“A newspaper is a business out to make money through advertising revenue. That is predicated on its circulation and you know what the circulation depends on. …” — The Long Goodbye
Ryan Holiday's book Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, offers a penetrating look behind the incentives of media.
Holiday, himself, is a practitioner of the dark arts of media manipulation and uses these techniques to make a living.
“Usually, it is a simple hustle,” Holiday writes. “Someone pays me, I manufacture a story for them, and we trade it up the chain — from a tiny blog to Gawker to a website of a local news network to the Huffington Post to the major newspapers to cable news and back again, until the unreal becomes real. Sometimes I start by planting a story. Sometimes I put out a press release or ask a friend to break a story on their blog. Sometimes I ‘leak’ a document. Sometimes I fabricate a document and leak that. Really, it can be anything, from vandalizing a Wikipedia page to producing an expensive viral video. However the play starts, the end is the same: The economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception — and sell product.”
For me the most interesting part of the book was the history of the press, which begins with the Party Press, moves on to the Yellow Press and ends with the Modern Press (aka Subscription Press). Holiday gives us this history lesson to explain how news outlets sold their product over the years.
The Party Press
The earliest forms of newspapers were a function of political parties. These were media outlets for party leaders to speak to party members, to give them the information they needed and wanted. … These papers were not some early version of Fox News. They usually were one-man shops. The editor-publisher-writer-printer was the dedicated steward of a very valuable service to that party in his town. The service was the ability to communicate ideas and information about important issues. …
This first stage of journalism was limited in its scope and impact. Because of the size and nature of its audience, the party press was not in the news business. They were in the editorial business. It was a different time and style, one that would be eclipsed by changes in technology and distribution.
The Yellow Press
Newspapers changed the moment that Benjamin Day launched the New York Sun in 1833. It was not so much his paper that changed everything but his way of selling it: on the street, one copy at a time. He hired the unemployed to hawk his papers and immediately solved a major problem that had plagued the party presses: unpaid subscriptions. Day’s “cash and carry” method offered no credit. You bought and walked. The Sun, with this simple innovation in distribution, invented the news and the newspaper. A thousand imitators followed.
These papers weren’t delivered to your doorstep. They had to be exciting and loud enough to fight for their sales on street corners, in barrooms, and at train stations. Because of the change in distribution methods and the increased speed of the printing press, newspapers truly became newspapers. Their sole aim was to get new information, get it to print faster, get it more exclusively than their competition. It meant the decline of the editorial. These papers relied on gossip. …
… He (James Gordon Bennett) knew that the newspaper’s role was “not to instruct but to startle.” His paper was anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-subtlety. These causes sold papers—to both people who loved them for it and people who hated them for it. And they bought and they bought.
… The need to sell every issue anew each day creates a challenge I call the “One-Off Problem.” Bennett’s papers solved it by getting attention however they could.
The first issue of Bennett’s Herald looked like this: First page—eye-catching but quickly digestible miscellany; Second page—the heart of the paper, editorial and news; Third page—local; Fourth page—advertising and filler. There was something for everyone. It was short, zesty. He later tried to emphasize quality editorial instead of disposable news by swapping the first two pages. The results were disastrous. He couldn’t sell papers on the street that way.
The One-Off Problem shaped more than just the design and layout of the newspaper. When news is sold on a one-off basis, publishers can’t sit back and let the news come to them. There isn’t enough of it, and what comes naturally isn’t exciting enough. So they must create the news that will sell their papers. When reporters were sent out to cover spectacles and events, they knew that their job was to cover the news when it was there and to make it up when it was not.
Speaking of the markers of “yellow journalism” (the One-Off problem), author of Yellow Journalism and media historian W.J. Campbell wrote:
As practiced more than 100 years ago, yellow journalism was a robust, enterprising genre characterized by these practices and features:
- the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
- a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
- the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
- bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
- a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading correspondents.
- a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the paper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.
As defined above and as practiced more than a century ago, yellow journalism could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired — complaints of the sort that are not infrequently raised about U.S. newspapers in the early twenty-first century.
Does any of that sound familiar? It should. Just take a look at Gawker and The Huffington Post. It's the modern version of the One-Off problem. Instead of trying to sell you a copy of the newspaper by shouting on the street corner, today's media want page views. In yellow journalism, headlines and promotions were more important than content.
