The Reason Our News Media Sucks
We’re under this sort of cultural spell nowadays that forces us to believe all technology is good technology. Silicon Valley’s economic successes have permeated every part of our culture. This is most apparent in how its shaped our news media.
Because of internet publishing technologies that are readily available (YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Medium, etc.), anyone can share their message globally, instantaneously. In fact, that’s exactly what I’m doing right now.
Good thing, right?
Access to these tools ostensibly make the world a better place. But let’s take a slightly different look. Maybe not so much at the casual blogger or budding internet personality, but how about Gawker? Blog tools allowed for entities like Huffington Post and Gawker to emerge and big businesses formed around them. In the case of Gawker’s eponymous website and other new entrants, we saw the face of journalism change.
Prior to blogs cum media businesses, a much higher level of investment was required to publish given the costs associated with print. With that investment came journalistic scrutiny, at least in the case of credible news publications. I suppose you could say we had two categories of daily or weekly periodicals; entertainment (i.e., National Enquirer) and news (i.e., The New York Times). The New York Times’ business was never threatened by the National Enquirer because they offered two very different products. Even if the National Enquirer wanted to act like a news publication it would have had to prove its credibility to get the appropriate distribution access or maybe spend a prohibitive amount of money in marketing to convince folks it was something other than its true self.
The limitations of the printed page as a technology protected the integrity of the content available.
Once those limitations fell away with the emergence of the internet and global distribution became essentially cost-free, those protective barriers disappeared. An irresponsible publication (like Gawker) could effectively print whatever they wanted and have the same equal opportunity for readership as a responsible publication. Cost of entry gone. The free market at its best (assuming one values the free market over credible information).
Entertaining content by its very nature will get more readership than boring content. Enticing headlines will get more clicks than boring headlines. Advertising dollars follow the audience. Publication costs are nil so the cost passed on to the reader is nil, so the consumer purchasing of print media as a business model falls away.
The result — the business incentive to maintain investment in responsible journalism as a product effectively gone. In other words, responsible journalism no longer paid.
For entirely different reasons, the cable news business has tracked a similar route content-wise to the internet. First, CNN emerged alongside the formation of cable TV; the first 24/7 news network. As a response to both CNN’s success and an editorial hole in the market, Fox created Fox News in 1996, seizing on the brilliant concept of serving the voracious right-leaning AM talk radio audiences around the country. MSNBC soon followed.
While the emergence of cable news has different origins than internet news, the business incentive remains the same; audience equals dollars.
If an audience doesn’t show up, the business leaders need to modify their approach until it does.
I’m also confident that as internet news matured it pushed cable news editorially to where it is today by brute force. Now they’re fully intermingled.
The combination of our evolving publishing technologies, internet and television, and the free market economy that powers them have removed any and all mandate to deliver the people credible, valuable news.
One of the exceptions to this is business news. Enterprise markets need unbiased credible information in order to achieve their goals. Publications like the Wall Street Journal need to maintain objective credibility in order to serve their readership.
But news media in a broad sense no longer maintains a financial imperative for credibility. The algorithms that power our Facebook news feeds and the self-serving interests that inspire likes and re-tweets have nothing to do with credibility. They are based on popularity.
In the UK, they had the forward thinking mindset during the creation of television to ensure that the BBC would be state funded and their news would therefore not require a financial imperative, but unfortunately no media operation can live in a shielded bubble and it suffers from attack on all sides; politically, commercially and editorially — while it faces a separate set of issues, it still must contend with the modern world that surrounds it.
Let me conclude by saying that the news was never meant to be objective. The first newspapers in the US were funded by political parties and were unapologetically propaganda. But as the business surrounding published media matured, they began to serve a larger purpose and became the foundation for what we now perceive as objective journalism.
Back to the future (meaning, today), it’s clear all of this has resulted in our news media becoming eminently crappy. We have a presidential candidate on the Republican side who refers to his voters and potential, future constituents as ‘fans’ and ‘audience’.
Because that’s exactly what they are today.