How memes show us the future of news.

News stories were once true and substantive.* Now they often aren’t.**

Who chose this? Why has it happened? Who can we blame?

To begin the answer, let us take a quick detour into the world of memes. For a meme to spread, what matters is its shareability. Whether a chain letter or a Facebook video about sloths, certain characteristics of memes make them highly shareable. They go viral. They splinter and are adapted. The most memetically fit versions perpetuate and grow stronger.

In memes we can see very easily that shareability need have little to do with truth, little to do with substantiveness.

Our collective future is being crushed in the shrinking blue ellipse like rebels in a trash compactor
Our collective future is being crushed in the shrinking blue ellipse like rebels in a trash compactor.

News is just the sharing of information. So why would we expect truth and substantiveness to be important in News?

Well (you may say) the history of the 20th Century! In that period, news sources that thrived – one could mention the New York Times here – were ones that invested in reputations for truth and substantiveness. There is precedent.

And, obviously, the human brain is adapted to crave true things. Mostly. This is evolutionarily adaptive on the whole. (It is worth pointing out that memetic fitness is not about the memes in isolation. The environment in which the memes live and die – the human brain and surrounding culture – is vitally important. )

So there is good reason to think truth, substantiveness and news can go hand in hand in hand. But they needn’t, if other incentives in consumption or production are more important.

For example More copies of Soviet newspaper Pravda were printed than the New York Times during the 1970s. (It may have been substantive but it was not always true.) And of course there have always been gossip magazines – which sold more copies than the Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal put together.

The truth and substantiveness of those key western news sources in the 20th century seemed so crucial they would stay like that forever. But those features were actually always fragile, never universal, and only ever contingent on a happenstance combination of incentives.

What were those incentives coerced major news sources to be true and substantive? I don’t purport to know for sure, but I can think of several plausible candidates.

On the production side:

  • Time. Newspapers came out generally only once a day, or perhaps once a week. Facts could be checked. Re-using other outlets stories was simply a way to be a day late.
  • Money. There was no other good way to get people ads.
  • Advertiser influence: They wanted a credible environment to carry their spruiking.
  • Access. Politicians would not talk to newspapers that were non-credible.
  • Niches. A large profitable market meant gossip and political journalism were not all bundled in together under one masthead. Brands were clear.

On the consumption side:

  • A select readership. Over the 20th century, literacy skyrocketed. But reading the ‘important’ newspapers was still the preserve of the educated (and those who could afford them) for decades.
  • Your paper of choice was public knowledge. It lay on your front lawn each morning and on the train anybody could see what you were reading. The stories you knew about also depended on what paper you read. Reading a ‘serious’ paper was a status symbol.

Some readers may look at this list of little reasons and deem them beside the point – yes, yes but the fourth estate has a vital role in holding the mighty to account!

But the lesson of memes is we don’t get what is vital – we get what incentives allow.

“Any human with above room temperature IQ can design a utopia. The reason our current system isn’t a utopia is that it wasn’t designed by humans. Just as you can look at an arid terrain and determine what shape a river will one day take by assuming water will obey gravity, so you can look at a civilization and determine what shape its institutions will one day take by assuming people will obey incentives.”

-Slate Star Codex

We can fund the Press Council, lionise the ABC’s Media Watch program, read the remaining journalists we think are credible, cry at the Walkley awards, rant about clickbait in the comments and so on. But that won’t be more than a sandcastle against the tide. If we want to bring back large volumes of very good journalism we need to change incentive structures.

All this is why I try to avoid bashing individual journalists for the fate of the media. Some people – with the finest of intentions – try single-handedly to reshape the incentive structure of the entire industry. They use the internet to shame and berate journalists and outlets for producing what they perceive as low-quality content.

It’s a valiant attempt. In some ways these people are heroes. They are making themselves very angry and quite unpopular in an attempt to uphold the common good. I thank them. But they cannot do it alone.

The incentives are what matter. The question is whether the incentive change that came with the rise of the internet is permanent. I am hopeful that the recent dislocation is fleeting. Technology is not done changing.


A revival of news may even be inevitable. We may see experimentation in news production, distribution and consumption of news until someone hits on a model that pays for itself. This is why we have capitalism – if a product exists that people want, the market will reward handsomely anyone that can find a way to package and deliver it.

One possible form news could take is the trade press – boutique outlets for paying clients who absolutely want only the facts.  Alternatively, perhaps Facebook will fund reporting and investigations. Or online classifieds will add content to bring in more eyeballs and thereby accidentally reinvent the newspaper from the other side. (Or a combination of this second two – online selling groups on Facebook are seemingly huge now.)

More likely it will be something else entirely that brings back serious news. On the production side, the profit motive is an incentive that gives us reason to hope.

However. This will only be the case if technology hasn’t also changed something about the environment in which memetic fitness is determined – i.e. human brains. If we have been so affected by frolicking in the internet’s content fountain that we actually secretly don’t want news any more, then the party is pretty much over.

