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.

COME-BACK?

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.

As the New York Times cuts jobs, we need to consider radical ideas to save news.

“What Newspaper do you read?”

This was once a fair question. But if I asked it in earnest now, you’d laugh. Nobody reads just one. Not any more. We harvest good articles from across the web.

Just this morning I’ve read content on two blogs (1 2 ) , six different news sites, (1 2 3 4 5 6) a think tank and visited seven social media / forum sites ( 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 ). But I only have a couple of online subscriptions.

We are reading more content than ever. And yet venerable institutions like the New York Times are still cutting jobs.

“The job losses are necessary to control our costs and to allow us to continue to invest in the digital future of The New York Times, but we know that they will be painful both for the individuals affected and for their colleagues,” said the company in a statement.

Everyone knows that eyeballs are now online, and everyone knows that the rivers of gold that were classified advertising have dried up. News sources are combatting these issues by building terrific websites, and by doing a range of smart but suspect things to raise money, like native advertising.

But I say there is a third trend that is wreaking havoc on the newspaper business. It is not hidden but its implications are not widely discussed.

That is that people don’t just read one news source any more. They won’t subscribe because they can’t choose which one to subscribe to.

Instead of talking about this, the debate about winning subscriptions to online journalism is crazily caught up in the weeds:

e.g. Boston Globe drops paywall, adds meter instead. 

Each individual news company is wringing its hands, frowning and wondering why nobody will pay $400 to subscribe.

This focus on what you individually can do better leads to worrying about the micro scale. For example, fussing over how much content you reveal before the jump:

“But I wonder if we’re about to see news writing being taken in a new direction as paywall journalism takes over. For the wrong reasons, the rules are being rewritten. Most publications with paywalls allow the reader to see the headline and the first paragraph or two. To read more you have to pay. So with a one fact story – Fred X has been named as the new boss of Company Y – there might be insufficient motivation for the non subscriber to subscribe – unless they can be tantalised. Instead, we’re moving to a situation where intros absolutely cannot get straight to the key fact. Instead, it must be written to intrigue the reader. Company Y has named its new boss. To read more, please log in…” – Mumbrella

But if they want to answer why loyal readers don’t seem to be willing to pay the same to access the same stories when they are presented in digital format, just look at consumer behaviour. We are no longer loyal.

In the 1980s, the remote control and cable TV spread across America like wildfire. The internet is to news what the remote control was to TV. We don’t just watch one station any more. I believe the lesson of TV can be applied to online news – big money can be made by bundling.

Put it this way: would you pay to subscribe to just one TV channel? How would you choose which one?

Cable TV works by selling you lots and lots of channels. That’s what online news sources need to do.Our budgets to spend on online news are unlikely to have shrunk. News sites need to find a middle man that can bundle their product up and capture all those individuals’ budgets.

Here’s the core of a perfect bundle to sell to me:

  • The Age
  • The AFR
  • The Australian
  • The Economist
  • NY Times
  • ESPN
  • AFL.com.au
  • The Times
  • South China Morning Post
  • Bloomberg
  • Reuters
  • Crikey
  • New Matilda
  • Wall Street Journal
  • Financial Times
  • The Atlantic
  • The Washington Post
  • Forbes
  • The Guardian
  • Slate.com
  • Vox

There would also be lots of other sites in the mix that I never look at, and which I constantly grump about “paying for”. That’s the cable TV model and it works.

But it won’t be easy. Here’s why it hasn’t been implemented yet.

Putting competing newspapers behind a single paywall would make the owners and editors of those newspapers extremely nervous and uncomfortable. From an institutional perspective, it feels both ridiculous and impossible to achieve. It requires looking at the news business from a totally different angle. It also has significant start-up and coordination problems.

But from a reader perspective, it would be completely natural and neat and helpful to be able to subscribe to everything you want to read and neither run into paywalls nor constantly expect your preferred titles to disappear.

Furthermore, bundling could help the news industry improve. In cable TV, each channel tries to specialise to earn its place in the mix.

The process of stealing breaking news, features and soft stories, which is currently consuming the news industry, could be diminished if the financial security of each channel depended more on differentiation than same-ification.

You could imagine the middle man that solves the question of news subscription bundling being a Murdoch. But it would not have to be.

Twitter already serves as a kind of news site aggregator. Imagine a world where twitter filtered tweets into two columns: those that link to sites that you subscribe to, and those that link to other sites. You’d never have to hit a paywall again, and even better, you could share paywalled material without feeling like you let your social media followers down.