Tuesday, 21 November 2017

News: An easy to market, safe distraction from the structural problems that can never be named

As defined, the news is not news. It is like going to a restaurant and having the waiter order for you based on his preferences, and whether he thinks you're fat.

It’s confusing because we think we're hearing about big stories that can't be ignored – like a Zimbabwe coup – so we think we're learning about what's happening. But that "news" was the result of a decision tree. Why show us Zimbabwe and not the Democratic Republic of Congo? Or, why Iraq now and not Syria now?

Most educated people worry about news bias. Is it left or right? Safe or not safe? What angle are the sponsors pushing? But those are small potatoes, Danny Q. There is no overarching bias, at all. There is no "goal" or "message" or "worldview." It's a set of right-now and what-benefits-the-channel? What will play well with the 18-25 demo? That’s what we absorb as our view of the world.

Media companies don’t compete against other media – they’re in the time business, just like everyone else. Media is actually competing against all the other activities people might choose to pursue. (This is also how you should look at money. Your decision to purchase a coffee means you won’t have $5.99 to spend anywhere else. It’s not about the things you buy that really matters, it’s the infinity of all the other things that are now impossible to buy because of that coffee.)

Here's a basic example of what I mean, picked at random. On the NZ Herald home page, the lead story is, "Students in tears over NCEA maths exam that was 'set too high.'" Is this news? Is it useful? No. You understand it is sensationalist "education needs to be more progressive" propaganda. But you that’s because you hate the Herald. If you didn't already hate the Herald, what would you have learned from this piece?

Those stories are chosen, out of the quadrillions of events much more important, not because of political or ideological bias, but because the editors and algorithms know it’s what you want. If you're watching it, it's for you.

Two things result: first, you learned something out of context that has no value. Second, you did not learn something else. And the second is infinitely more detrimental to your sanity. The mistake is to think you can go somewhere else for news. There is nowhere else. They all operate under the same immediate-benefit journalistic model.

This is inescapable. Short of being present at the event in question, the best you can do is to absorb what you see and read – there are no news sources free of this – and ask yourself the most fundamental question of media: "what does the author want to be true?"

Some might say we need more trained journalists who know the subject, have developed sources on all sides, strive for objectivity and are working with editors who check their facts, steer them in the right direction and are a further check against unwarranted assumptions, sloppy thinking, sloppy reporting and conscious or unconscious bias. And I’d probably agree.

But even with these people in the newsrooms, there are maybe two stories per day in any given paper that satisfy these criteria. The rest of news is garbage of the if-it-bleeds-it-ledes variety or pop culture junk. I don't need a sports section, I don't need a style section, I don't need to know about rapes, murders, arsons, fires, or assaults that happened overnight. I don't need a rehash of the greatest hits of the police radio.

Media places a greater value on access to officials than on investigating officials. Had they passed that test, had they really earned the status of being the Fourth Estate, we would right now be discussing how newspapers could do the heavy lifting while bloggers just offer commentary. But we aren't, and there's no going back.

It's far from certain print journalism will disappear. Theatres still exist despite cinema. Cinemas still exist despite television. Radio still exists despite CDs and television. Maybe print journalism will stabilise at a lower level, or it could move onto DRM platforms like the Kindle or subscriber-based websites where it can still make money.

News has its faults, but there seems to be an unnecessary level of doomsaying. If print journalism vanishes rather than shrinks, and if online journalism doesn't respond by upping its game, and if nobody manages to make subscriber services profitable ... then yes, we're looking at the Death of the News. But that's a lot of ifs.

What’s really threatened here? The newspapers or the news? Why do we care that an old industry is being replaced by a new one? Newspapers never made money on journalism. They made money on advertisements and classifieds. Classifieds went to Trademe years ago and advertising is disappearing as many legacy businesses are “disrupted.” People are no longer flooding to Big Box retail sales the way they did in 1987, so eventually the companies caught on and stopped shouting about it in ads. Oh well.

From the business standpoint, the writing has been on the wall for about twenty years. But that’s not the real reason people get their news from blogs or wire services rather than from the web versions of newspapers. In that time, spin has been perfected. And by spin, I’m referring to the people knowing so thoroughly about the boundaries of journalism as practised by major newspapers and TV that they can artificially manage the reporting and create a narrative.

In other words, spin is reverse engineered journalism. If I know how reporters work, if I know they always look in particular places and ask certain kinds of questions, I can set up the conditions and environment long before so that any reporter doing their usual work only learns what I want them to learn. I don't have to feed them a story, I just feed them an artificial world they can investigate and write about.

Traditional media can't deal with this. And until it can institutionalise a way to cut through or negate spin, it won't be nearly as effective as a blogger writing: "The prime minister said X, but this other source said 'not X'."

A strong regional paper like the Waikato Times has reporters on staff covering many aspects of the community. For instance, a guy has to cover the monthly sewer committee meeting (or something like that). Often, no story will come from that meeting, but the public is able, through the reporter, to keep an eye on it to make sure a member’s brother in law doesn't get handed a sweet no-bid contract.

If the paper is gone and no one covers that monthly meeting, who knows what shenanigans local officials will get up to? Bloggers sure won’t cover the dull minutia of local government, and in reality, you’d have to be suspicious of the motives of any blogger who does step forward to do this.

My point is, it's all very well to spout off about how the corrupt dinosaurs failed us and who needs them and so on, but you're missing the big picture: journalism is a vital part of government, practiced not just in the august halls of parliament and panelled conference rooms, but in crappy little city halls and over lunch with the local tax assessor. It's not always perfect, often it's not even good, but it's crucial to the way countries run. How can a country govern itself if no one is watching the government?

But legacy journalism doesn’t necessarily need to fulfil this responsibility, and neither does blogging. There are entirely new literary forms online. Blogging is the new thing the ossified magazine folk understand because it closely follows the old paradigm in which the writer is the opinion maker and the reader is largely silent.

The real literary vanguard is threaded discussion, which is not so much random as chaotic and interactive. The discussions revolve around central themes or ideas and with each argument, the true nature of that central idea becomes clearer. These are new literary structures that have not yet been explored.

Maybe this is a generational thing. Maybe the “kids these days” will grow up to be “adults these days” and take their threaded conversations into boardrooms and the C-suite. Maybe they’ll figure out how to make it profitable, or cut the ties between media and revenue completely once and for all. Who knows?

But you’re not going to figure this out if you watch TV news. I know this because no one smart would watch TV news. If you are watching TV news, then you're not smart. I’m not saying this, TV news says this. After all, no one smart would ever ask another person, let alone the news, to explain how the news relates to them.

Marla, you liar! You big tourist, I need this! Now, get out!

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