cay Johnston’s upset. I point out a flaw in his piece and not only does he claim that this flaw is not there (something that’s a completely legitimate point for him to make if he believes it), but also gets quite upset that I didn’t realize that he wrote about the point in another article not at issue and also bases much of his argument on a whole body of work in the past that is also not at issue.