So what happened after the yellow press? Holiday continues:
The Modern Stable Press
… Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, ushered in the next iteration of news. Ochs, like most great businessmen, understood that doing things differently was the way to great wealth. In the case of his newly acquired newspaper and the dirty, broken world of yellow journalism, he made the pronouncement that “decency meant dollars.”
He immediately set out to change the conditions that allowed the Bennett, Hearst, Pulitzer, and their imitators to flourish. He was the first publisher to solicit subscriptions via telephone. He offered contests to his salesman. He gave them quotas and goals for the number of subscribers they were expected to bring in.
He understood that people bought the yellow papers because they were cheap—and they didn’t have any other options. He felt that if they had a choice, they’d pick something better. He intended to be that option. First, he would match his competitors’ prices, and then he would deliver a paper that far surpassed the value implied by the low price.
It worked. When he dropped the price of the Times to one cent, circulation tripled in the first year. He would compete on content. He came up with the phrase “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as a mission statement for the editorial staff, two months after taking over the paper. The less known runner-up says almost as much: “All the World’s News, But Not a School for Scandal.”
Of course the transition to modern press wasn't immediate. The subscription model, however, better aligned the incentives of the reader and newspaperman. Subscriptions change everything because readers who are mislead unsubscribe. Content, not headlines, ruled the day.
“With Ochs’s move,” Holiday writes, “reputation began to matter more than notoriety. This was the era of the professionalization of journalism. “For the first time, it created a sense of obligation, not just to the paper and circulation, but also to the audience.”
While subscription journalism meant you didn't have to peddle papers on the street, that didn't make it a perfect system.
As the character Philip Marlowe observed in Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye:
Newspapers are owned and published by rich men. Rich men all belong to the same club. Sure, there’s competition—hard tough competition for circulation, for newsbeats, for exclusive stories. Just so long as it doesn’t damage the prestige and privilege and position of the owners.
We've had a good run. For a long time journalism was primarily sold via subscriptions (the stable press model) but now we're moving quickly towards online à la Carte offerings. Journalism is no longer selling a package. Now each story is like a mini paper on the side of the street corner in the 1840's trying to be heard over all of the other stories.
Eli Pariser wrote in The Filter Bubble:
Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature. Thus, when they come around, we should grab them. In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.
… Each article ascends the most-forwarded lists or dies an ignominious death on its own…. The attention economy is ripping the binding, and the pages that get read are the pages that are frequently the most topical, scandalous, and viral.
Think about how you consume media today. You don't read one newspaper or blog. You read an assortment of many newspapers and blogs. And you don't pay for any of it. The trust relationship is fractured. Competition centers around who can create the most read story. That means journalism becomes about what spreads – not what's good.
MIT Media Studies Professor Henry Jenkins gives publishers and companies the following advice: “if it doesn't spread, it's dead.” Spreading is traffic. Traffic is money.
So what spreads?
Joseph Campbell and Katherine Milkman, of the Wharton School looked into over 7,000 articles that made it on to the New York Times Most Emailed List. They conclude:
Virality is partially driven by physiological arousal. Content that evokes high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions is more viral. Content that evokes low-arousal, or deactivating, emotions (e.g., sadness) is less viral.
Basically virality is determined by how much anger the article causes. Not all extreme emotions spread. Sadness doesn't spread. Anger spreads. If anger spreads and financial incentives are somehow aligned to ‘page views' more of our journalism will move towards what spreads.
Something analogous to Gresham's Law can be found in the One-Off problem. If each story has to find its own audience (i.e., it's no longer sold as a bundle) and compensation is derived from page views, we can expect incentives to favor a lot of low cost articles with catchy headlines. In the end, we're likely to get the stories we want to read — not the ones we should read. If not part of subscription, we'll likely lose the in-depth reporting we've come to expect from some of the old media guard.
(side-note: I found the first part of Holiday's book — where he explains how page view media works and how he manipulated the system — pretty good. The book is not without it's “controversy” though. Overall it's a great read for anyone interested in the economics of new media.)
(update: a previous version of this post (ironically) sourced a site that accused Holiday of mis-quoting a study. Holiday contacted me and it appears that he used an older version of the study, which did, in fact contain the quote he referenced in his book. The other site was wrong and my verification process was lax. My bad.)
“If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” — Andrew Lewis