It is almost expected these days that inbound news publications will declare, in one form or another, that the information is “broken”. This was Axios’ pitch in 2015, as CEO Jim Vande Hei memorably lamented the “shit trap” of lightweight, inconsequential “content” produced as a sacrifice to the algorithmic gods. A version of it has been deployed more recently, in particular by Justin Smith to describe the impetus to start a new global information operation. Similarly, Grid identified an audience that “wants a deeper and clearer understanding of the world around them, regardless of their political orientation.”
Consider other signs that the news is not appreciated:
- Facebook is leaking news, officially removing “news” from the News Feed in favor of a simple News Feed.
- The New York Times, arguably the most successful news company in the world, is seeing greater growth in non-news subscription products than in its news product. No wonder he bought Wordle to solidify his gaming ambitions.
- News consumption has fallen significantly, according to an Axios analysis from last year.
- The percentage of respondents who say they are extremely or very interested in current affairs has fallen by 17% among US respondents who identify as conservative, according to the Reuters Institute.
It’s an enigma. For one thing, there’s a severe lack of local news, as newspapers continue to shrink and the hodgepodge of nonprofits, billionaire hobbies and startups fail to reach. so far to fill the void. Employment of journalists is down. And yet, the pandemic, along with the machinations of donald Asset, has been an unprecedented boon for news publishers. Consumption skyrocketed, along with advertising, and paying for subscriptions became normal behavior. As a digital media manager pointed out to me this week, it used to be hard to pay for things on the internet, and now it’s incredibly easy and efficient. This has enabled news publishers to emerge from the pandemic in much better shape than imagined.
But after every party comes the hangover. The frayed nerves of the pandemic aren’t going to be mended easily, and the uncertainty of a once-in-a-century global pandemic has led to much doomscrolling. The promise of the Internet was to make information freely available, which would presumably lead to a better understanding of the world more broadly throughout society. The idea of making the news free and relying instead on advertising turned out to be a bad bet. Tying the fortunes of news companies to algorithmic distribution platforms created perverse incentives that skewed news in a sensationalist direction, fueling either prejudice or anxieties. Finally, the news industry has too often been drawn into our political tribal wars, with many subscription publishers choosing, consciously or unconsciously, to respond to public bias rather than challenge it with different viewpoints. These days, news sites should carry warnings that spending too much time on their platforms will cause spikes in fear, anger, anxiety, mistrust and disillusionment. This contributes more to a mental health crisis than to a healthy society.
Like most industries, the news industry suffers from a drive to produce more. Ad-dependent models require page views, which are often better produced by producing more. Subscription models are often based on “unlimited access”, although Jack Marshall points out that this is often a losing value proposition compared to offering “scarcity, efficiency and concentrated value”.
Add it all together, and there is evidence that there is simply too much news, especially related to politics. Civic engagement is important, but little of what passes for political news has that impact. The food fights in Washington have extended to mask mandates and vaccines. In the name of combating misinformation, many in the news industry have aligned themselves with the idea that some views are simply too dangerous to hear, even if very few people speak out. Joe Rogan listen to the program regularly. That Twitter had to add a disclaimer to encourage people to read articles before retweeting them says a lot about the role news plays in the bird app’s fight pits. News has become another weapon in the culture wars. Most of the time, people open Twitter to follow the news, they would be better served walking around.
I started to believe that limiting news consumption makes people happier. A study in Europe found that “increased media consumption did not seem to contribute much to well-being and happiness, especially television and social media”. In 2018, the American Psychological Association found that worries about the nation’s future cause as much personal stress as household finances. I know that family gatherings without discussion of “news” – that’s the code of politics – are more enjoyable. The exhilarating experience of plowing through the various disasters detailed on Atlantic enough to make anyone want to go back to bed. It’s little wonder The New York Times created a team to find “innovative ways to deepen our audience’s trust in our mission and in the credibility of our journalism, no matter where they are encountered”.
The end of the Omicron push will once again propel people into a new phase of the pandemic era. News editors would do well to prepare for behavioral shifts away from the anxious rush of catastrophizing in a new direction.
Respond to specific needs. Dmitry Shishkin, formerly of the BBC, encourages the use of an ‘audience needs’ framework to work backwards from the audience’s perspective. A survey of young people from the News Media Alliance highlights this point, as respondents indicate they want more help navigating finances, health, wellbeing and career.
Reduce bad news bias. The world is never as bad as it appears in the news. There are problems in this world, but bad news bias crushes people. By its very nature, news thrives on conflict, but too often it falls into the cynical view of the human condition. We have to show some optimism.
Challenge assumptions. The pivot to subscriptions has led to stronger business models. It has also led many publications to closely monitor the biases of their subscribers. After all, the customer is always right. However, a user needs an evaluation of Atlantic indicated that a key stated need is to challenge assumptions.
Find the middle ground. Newsrooms have never been so tense, and journalism has traded the drawbacks of bilateralism for a militant bent. This changes the nature of reporting from informing to persuading. Many of the issues facing the world – climate change, inequality, overcoming the pandemic – are nuanced, complex and full of trade-offs. They are not well served by an us versus them approach.
Go narrow and deep. As the amount of raw information increases, its value decreases, but the value of the information increases. General information has been trivialized. The reaction to this, particularly on cable news but also among news publishers, has put more emphasis on personality and opinion. The greatest opportunity comes from expertise.
This article originally appeared in The Rebooting newsletter.