Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Future of News in a Market Driven Economy

Legend has it that before Ted Turner opened the doors of CNN some many years ago, he first did something that was unprecedented for a news organization: market research. That is, until Turner came along, no news organization in history had thought to ask people what kind of news they wanted to see.

Instead, the traditional news organizations had relied on the judgment of their professional news staff to determine what was newsworthy and what was not. But Turner changed all that with the success of CNN. We largely owe to him the fact that a major news organization nowadays will break away from a White House press briefing to report a car chase. It’s the market these days, and not the news staff, that for the most part decides what is newsworthy.

That’s the legend. No doubt the truth is more complex, more nuanced. There are probably several factors that play a role in what becomes news. Yet, no one living in the 21st Century can any longer doubt the news is heavily influenced by what the market wants to hear. And in an ideal world, that would be a good thing.

Consider what has happened to most consumer products over the years largely due to the attention that corporations now pay to market demand. Products overall have improved in quality and features, while coming down in price. Anyone could give examples of that. In a competitive market driven economy, the consumer is king and queen. The corporation doesn’t decide what’s good enough for you. Not if it wants a successful brand. You have choices. If one corporation won’t produce a higher quality brand with more features at a lower price, another one will. That’s the case in most industries nowadays, but is it the case in the news industry?

In an ideal world, a competitive consumer driven news industry would translate into more news, higher quality news, and all of that at a lower price to the consumer. In some ways, that’s exactly what has happened.

News is far more available today than it was thirty years ago when most people had their choices limited to three TV networks, one or two local newspapers, a handful of national newspapers, and several magazines. Today, we are flooded with news outlets. The price of most newspapers and magazines has dropped too, at least in terms of percent of income. That leaves us with quality. Has it gone up?

Of course, that depends on what you mean by quality. The news industry is no different than any other industry: Quality is what the consumers think of as quality. Quality has indeed gone up – in the minds of most consumers. And therein lies the problem.

What the market thinks of as quality news is problematic for anyone concerned with truth, for truth is not what the market thinks of as quality. If that’s the case, then what does the market think of as quality?

So far as I know, no one has yet come up with an exact term for what the market thinks of as quality when it comes to the news. The best I can do is a phrase: “comfortably entertaining”. That phrase covers the two things people most demand these days when it comes to what they will consider quality news. The word “entertaining” is self-explanatory. So, let’s deal with “comfort”.

People want their news to be comfortable in the sense they want it to confirm their existing view of the world. They certainly don’t want it to throw them to the wolves of doubt, uncertainty, and confusion. Unfortunately, the truth can do that at times. And when that happens, the truth – increasingly – gets thrown overboard to make room for what the market really wants, and what it really considers high quality news: comfortable entertainment.

None of this is going to change. On the contrary, it will almost certainly accelerate. As the news industry becomes increasingly more sophisticated in gathering data on what the market wants, we will see the most popular news brands become increasingly divorced from truth. To be sure, they will retain the semblance of truth in their reports, but the substance will be largely purged. In the end, it will only be news outlets that cater to limited niche markets that accurately and honestly report the news. Those “high-end” outlets will have nowhere near the demand for them as the mainstream outlets. At best, those high-end outlets will be just as respected for quality – and just as unpopular with the majority of consumers – as is Mercedes Benz in automobiles.

5 comments:

Mystic Wing said...

Great commentary, Paul. I see few signs that a market-driven economy does much to stimulate quality—unless you define quality as that which is cheapest, most digestible, and most entertaining. Everywhere I look, it appears that the gap between excellence and mediocrity is growing, with mediocrity winning most of the chips. This seems to be true in business, in art, in politics....

Paul said...

Thanks, Mystic! Those are good points! It seems to me you're right: in a market driven economy, the biggest brands are pap.

I'm toying with the notion of doing a follow up to this in which I look beyond the news and branch out to other areas and implications the market driven economy has for us.

Brendan said...

Have you ever seen the movie "Network" Paul?

The purpose of press in our constitutional system is to be the eyes and ears of the people to allow them to oversee the activities of their government as informed members of the electorate. It is not for commerce or to tell people what they want to hear.

We have a real problem when media, corporatism and government are merging into a single entity. The people are blinded.

Paul said...

Thanks, Brendan! I think you're spot on there.

"Network" is brilliant! And prophetic.

I think one way my analysis differs from the analysis given in "Network" is that I see the news not only becoming entertainment, but "comforatable" entertainment: News that feeds us what we want to believe about the world, that never challenges us to re-think what we already believe in any meaningful way.

For instance, so long as Bush's poll ratings were good, the media was his lapdog, no matter what blunders he made, because the media knows you can't sell a news product no one wants to hear in a market driven economy.

When you combine that with the merger and blending of coroporations, the media, and the government (that you've mentioned), you've got a "perfect storm". In other words, lots of forces are coming together to deprive the people of their eyes and ears.

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