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.
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.”
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.