Monday, January 5, 2009

Remembering Barry Litman, who died Dec. 26

Prof. Barry Litman used to sit quietly in meetings of my dissertation committee, holding a document I had labored over for days, waiting for his turn. He always began with a few introductory questions to be sure I understood what was coming next -- a single, penetrating query that would send me back to the library to spend hours digging through books and journal articles in search of an answer.

The result was always the same. I learned something, usually more than just one thing, that was important and useful. Barry Litman made my work better. It wasn't just me. He made everyone's understanding of media economics better.

So it came as a shock to hear that Barry, 59, died Dec. 26 after battling cancer.

Barry was one of the first classically trained economists devoted to understanding producers of and audiences for newspapers, television broadcasts, and film. You cannot call yourself a student of media economics if you don't know his work.

Barry and a doctoral student completed the first study linking the quality of news to the financial performance of newspapers.1 He later helped update the fundamental model of newspaper competition developed in the 1970s to reflect three decades of changing technology and markets.2 He then took an overused, ill-defined buzzword -- convergence -- and gave it meaning by showing how people select news from different media based on differences in characteristics like speed of delivery, convenience, and quality.3

Barry developed a model predicting what will happen if people can't get reliable information from the media about urgent topics like birth control, showing they will instead assemble an understanding from whatever sources they can find.4

He identified a major flaw in the long line of studies examining diversity or its absence in media content, refuting the underlying assumption that there is an unlimited demand for diversity.5 Barry offered a more realistic model showing that the desire for diversity is balanced against the desire for other characteristics of content, always within the limits of available time for reading, watching and listening.

Barry helped examine the creation of the Fox network, showing how a confluence of regulatory and economic factors made possible the enormous gamble for News Corp.6 The study is a valuable reminder that what now looks like a taken-for-granted success was anything but that at the time. In another study, Barry and his co-authors showed why networks prefer programs that are predictable, making truly innovative television the exception, a finding that holds up well in the cable universe.7

Barry was a professor at Michigan State University for more than 30 years, one of a handful of faculty who made the College of Communication Arts & Sciences the center of gravity for understanding media economics.

This spring, as always, I will teach a graduate course where Barry's work appears multiple times. I like to quote Barry because it always makes me sound smart. This semester won't be nearly so much fun. Mostly, I'm going to think about what we've all lost.

Barry's obituary is available here, and an announcement from the college can be read here. A Facebook page to post memories of Barry can be found here.

1Litman, B. R., & Bridges, J. (1986). An economic analysis of American newspapers. Newspaper Research Journal, 7(3 spring), 9-26.

2 Bridges, J. A., Litman, B. R., & Bridges, L. W. (2002). Rosse's model revisited: Moving to concentric circles to explain newspaper competition. Journal of Media Economics, 15(1), 3-19.

3 Litman, B.R. (2006). The convergent society and the media industries. In Bridges, J. Litman B. R., &Bridges, L.W. (Eds.), Newspaper competition in the millennium (pp.23-32). New York, Nova Science Publishers.

4 Litman, B. & Bain, E. (1987). Information search and banned product advertising: An indifference curve approach. Current Issues and Research in Advertising, 39-59.

5 Litman, B. R. (February 1992). Economic aspects of program quality: The case for diversity. Studies of Broadcasting, 121-56.

6 Thomas, L., & Litman, B. R. (Spring 1991). Fox Broadcasting Company, why now? An economic study of the rise of the fourth broadcast "network." Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 35(2), 139-158.

7 Litman, B. R., Shirkhande, S., & Ahn, H. (2000). A portfolio theory approach to network program selection. The Journal of Media Economics, 13(2), 57-79.