If you work anywhere near journalism, the question keeping you up at night is probably “how do I get paid?”. But if you’ve sorted that out, or if you’ve given up on it altogether, chances are that it’s been replaced by “what’s the role for journalism in the XXI century?” And namely: can journalism still play an educational role? In an age where every media organization is competing with more and more news outlets for a shorter and shorter share of attention, can we afford to feed people the stories they need to know? Or should we just serve them the stories they want, in the quality and size they want?
This conundrum is perfectly captured in online news sites that consistently favor popular headlines that people are most likely to click on over more nuanced or instructive stories that their readers are unfamiliar with. This has generated new metrics that journalism is being held accountable for, as demonstrated by a leaked document that outlines strategic objectives behind the AOL-Huffington Post deal:
“[the route towards survival is] to drive the average cost per unit of content down to $84 (from the current $99) and use “search engine optimization” and other techniques to attract an average of 7,000 page views per item, up from the current 1,500.” James Fallows, “Learning to love the (shallow, divisive, unreliable) new media”
The business plan behind this is quite simple: if you want enough eyeballs to keep your website (marginally) profitable, you have to give people what they want. It’s nothing new, as it’s the same business model that made television thrive in the XX century, but if applied to the news it raises a number of concerns, most of which are explained by Ted Kopper in “The case against news we can choose“. To sum up his argument, here is the most significant paragraph:
“Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it. They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.”
This is dangerous on a number of levels, and it’s a debate that has been going on for a while, but I think it’s worth taking this conversation outside of the media environment. To me, for instance, it’s about eggs.
Waitrose is an upscale British supermarket chain that, like all British supermarkets, is going above and beyond to meet the latest food culture: meat comes from local farmers; tuna are best friends with dolphins; whatever you think of, you can have it organic. And eggs are not only free-range, they are “reared with care by farmers who share our values”.
Of course I understand what lies behind it (sustainability, care, reassurance), but there’s a point when rhetoric gets too far. And when I find myself sharing an ideological affinity when I happen to buy half a dozen eggs, I tend to think we’ve crossed that line. We’ve always made fun of the most radical ideological consumers who let their beliefs dictate their every purchase, whether they were extreme fashionistas or no-logo activitists; the difference is that what was once a fringe behaviour is showing the first signs of stepping into the mainstream.
Over the past few years businesses have borrowed the rhetoric of the internet ideologues (transparency, collaboration, generosity…) and supercharged their brands with Values. There’s nothing wrong with adopting those values and a lot of good can actually come from it. It’s when you use those values to create belonging to a close, like-minded community that things get dangerous, because communities based on belonging inevitably end up building fences around them.
Now, no-one will grow intolerant to those who buy eggs from farmers who do not share their values. The problem with rhetoric happens when it builds up into a consistent message that we find everywhere we turn, and starts affecting our view of the world. Over the past 10 years we’ve been exposed to more and more of the same message: follow the news you like, buy products that your friends have bought, read books recommended by people who share your taste… (It was inevitable that we’d end up with Cupidtino: a dating site for Apple fanboys and fangirls.)
The internet has provided the most efficient platform to enable this, but it’s not a technological trend; it’s a cultural trend.
We want more of the same. And this is understandable, at the very least for two reasons: the world is a scary place and we’re afraid of the unknown; and the world is a messy place and sorting through that mess to find new, hidden gems requires time and effort that we’d rather spend somewhere else.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that self-segregation was never a good idea throughout history, and there are more reasons now than ever to say that we can’t afford it.
Like it or not, we’re an increasingly diverse society, and we need to make common choices. We won’t be able to make those choices if we don’t even speak the same language or agree on facts, let alone find a shared interest or define the common good.
And like it or not, the greatest challenges that we’re facing in the XXI century, from energy dependence to welfare reform to international cooperation, require radical new thinking, and innovation doesn’t come from hanging about with like-minded people, nor from experiencing more of the same.
That’s true for individuals, that’s true for governments, that’s true for businesses and brands.
We have a shared responsibility to get out of our comfort zone and pursue the unexpected, day in day out. As for me, I’ll start looking for a farmer who doesn’t share my values but can still sell decent eggs.