Let's Fix the News

As another US presidential election draws near, the brokenness of the media is becoming ever more glaring. It's not exactly a new phenomenon. Since at least the sinking of the USS Maine the media have been known to put their own interests above those of the people they purport to inform. Journalism has been called "the first draft of history" and like most first drafts, a lot of it is garbage and needs to be discarded. Today, incentives have misaligned to the point that journalism is doing more harm than good.

Newspapers have always had advertising, but they used to have other revenue streams as well. Subscriptions, sales (from newsstands and stores), and classifieds1 all helped reduce the reliance on advertising revenue. Then the Internet came along and gutted these sources. Thanks to The Content Singularity readers no longer have to buy a subscription or an individual paper to get something to read. There is more available to read for free online than any one person can get through in a lifetime.

This means advertising is all the news media have left in terms of revenue2. In order to make money with advertising, they need to capture the audience's attention. What captures attention? Anger and fear work best, so that's what they feed us 24/7. They're not even subtle about it. The next time you're scanning the headlines, take note of how many promise to tell you "why you should be afraid" of this or that.

As a result, we're in a perpetual state of feeling the world is about to end, usually because of something terrible some awful people are doing or not doing. It's making us miserable and it's making us hate each other.

Micro-payments and paywalls are not the answer

These are common proposals. Surely, if we directly pay for the news then the news will serve us and not advertisers. This has not worked so far for a couple reasons. One is that there are still advertisers, and they pay far more than subscriptions ever will. The other is that people will not pay for the news because the news is of little value to them.

Despite all of the time and energy some of us spend on the news, what do we get out of it? People will pay $5 for a latte at Starbucks, but they won't pay $1 to read a news article. Why? The answer is simple. The latte provides value and the news doesn't. The latte tastes good and gives you energy. The news makes you angry or scared. It tells you about things that are of no immediate relevance to your life. Sure, it might, in some abstract sense, be important that there are terrible things happening to people on the other side of the world or that one politician said something mean about another politician, but will it make any difference to what happens to you today in your life? Probably not.

That's what it comes down to. The news doesn't provide anything of immediate value, so people don't want to spend money on it. At best it's entertainment. Even then, it is a shitty form of entertainment. It does not provide a happy ending, uplifting stories, triumph of the human spirit. It doesn't provide cathartic tragedy. It makes you angry and scared. Horror movies make you scared too, but they at least provide a release to the tension at the end when the monster is defeated. In the news, the monster is never defeated. The next day they're back to take away your guns or your right to abortion, or your jobs, or your healthcare. You're always in imminent danger with no relief in sight. It's no way to live.

As for anger, I can't think of any other medium that traffics in anger as a primary motion it's trying to evoke. Online gaming maybe? Even there, I think the anger is probably just a side-effect; what people are chasing is the joy of winning.

How do we fix it?

Ultimately, if we're to have a democracy, we do need the news. It might not be immediately valuable to our lives in the way other products are, but we do need for the public to be aware of political scandals and major business deals and new laws and many of the other things the news tells us about. The problem is we need facts about these things, not manipulation. So how do we get the news to tell us facts?

Like all problems of misaligned incentives, the solution is to correctly align the incentives. The first hurdle should be to make it so that if your organization earns its income from advertising, it cannot call itself a news organization. If you want to show ads and tell people stories about the day, fine. But don't pretend you're trying to inform anyone. Some people seem content to have their political sensibilities pandered to. I believe in freedom, so let people have that if they want it. But don't call it news.

The news is ultimately information. The right information, more importantly, at the right time, can provide tremendous amounts of value. The solution then, is to sell timely information to people who value it. After the time in which it is valuable has expired, make it available for free to the general public. This serves the purpose of providing funding to report the news, while also serving the public interest.

If you're the chief of staff for a Senator, it is probably immensely valuable to you to get up-to-the minute information about breaking political scandals. You should be willing to pay for that. If you're an accountant in Omaha, you might also want to know about political scandals, but you probably have little need for a play-by-play report as it happens. You can read a summary of it next week and this will make no difference in your life. Voters still get to be informed. Reporters get paid.

But most importantly, this incentivizes reporters to make sure the news is true and accurate. If your customers are going to be making career-defining decisions based on your stories, they had better be right3. If not, the customers are not going to go somwhere else. Now there is skin in the game. This is the healthy sort of competition that makes capitalism find solutions to problems.

Off the top of my head, I think at least politics and finance would be fields willing to pay for up-to-the minute information. I'm sure there are others as well. This does leave the problem of local news. Here, though, the calculus changes. For the average person, local news - what's happening in your town - does have an immediate impact on your day to day life. If you're freed from the burden of having to support the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, a subscription that tells you about local road closures and potential increases in property taxes might be something you'd be willing to fund.

At the end of the day the solution to the problems with the news is the same as the solution to most business problems. Find a way to provide value to someone, and charge them money for that value. It's just crazy enough to work.

  1. Admittedly, a form of advertising, but one different enough from what we normally think of as advertisements to warrant its own category. No newspaper would consider revising its editorial stance based on what the people buying classified ads might think.

  2. And for TV journalism it's all they ever had. It's no coincidence they have been leading the charge in the decline of journalism.

  3. Today there is no consequence for inaccurate news stories. The worst case scenario for a reporter is that maybe the newspaper prints a retraction that gets 1% of the attention the original story got. Most likely, the story just fades away and is never addressed again. People forget. There is a new, pressing, end-of-the-world story to focus on. Never mind that the last ten pressing end-of-the-world stories have been forgotten and nothing ever came of them. This one now is the real deal!