Dan Perry
"I don't mind a reasonable amount of trouble"

A simple trick for saving journalism

The Economist does not want to be free (Dan Perry photo)

Imagine if it wasn’t clear to people that the Nazis invaded Poland, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Mandela fought apartheid or two plus two is four. Imagine no-goodniks convincing half the population that it’s all “fake news.” That’s where we’re headed.

What stands in the way of idiocracy? Is it education? Not really — education affects mostly children. Politics? Hardly — politics is the problem. Culture? Culture is important but not the source for facts. Search and social media? I think you see the issue.

The one thing that can keep people informed is a viable and independent media enjoying societal consensus.

Instead, Gallup found last month that only 41% of Americans have “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media. Ipsos found huge numbers in many countries with little or no such trust: the global average was 48%, in Britain it was 45%, in Mexico 57% and in Poland 65%. The Israel Democracy Institute found trust in media here fell from 52% in 2009 to 28% in 2017.

Though not everyone agrees, you could argue that this is happening at the worst possible time.

Partisan hatreds in America are at a fever pitch (it has to do with the main parties, once diverse, realigning along highly combustible racial and cultural lines). This culminated in the rise of a president who spreads fabrications (the non-partisan Politifact site finds 83% of Donald Trump’s statements to range from “half true” to “pants on fire”), attacks institutions of democracy and flouts norms of civility (taking a page from Stalin he calls the media “enemies of the people”).

A version of this is the case in Israel, and in some places even worse autocrats have been elected, part of a fast-spreading global cultural war between modernity and tradition, openness and insularity, secularness and religion.

At a time of such conflict we need credible sources of information that are not activist – not part of the conflict.

That’s hard. Scoff all you want, but journalists belong mostly to the educated classes that tend to one side of the above-described fault-lines. They cannot easily “represent” those who think global warming is a hoax (as Trump apparently does), that Torah study is more important than tanks (as religious parties in Israel do), and that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” (as the US gun lobby argues). They can try, but it won’t ring true.

And there are other factors undermining trust:

• Real fake news (not the version from Trump’s bombast): Technology has reduced barriers to entry such that every fool with an axe can be a publisher and grind it.

• Weaker brands: With news now being consumed mostly as snippets of content any shiny bauble of BS can get attention, people lose track of the source, and it’s not clear what’s serious.

• Hyper-complexity: The issues have become too complicated for most non-experts to grasp. It’s actually pretty clear that the Nazis invaded Poland. It should also be clear that Earth is warming due to human-caused climate change, but there’s too much science to wade through. So it is with global trade, health care, and the occupation of the West Bank.

• Social media: It offers a competing news service that does not hurt your brain, like a friend’s cute cat or the ravings of madmen. Perhaps three-quarters of the ad money that might go to publishers has been diverted by the appeal of these.

• Polarization: When people care more about winning than being right, facts have a problem.

The media must navigate this unfortunate environment while grappling with a built-in conundrum that dare not speak its name.

Consider what is expected to the news media:

• Cover important things so people aren’t clueless;

• Explain clearly so they don’t choose poorly;

• Uncover truth, foiling evil plots;

• Be free of undue influence and ethically above reproach.

Who’ll provide the funding for this civilizing mission? If it comes from the government, the media is puppets of power. If it comes from political parties, the media is serving an agenda. If it comes from other businesses, the media is enslaved to commercial interests. If it comes from philanthropy, the media seems weak and dependent.

That leaves us with the media being a business in which content is profitable.

The question had always hung in the air: What is news? Is the writing of these words news? Is the reader’s opinion of them news? Why not? Ah – maybe because not enough people are interested. A plausible definition of news is indeed what people find interesting (or put less charitably, entertaining).

That definition becomes a juggernaut if news must be a business.

And what if nonsense was the most interesting and therefore the most profitable content?

Are many people in the West interested in war and famine in Africa?

I asked that question of a very big boss in my news organization once. It was about 15 years ago and the media was still solvent. But of late we had become able to measure with accuracy users’ choices online. What a calamity that was! The cobwebs had cleared and it was not a pretty sight.

I asked the man what to do if our readership cared nothing about the war in Darfur, where millions faced horrible fates. What if they wanted celebrity gossip instead? Should we not divert resources? If we resisted, because it sucks, would shareholders foot the bill?

“We cover the news,” he said after a time, fiddling with something called a “Blackberry.”

It was a useful fudge, I thought (I was a company man at the time).  We could have it both ways back then. But the fudge is no longer possible now that matters have properly collapsed.

How they printed money once, these “media”! An apocryphal tale tells of a foreign correspondent hauled back to HQ for taking a business class flight to cover some story. “We only fly first class,” he was told, to his surprise. “Don’t let it happen again.” This does not occur today; no one even jokes about it.

Classified ads are gone and only a few hardy souls subscribe to print or bother with newsstands. Advertising is worth less per reader online than in print, disappointingly, and most has drifted away. As revenues fell newsrooms were gutted, a predictable remedy that boasted the meagerest of visions and harmed the product in a classic vicious cycle.

High-end journalism pays journalists a reasonable market price and so it gets some good ones.  Businesspeople, not so much; the good ones go to profitable businesses. You get what you pay for. So the Keystone Kaptains of the industry made every conceivable mistake.

In the late 1990s they threw content online for free, figuring the Internet was a storefront window for print, and creating a pathology that has proved difficult to walk back. In the 2000s they refused to consider an iTunes model (called “micropayments”) fearing few would pay online. They fled from digital subscriptions because that would reduce traffic and advertisers flock to scale. Hectored by the prophets of disruption (“Information wants to be free!”) they sought ever-more-clever models (“We’ll rake it in with conferences starring our journalists!”).

Now, late in the game with their backs to the wall, publishers are turning to paywalls decisively at last. This is the year and now is the time that many of them have plans to charge for at least some of their content under various hopeful schemes. Until now this was mostly (though not only) tried by elite publications with wealthy and educated audiences like the Economist and the Wall Street Journal, or major global brands like the New York Times.

Most people understand that free societies and free markets need reliable information. But we’re addicted by now to getting it for free. Resistance may not be futile; the market has the upper hand. But do we really want to resist?

Dear reader: If you have arrived this far, you are consuming in depth a news product which you’re not paying for as you might pay for falafel. Does this seem normal? Do you think it will survive?

Information is like anything else in this world. It has no will; it has a value. If it’s worth having, it’s worth buying. Otherwise, I fear, there is some sort of scam.

The prophets of disruption were prophets of doom. You really do get what you pay for. There is a simple trick to saving journalism: Don’t want it to be free.

About the Author
Dan Perry, a media and tech innovator, was the Cairo-based Middle East Editor of the AP, and chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Israel. Previously he led AP in Europe, Africa and the Caribbean. Follow him at: twitter.com/perry_dan www.linkedin.com/in/danperry1 www.instagram.com/danperry63 https://www.facebook.com/DanPerryWriter/
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