*Is this true? It seems to be but I admit to having no data.

** Is this true? If it’s not true and substantive, is it a news story? Is it worth comparing a buzzfeed listicle to a news story if all they have in common is being comprised of words? These questions are not pursued any further in the work above.

Could this be a better way to pay politicians?

Australia’s 824 politicians are paid well.

The lowest paid MPs are certain members of the ACT legislative assembly, who get $132,800.On the other side of Canberra, federal parliament is even more lucrative. The lowliest federal backbencher* makes $195,130. The highest paid is the Prime Minister, who makes $507,000.

State MPs seem to get about 70 per cent of the federal pay. The Premier of NSW gets $358,853 .

The following table is taken from a recent report in parliamentary salaries in Victoria. Since then, pay rates have been hiked for inflation once or twice.

MP pay

Politician pay is a fraught issue. The annual pay rises create a furore in the media, especially during times of budget stringency. It got me wondering if there might be a better way.

What if politician pay were anchored to something that we can all believe in? What if politician pay was somehow linked to how well the rest of us are going?

This could be an effective way to not only manage the PR aspect of politician pay rises, but to properly align their incentives with our own.

Here are some anchors we could use, for starters.

Average annual full time earnings (for the employed) is $78,821, GDP per capita is $67,218. The median wage is $60,112, and the minimum wage is $33,327.

Pay packets
Pay packets

There is a case to be made for paying politicians well, in order that they are not swayed in their duties by fat brown envelopes, or promises of lucrative employment after their retirement from public life. Generosity also prevents the other problem you get when you pay peanuts – you get the homo but not the sapiens.

So while it is tempting to say that politicians should be on the median wage, it may not be practicable.

Instead, a bundle of all of the above might make a sensible balance. If you add the four categories together, and multiply by 0.8, you get  $191,580 – a number that roughly approximates current politician pay.

You could easily argue, at this point, that this pay structure is entirely mis-focused and materialistic, and if we’re going to have performance pay for MPs it should be linked to a far broader basket of KPIs, including a rating of the health of the great barrier reef, carbon emissions per capita, spotted numbat populations, ambulance waiting times, NAPLAN testing results in western Sydney, etc, etc. I’d totally support all of that.

At this point, it’s worth mentioning that I really do not think any sort of MP pay reform is worthwhile without sorting out entitlements, which are absolutely arcane and create a culture where MPs are disproportionately focused on getting the public to pay for bookshelves and travel allowances.

Is this a good idea? What would you suggest putting in the mix to align politicians’ incentives with our own? Leave a comment below!

* Please feel free to use the comments section to nominate precisely who you believe is Australia’s lowliest federal backbencher.

You’ll never guess what happens when you give public servants less work to do.

They do a better job on the remaining work.

A giant study from the US has compared the output of state supreme court judges. It finds that when they have a lower workload, judges write longer judgments and the quality of those judgments is higher, as evidenced by them being cited more often in subsequent judgments.

The study looked at what happened  after the introduction of an intermediate court which reduced the workflow of the state supreme court judges to find out what would happen. The conclusion is that the judges have intrinsic motivation.

Consistent with other theories of motivation, the research found pay rises increased work performance, but only in those states where the judges choose which cases to hear.

“This suggests the importance of control over the work environment in the operation of intrinsic incentives.”

But the judges were not always at peak performance, with regular dips in output every few years. Those dips were associated with judicial elections.

In the US, judges have to be re-elected, which forces them into distracting process of campaigning. But how often that process comes around is relevant to their performance.

“We find evidence that in the year a judge is up for re-election their performance falls, consistent with the hypothesis that campaigning takes time.”

Less frequent elections turn out to be better for judicial output.

“In our sample, we find that a judge responds to a term length increase with higher-quality judgments and no decline in output as measured by the number of cases or total number of words written.”

The biggest application of this work in Australia may not be to the workaday public servants that we all know and love, but the high-profile public servants we call politicians.

“Explicit performance pay can crowd out intrinsic motivation.”

The fact that judges are intrinsically motivated suggests pay for performance is unnecessary. Perhaps the same thing could work for politcians. If ministerial and leadership positions attracted no more pay than back-bench roles, might they attract primarily people who are intrinsically motivated? And might that not diminish – even if only at the margin – the amount of backstabbing and scheming that goes in to attempting to be leader? That could only be a good thing.

If intrinsic motivation is sapped by the need to be re-elected longer terms in office could increase the total of quality work done by politicians. That may be why our senators seem on average to be better respected than our lower house MPs – their six-year terms make them a bit more inclined to do steady policy work.

The study also suggests that loading up a minister with a bunch of portfolios that they don’t care about is the wrong approach. For example, having George Brandis be Attorney-General and Minister for arts. Instead, farming out individual portfolios to MPs who want them most is likely to get better results.

Wooing Clive: How to suck up to a *really* rich MP

Australia’s richest-ever member of Parliament could introduce a novel influence-buying dynamic into federal politics, new research suggests.

