There are better ways to save journalism

newspaperIn a Columbia Journalism Review op-ed, Bernie Sanders presents a plan to save journalism that begins,

WALTER CRONKITE ONCE SAID that “journalism is what we need to make democracy work.” He was absolutely right, which is why today’s assault on journalism by Wall Street, billionaire businessmen, Silicon Valley, and Donald Trump presents a crisis—and why we must take concrete action.

His prescriptive remedies run ten paragraphs long, and all involve heavy government intervention. Rob Williams (@RobWilliamsNY) of MediaPost provides a brief summary in Bernie Sanders Has Misguided Plan To Save Journalism:

Almost two weeks after walking back his criticism of The Washington Post, which he had suggested was a mouthpiece for owner Jeff Bezos, Sanders described a scheme that would re-order the news business with taxes, cross-subsidies and trust-busting…

Sanders also proposes new taxes on online targeted ads, and using the proceeds to fund nonprofit civic-minded media. It’s highly doubtful that a government-funded news provider will be a better watchdog of local officials than an independent publisher. Also, a tax-funded news source will compete with local publishers that already face enough threats.

Then Rob adds,

Sanders needs to recognize that the news business is subject to market forces too big to tame with more government regulation. Consumers have found other sources for news, including pay-TV and a superabundance of digital publishers.

Here’s a lightly edited copy of the comment I put up under Rob’s post:

Journalism as we knew it—scarce and authoritative media resources on print and air—has boundless competition now from, well, everybody.

Because digital.

Meaning we are digital now. (Proof: try living without your computer and smartphone.) As digital beings we float in a sea of “content,” very little of which is curated, and much of which is both fake and funded by the same systems (Google, Facebook and the four-dimensional shell game called adtech) that today rewards publishers for bringing tracked eyeballs to robots so those eyeballs can be speared with “relevant” and “interactive” ads.

The systems urging those eyeballs toward advertising spears are algorithmically biased to fan emotional fires, much of which reduces to enmity toward “the other,” dividing worlds of people into opposing camps (each an “other” for the “other”). Because, hey, it’s good for the ad business, which includes everyone it pays, including what’s left of mainstream and wannabe mainstream journalism.

Meanwhile, the surviving authoritative sources in that mainstream have themselves become fat with opinion while carving away reporters, editors, bureaus and beats. Brand advertising, for a century the most reliable and generous source of funding for good journalism (admittedly, along with some bad), is now mostly self-quarantined to major broadcast media, while the eyeball-spearing “behavioral” kind of advertising rules online, despite attempts by regulators (especially in Europe) to stamp it out. (Because it is in fact totally rude.)

Then there’s the problem of news surfeit, which trivializes everything with its abundance, no matter how essential and important a given story may be. It’s all just too freaking much. (More about that here.)

And finally there’s the problem of “the story”—journalism’s stock-in-trade. Not everything that matters fits the story format (character, problem, movement). Worse, we’re living in a time when the most effective political leaders are giant characters who traffic in generating problems that attract news coverage like a black hole attracts everything nearby that might give light. (More about that here.)

Against all those developments at once, there is hardly a damn thing lawmakers or regulators can do. Grandstanding such as Sanders does in this case only adds to the noise, which Google’s and Facebook’s giant robots are still happy to fund.

Good luck, folks.

So. How do we save journalism—if in fact we can? Three ideas:

  1. Start at the local level, because the physical world is where the Internet gets real. It’s hard to play the fake news game there, and that alone is a huge advantage (This is what my TED talk last year was about, by the way.)
  2. Whatever Dave Winer is working on. I don’t know anybody with as much high-power insight and invention, plus the ability to make stuff happen. (Heard of blogging and podcasting? You might not have if them weren’t for Dave. Some history herehere and here.)
  3. Align incentives between journalism, its funding sources and its readers, listeners and viewers. Surveillance-based adtech is massively misaligned with the moral core of journalism, the brand promises of advertisers and the privacy of every human being exposed to it. Bernie and too many others miss all that, largely because the big publishers have been chickenshit about admitting their role in adtech’s surveillance system—and reporting on it.
  4. Put the users of news in charge of their relationships with the producers of it. Which can be done. For example, we can get rid of those shitty adtech-protecting cookie notices on the front doors of websites with terms that readers can proffer and publishers can agree to, because those terms are a good deal for both. Here’s one.

I think we’ll start seeing the tide turn when when what’s left of responsible ad-funded online publishing cringes in shame at having participated in adtech’s inexcusable surveillance business—and reports on it thoroughly.

Credit where due: The New York Times has started, with its Privacy Project. An excellent report by Farhad Manjoo (@fmanjoo) in that series contains this long-overdue line:”Among all the sites I visited, news sites, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, had the most tracking resources.”

Hats off to Farhad for grabbing a third rail there. I’ve been urging this for a long time, and working especially on #4, through ProjectVRMCustomerCommons and the IEEE’s working group (P7012) on Standard for Machine Readable Personal Privacy Terms. If you want to roll up your sleeves and help with this stuff, join one or more of those efforts.

 

 

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