May 23, 2014

The Quality of News

Here's a comment I wrote in response to this post on Facebook from Mike Hudack:

As long as an ad impression on a "serious story" pays as much as an ad impression on a listicle and people are more interested in viewing listicles than real news, this will likely continue. Facebook accelerates the problem, but is not its core source. And the media outlets that produce this crap are just following the incentives: if they don't do it, someone else will (and that someone else will be all over your social media feeds).

America's tradition of quality journalism stems from two sources: bundling and the fact that some fraction of media outlets were owned by families and businesses who were interested in their reputations, not just their bank accounts. Serious news has never sold well, but as long as you had to buy a newspaper to get both the front page and the sports page, one could support the other, and it was in the interest of the families that ran those papers to be seen as serious; they funded the news desks to maintain that image. This worked, particularly when newspapers had strong, well-defended businesses which weren't vulnerable to disruption, and the bundling helped everyone hide the truth about what components of the bundle the audience actually cared about.

Now, however, people consume content one page view at a time: bundling has vanished, and brand value is low. Anyone can start a media outlet, and there's no audience loyalty. Advertisers pay pretty much the same amount for an ad view regardless of what content it's next to. And programmatic buying has eroded any value advertisers gave to serious brands: now they just want to find the audience, wherever they are. The revenue and cost of a serious news piece vs. a cheap slideshow is clearer than ever and easy to optimize. So it's a race to the bottom, and devil take the hindmost.

There's plenty of great content out there—probably more than ever—but it doesn't get a lot of attention, particularly on social media.

Personally, I think the most likely way out is charging readers for quality news and surviving the sharply reduced audience that will imply. It will entail focusing reporting on concepts that can't be easily "aggregated" by other outlets. The free media will still be a sewer, and most people will only read that. But maybe we could develop a supportive and self-sustaining ecosystem for quality reporting for the people who care about it. That said, it's hard to get there.


rick ackerly said...

Huh, Maybe the opposite. How about supply and demand? What if they had to pay for the sports page (etc.) and charged less for the good stuff?
Anyway, I don;t know what I'm talking about. Good article.

Tim Dierks said...

You could do that, but it's the same transfer: the good stuff costs at least as much to produce, so if you charge less for the good stuff, you'll have to transfer revenue from the trashy-but-popular stuff to the quality journalism.

This works when they're sold together, because the user has to pay for them both. But when they're sold separately and there's low barriers to new entrants, I think you'll find the reader shifts to getting their popular news from sources that aren't overcharging to support money-losing "serious" journalism and the whole system falls apart.