Clive Frederick Palmer, member for Fairfax, has been confirmed as a billionaire. The leader of the Palmer United Party has made his outsized wealth a political issue.

He claims:

“I’m not offering myself for service to the nation to increase my income… I’m incorruptible – you can offer me a billion dollars and it won’t change my views on something and it won’t mean much to me either.”

The argument is plausible. The theory of the declining marginal utility of money suggests Mr Palmer would be less tempted by a million bucks than other MPs.

But a new paper from the United States National Bureau of Economic Research hints that is not the end of the story.

Berkeley economics professor, Stefano DellaVigna and colleagues, have found “[w]hen a politician controls a business, firms attempting to curry favors shift their
spending towards the politician’s business.”

Professor DellaVigna’s paper, Market-based Lobbying: Evidence from Advertising Spending in Italy, uses the reign of Silvio Berlusconi to show that companies increased their advertising spending with his media companies.

“We document a significant pro-Mediaset bias in the allocation of advertising spending during Berlusconi’s political tenure. This pattern is especially pronounced for companies
operating in more regulated sectors, as predicted,” DellaVigna et al write.

Mr Palmer may not be Prime Minister, as Berlusconi was, but after July 1, his party will control the balance of power in the Senate.

Will Australian companies start doing business with Mineralogy, Palmer’s main concern? Bluescope Steel, perhaps. But it is doubtful many regulated companies can use a lot of iron ore or nickel.

Palmer’s interests run deeper and broader than that, according to the register of Member’s Interests. [.ashx link]

He owns over 80 private companies in Australia, and nine private overseas companies. That’s without considering his directorships and companies owned through trusts or other entities in which Mineralogy has shares.

The one that jumps out in this context is Coolum Resort.*

Screen Shot 2014-01-06 at 11.48.25 AM

The former Hyatt resort – which Palmer bought in 2011 for an estimated $80 million – has already got a load of free publicity.

If you are the sort of person that gets invited to conferences and summits, don’t be surprised if you end up among the Tyrannosarus Rexes at some point in 2014. (The resort features 160 fibreglass dinosaurs)

It may have been described as “a five-star version of Fawlty Towersbut entities that plan on lobbying this term of government would be mad to book anywhere else.

*I do not suggest booking a conference at Coolum necessarily constitutes corruption or influence-seeking, neither do I suggest Mr Palmer’s votes or views would be influenced by who books at his resort.

January weight-loss challenge

UPDATE: check my progress via this link!

I want to lose four kilograms in January. I’m old enough to realise that midriff fat is not only unsightly but a health risk. I think I know the incentives that will make losing it a cinch.*

That’s not to say that losing 4 kilos is easy. But I have a three-pronged strategy that I believe will work on me.

1. Cash incentives. Humans hate losses more than they enjoy gains. I pledge to pay $500 in penalties if the 4kg is not lost by the morning of February 1. This is the concept behind the website stickk, set up by Yale Economics Professor Dean Karlan, which currently has $16 million of incentives pending. Enforceable contracts are powerful incentives.**

2. Writing down everything I eat, and its kilojoule content. I’ve done this before when I’ve wanted to lose weight. It works in two ways – I learn a lot about portion sizes, and what snacks are “bad value”; it also discourages me from eating something, because I know I will have to write it down and add it up at the end of the day.***

3. Transparency. I will create a separate page on this blog in which I will place a daily photo of my scales. Public enforcement alone can be insufficient, as News Limited economics editor Jessica Irvine so publicly proved at Dietonomics. The long-abandoned blog’s three weeks of sad posts stands as testimony to the difficulty of losing weight. But I think it will add to the power of the other two prongs

But that’s not all.

Just to ramp up the suspense, the donation I give if I fail will be to the Motoring Enthusiasts Party.  “Ugh!” I hear you say. “You are a sicko… Why would you want to donate to them?”

My response: “Precisely.”


The Motoring Enthusiasts could not be further from my affections. The thought of a slice of my recent redundancy payment going to them will be a strong motivator in case anyone opens a Haighs Dessert Block in front of me during January. The Motoring Enthusiasts will not see a cent. This is my pledge.

If you would like to get involved, please do so! Pledge a goal and an incentive and I can report your progress too. Doesn’t matter if you’ve missed the start of the month.

Weight Dec 31: 78.5kg

*Classic economic models of human behaviour do not make such a distinction between short-run and long-run incentives. Economics says if you are a bit overweight, that reveals a preference for being fat. Thomas the Think Engine adopts a more nuanced theory of human behaviour, including the possibility of hyperbolic discounting.

** This blog is run on these methods. As a self-manager, I know I want to post daily by 12.30pm. But my tendency is to procrastinate. So I must pay a $60 fine to my significant other if the blog is not updated by that time. Works a treat.

*** I’ve done this before when I’ve wanted to shed a few kilos, and I’ve learned a lot of very disappointing things about cheese.

EPILOGUE: I made it. See my progress at this link!