Further musings on advertising and publishing and the haphazard industrial landscape
Last week I commented on the story that indicated the ongoing destabilisation of various parts of the publishing industry, with news outlets taking a lot of punishment as they navigate their way between what seems to be an eternal rock and hard place. This week, I want to continue that with a brief look at some of the problems with funding in publishing. I’m by no means an expert, but this is roughly how it looks from down here.
Advertising seems to be doing a lot of the financial foundation work across the creative and media industry. It current occupies a bizarre lynchpin-style role even as it fights for its own audience, who are desperately trying to extricate themselves from it. If you’ve been living under a rock for the past 20 years, data is huge business. In response, the advertising industry, which has always worked around trying to characterising markets and demographic targeting, has been given the tools to harvest, break down, and atomise that information. The result is that it increasingly resembles a psychotic ex-lover – modern advertising and marketing wants to know everything about you. Who your family are, who your friends are, what you’re searching for on google, what you’re eating? Demanding hourly updates on who you’re talking to, on what platforms. Do you have pictures? Did they flirt with you? Where do they live? In response, consumers developed plugins like Adblock and Ghostery in an effort to establishing reasonable boundaries and remind the marketing industry of its place.
Amidst this, outlets knowing that consumers don’t want to deal with adverts, track cursor positions to flash up newsletters, block access to users of adblockers, offer the option of direct donations and subscription models. Subscription and donation models are perfectly reasonable and good ideas in this era of Patreons and Kickstarters. Few of them are asking for much, a fiver here and there – we’re all crowdfunded these days – and that seems perfectly feasible right up to the point you consider that news is, almost inherently, a medium that demands that its consumers eschew any sort of loyalty to individual brands. While each of them wants to retain an audience of loyal viewers, those same viewers are aware that news outlets have their own leanings and biases. Thus, we’re also aware that to get a more objective view on any single topic, we’ll need to read stories from several different sources.
Theoretically, news outlets will strive for a lack of bias in their reporting. Some will claim neutrality, but that’s not going to happen – you’d never write anything. If you’re attempting a true lack of bias you may as well just get an algorithm to write the ‘stories’ for you. Pick out the context, the facts, lay them out in a list or a couple of generic sentences and you’re done. ‘There was <event> at <location> involving <some people>, <some basic details about any relevant individuals>. The <event> is reported to have been about <reasons>.’ Riveting stuff, I’m sure you’ll agree. And every story looks like that. Now watch those engagement metrics go through the roof.
We’re not actually against bias, so long as there’s a level of objectivity on display. We dislike the hysterical frothing of outlets like the Daily Mail and Fox News – reporting designed solely to whip up herd mentality, cynically manipulating the least predisposed to critical thinking in society. The result being that for each topic, we need to spend a significant amount of time reading on one topic from different viewpoints to attempt to keep ourselves accurately informed and escape drives to influence our perspectives in the name of profit. In turn, this means we cannot display any loyalty because if we were to fund one outlet, this would necessitate the funding of two or three others. What begins as the price of a cup of coffee quickly becomes significantly more expensive.
Arguably, if you pay for one source of news, unless you have a financial incentive to do so, like it being part of your job, you’re not going to pay for a second or third news source. The act of subscribing to that one news source pretty firmly indicates that you find that outlet to be your preferred source of news, either because you trust it the most or you like aspect of its character. I have a friend who actually did subscribe to the Financial Times a while ago, not because he has any particular investment in, err, investments but because they were the least biased reporting he could find and thus he valued their reporting more. The problem, however, becomes that when you add money into the equation, you accentuate any bias you may have toward that source, because now you’ve got a monetary investment in it so, whether you’re conscious of it or not, you’re more likely to take anything you read or hear from that paid outlet as being of more value than information from other sources. It’s worth considering that our biases can be used to manipulate and direct our perceptions and thus behaviours. Nobody is neutral, everybody has some sort of agenda. Mostly all you have to know is who is making money out of, or gaining influence from, whatever it is that you’re investing in. While this may not be a major impact on the majority of people’s lives, it’s worth keeping in mind.
So am I suggesting that we should all stop giving money to media? No. In the theoretical world where all independent media goes out of business, you’re just left with the influence and messages of the extremely wealthy and the state. Neither of those is productive for the accuracy or availability of public information. If we assume that we’re consuming news with the ultimate goal of making informed decisions, then a variety of sources creates the opportunity for deepening the information and thus we benefit from multiple sources of independent journalism. Therefore, we want to keep independent journalism alive and in health because in doing so we create the opportunity to cultivate more informed opinions and thereby make better informed decisions.
And all of this at a point where nobody has any money. The housing markets are universally a bad joke, renting and property prices are extortionate. If they are low, they’re low in places where nobody wants to live. Sure, I can afford a house on a random bit of mountainside in Scotland or Wales, but from a practical perspective, why would I make that investment? Price are affordable in places without jobs, connections or any number of other considerations. Bills are going up, wages have stagnated, if not declined in real terms – if you’re not a politician – as the gap between the extremely wealthy and everyone else, grows exponentially.
If we cannot afford to fund news publishing via the consumers thereof, then it requires an alternative funding source. That source is advertising money. If advertising doesn’t have the money to purchase ad space from publishers then it seems like everybody loses. It’s difficult to puzzle out how much of the publishing industry’s problems are beyond its control, and how many it can fix, and how many are the result of various six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon-style shockwaves created by the problems in other interconnected industries. It’s difficult to run a news outlet amidst the collapse of Rome.