There have been a couple of interesting developments in news media in recent weeks. The first development is the mostly symbolic vote by the House of Representatives to “defund” NPR. I’m a big fan of NPR, but I’m divided on this. I can’t say philosophically that I believe the government should be in the news and media business. On the other hand, I think the healthiest news media is one that’s not-for-profit and publicly-funded.
In the second development, the New York Times unveiled its paywall. It’s live in Canada and soon to arrive in the US. I won’t make any snarky comments about Canada as the guinea pig, and I won’t waste words on the details of the paywall itself, which you can easily learn about elsewhere. It will be interesting to see whether it works, both from a business-model standpoint and a technical one. On the technical side, the Times is already playing whack-a-mole to kill a number of loopholes and workarounds.
The buzz around these developments has raised a number of good-news bad-news scenarios. What if the paywall doesn’t work, and the Times continues to hemorrhage money until it eventually goes bankrupt? What compromises might NPR need to make in order to survive?
There are a few reasons I’m not really concerned about the future and possible demise of the New York Times, and for the same reasons I am worried about NPR.
For-profit news is compromised
News outlets take great pains to protect their editorial operations from the advertising side of the business. But it doesn’t matter, because there’s no getting around the fact that the editorial operations depend on ads. Editors like to believe the dependency is reciprocal, that the advertising side of the business depends on them to produce high-quality journalism to attract audiences. But there are two problems with this argument.
First, it’s a leap to suggest there’s an inherent link between quality and the size of the audience (the “customers” of news). If this were true, then McDonald’s would have gone out of business long ago. In a for-profit news organization, the advertising side of the business merely needs the editorial department to publish whatever grabs the biggest audience, or the most desirable audience segments. Trashy tabloid news is a big seller, and I assume their ad-sales departments aren’t complaining. Serious news organizations are interested in a different segment of the population, but they still don’t like to publish things that challenge the opinions of their readers and viewers too much. This is why you never see people on FOX News discussing the need to address climate change, but it’s also why the New York Times didn’t challenge the Bush administration during the run-up to the Iraq war. The Times only started to challenge the administration in earnest after the tide of public opinion had sufficiently shifted against it, and the war.
Second, while news outlets may be able to protect themselves from the direct influence of advertisers, to ensure there’s no quid-pro-quo, the content of the news coverage most certainly helps determine who buys advertising. If a news organization has historically gotten a whole lot of its ad revenue from, say, the banking industry, then this fact is bound to affect how it covers that industry. The effect isn’t direct, it’s probably not immediate, and it’s subtle, but it’s surely there. This profit imperative may drive editors to make coverage appear even-handed, even if the facts overwhelmingly support one side of a debate (see major news coverage of climate science vs. global warming deniers); it may drive editors to bury important stories; it surely drives the news away from certain topics and toward others.
People innately get this, which is why a lot of “news” is actually opinion. Or satire.
With opinion and satire, at least people know what they’re getting. Opinion and satire can be a substitute for news, to a point. But only to a point. Satire in particular can speak truth to power and knock the powerful down a few pegs. But satire can also zap the power out of things that are truly important. It can make us laugh at things in a way that anesthetizes us to real injustice.
Big news outlets need big-corporate money to operate
It’s expensive to operate a big news organization that has global news gathering capabilities and global audience reach. This kind of news organization needs million-dollar checks, and only big companies can throw around that kind of money. Now this is where I get cynical: Big companies are evil, or at least unethical… or at least ethically agnostic. A small neighborhood business needs to care about its neighborhood, but a big company doesn’t have a neighborhood. A company incorporated in Delaware, with its main offices in New York and London, doesn’t really care about the damage it’s doing to a small town in West Virginia, much less to some village in Ecuador. It starts to care about those things only when enough of its customers start to care. Its job is only to make as much money as it can. This is not how I want my news to be financed.
The news causes brain damage
Major news outlets plus the power of the Internet produces strange bedfellows. It’s trendy right now to use “social” data to drive experiences, so you see lists like “most emailed” or “most shared.” This is great, but it’s also what puts a headline about Charlie Sheen’s latest antics right next to one about protests in Libya. When everything is equally important, then nothing’s important. This kind of forced equivalence can’t be good for our brains.
We probably don’t need so much news reporting
Journalism is hard work. News reporting is easier. A lot of news we could live without. And I’m not even talking about the trashy tabloid stuff. Test this yourself. Next time you see headlines that trigger feelings of outrage (anything involving Michelle Bachmann for example, or the Westboro Baptist Church), don’t read the articles. Bookmark the items you feel the urge to read, and ignore them until the moment passes and the news has moved on to other things (which will probably take a matter of hours). After a few days, are you still outraged? Are you even interested? What about after a month? What if we didn’t know about the protests in the Middle East as they were happening? There are lots of things we don’t know about, or don’t think about all the time. We turn our Twitter profile pictures green to support protesters in Iran, but we go to work every day not thinking about the plight of the Sioux on the Pine Ridge reservation, or folks living in the projects right down the street. We’re always filtering things out. What if you only paid attention to news you were willing to take action on?
All this news generates anxiety, which can be addictive. So can outrage. Outrage is particularly thrilling because it’s accompanied by a sense of moral superiority. “Look at those idiots!” we say. We eagerly forward the latest Glenn Beck snippet because we want to share the thrill of outrage with our friends (the genius of Glenn Beck is that both the people outraged with him and those outraged at him pass around clips of his show).
We probably need more journalism
By journalism, I mean stories. Well-researched and well-told ones, which are often long and take months to produce. Most of this kind of journalism still happens in the for-profit media, in magazines like the New Yorker, Esquire and Vanity Fair, and on television shows like 60-minutes. But some of the best of it comes out of non-profit organizations like ProPublica, PBS (Frontline) and the BBC.
These are turbulent times for the news media, but ultimately I’m not worried about the future of journalism. There will always be intrepid, curious humans who are compelled to investigate and share, and there will always be an audience for their stories. The economics will morph and evolve and go up and down, but I have faith that we’ll always find ways to link the two. I’d just like it to be direct and democratic, rather than compromised and corporate.