I more or less agree with the context of Tod’s piece. To get it out of the way, I believe that Tod’s right, to a very important extent, about the current state of new media.
So here’s a meta question.
Are the existing market incentives for clickbait-hysteria…
(a) the new norm (we are somewhere we haven’t been before);
(b) a side effect of transient, disruptive media changes (we’re not somewhere yet, so this is symptomatic of transition rather than the new normal);
(c) symptomatic of a death spiral of a new media instance (we are somewhere, and it’s already dying?)
(d) the inevitable resting endpoint, the heat death, of responsible journalism?
To flesh that out a bit more…
Let’s go with a simplistic analysis of factual media in the United States. This isn’t a dissertation on journalism in the U.S., so gloss over the nuance with me here for a moment.
At the spawn of the country, print media was still pretty expensive, mostly done by non-coordinating independents, largely individualized by those folks, and wholly irresponsible when it came to talking about matters of fact. I’m just asserting this, but if you want raw evidence just read any political pamphlet from the first dozen or so Presidential races and realize that this wasn’t fringe media making up ridiculous charges about candidates… this was literally *the only* media available.
Somewhere between the beginning of the industrial revolution and the advent of widespread wireless radio, it became cheap enough to mass-produce what we now think of as mass circulation newspapers, at a price that sufficient folks could afford to buy them, because they had money to waste on things like the local fishwrap instead of food. The metropolitan newspaper became a media instance of its own. We get they heyday of William Randolph Hearst and other media moguls. Now print media is cheap as dirt, mostly done by somewhat coordinating independents (usually broken into two competing organizations in any given metropolitan area, the Blue paper and the Red one), and still pretty irresponsible when it comes to matters of fact, because making stuff up can improve your circulation when you’re either the local Blue paper or the local Red one.
Then we get radio. Now print media needs to compete with a new way of disseminating information. New organizations pop up running competing media sources, and the “news” part of the newspaper has to start to compete with a news distribution method that is much faster. Newspapers respond to this by writing longer form pieces, more magazines start to crop up to fill the new void of long form journalism. Some former newspaper moguls respond by increasing their media empires by buying up radio and other newspapers and magazines, and forming the first media empires. Others die out.
Then we get television. Now radio has a competitor, and print has a competitor, and the government has some fairly heavy regulations on what broadcasting companies can and cannot do over the airwaves (before anybody starts moaning about terrible censors and how you can’t say certain words over broadcast television even today, let’s just leave that conversation for another day, eh?) The Big Three broadcasting companies have news divisions, which are necessarily segregated to some extent from the profit motive by the fact that the Big Three are required to have them.
Now along comes Ted Turner. He’s disruptive. CNN. Fox News. MSNBC. Cable news is disruptive to the television/print/radio trifecta… the amount of disruption largely depending upon local markets and how much of those three news distribution channels are owned by a mogul or a newscorp and how aggressively they are competing in any individual market… and what that local market wants to hear/see/have reinforced in the editorial pages, of course.
Now we’ve got teh Intrawebs.
Now, if you plot all those disruptive moments in news media over time vs. time periods with a status quo, you’re going to probably find something along the lines of 30-50 years of print media being pretty stable, overlapping with 30-50 years of radio being pretty stable, overlapping with 30-50 years of television being pretty stable, and then a gigantic train wreck of fifteen years where there *is* no “new norm”, there is only “things are changing really fast”.
The Internet has mucked things up considerably. With vested interests in print and radio and television and cable news, and a morass of regulation and a bunch of other things, it’s not clear to me that we’re anywhere that can be called a place. We’re traveling from one place to another.
Tod’s piece doesn’t come right out and talk about this, but the subtext I get from reading it (and from the other good work he’s done here) is that he’s got some underlying assumptions that are leading him to consider the current state of affairs as a new normal, and one with a lot of bad incentives. While I agree there are a lot of bad incentives, I don’t think we’re at a norm, so I’m less concerned that there are systemic problems here.
Here’s a thing that I say occasionally, I’ll say it again, just to remind us all:
We’re the weirdos, here, people. Most folks don’t register to vote. Of those that register to vote, most of them don’t vote. Of the ones that do vote, most of them don’t really follow politics and policy.
Of the ones that *do* follow politics and policy, very few of them actually follow more than a half-handful of personally held important issues.
Of the ones that *do* follow politics and policy and have *more* than a half-handful of personally held important issues, most of them have ideological blinders that make their policy preferences pretty predictable.
Of the ones that *do* follow politics and policy and have more than a half-handful of personally held important issues which they can regard while consciously removing their ideological blinders so that they can regard policy without overwhelming bias… well, there’s about fifteen or twenty thousand of us, am I right?
The current state of affairs is clearly rewarding horrible… biased… hit-piece… click-bait journalism.
No argument there.
Who’s reading it? And is it really affecting their public policy preferences? We’re becoming a more divided country, by the rhetorical language used by our talking heads and ideologically slanted media overlords… but are they really over-lording much? Wasn’t the end result of the GOP Primary last cycle the nomination of the fairly right of center, technocratic, historically moderate Mitt, and not… well… anybody else? Does anyone seriously think that Donald Trump is going to last twenty days past the Iowa primary, if he gets that far?
And isn’t there an inevitable backlash?
Already the squishy middle folks like me just can’t tolerate the hyperbolic editorialized baloney that passes for basic news “reporting”.
So folks that write hit pieces get clicks, usually from the outraged fringe on both sides, and the response pieces get clicks, also from the outraged fringe on both sides, and the fringes are getting pushed farther to the right and left and thus more and more folks in the middle are getting less and less interested in the conversation at all. Fox News viewership isn’t going to be replenished in the next decade, not at the same rate that the boomers die off.
The meta-level incentive here is pretty stark. You can get increasingly shrill and get better retransmission rates between a rapidly decreasing number of users… which is the current path. But eventually you hit a tipping point. You need the folks that you’ve forced to tune out.
Folks who are twenty years younger than I am don’t even have the same media consumption *universe* that I do.
Isn’t this whole thing unsustainable? Sure, the incentives are bad right now, and their inevitable outcome is *garbage*.
Who wants a steady diet of garbage? Remember what happened to the O.G. media moguls like Hearst? Public response to guys like Hearst is what gave us Edward R. Murrow. It is what gave us FCC rules that required broadcast television networks to carry news departments in the first place.
So where are we?
(image credit: “WaitOctaviaMoRShrug” by Infrogmation of New Orleans – Photo by Infrogmation (talk). Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -)