Ethics and support: What do you want from media?

The opinions herein are mine, not my employer’s. This statement is original to the post, not forced by my employer after the fact.

Edited to add: I had this post scheduled from a couple of weeks ago, and neglected to update as the news came down yesterday of Bari Weiss’ resignation. She was one of the adults in the room on The New York Times Opinion page. But there aren’t very many people who can be described that way. Go read her letter. It’s a good summary of the problems in many of today’s newsrooms.

I hear a lot about how divisive media is. How evil the industry is. To stop paying attention to media. It seems people can’t stop complaining about media, but also can’t stop following along.

I’m not sure what those people are paying attention to, but I’ve been in media (newspapers both in print and online) for two decades, and the vast majority of my colleagues are hard-working, honest go-getters.

I want to examine two things, and take a look at how they can be at odds with each other. The first is support, and by that, I mean monetary support. Unlike, say, China, North Korea or Russia, our news outlets are not state-operated. They are, by design, independent. The founders of our country may not have had radio, television or the internet, but they had news media, and thought it was so important to have a free and independent press that they included it in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The second is ethics. While some people claim that they would prefer to support an ethical media, what they seem to mean is that they’d prefer to support a media institution that confirms their biases. While it’s tough to get people to talk about where they actually spend their money, it’s pretty easy to look at what people are clicking on.

Newspapers used to have two revenue streams: advertising and subscriptions. Advertising — specifically classified advertising — was far and away the more profitable, which is why it took about five years for your average newspaper to go from a quarter to a dollar an issue, while ad costs moved only incrementally.

For cities with multiple papers — which was a lot in the mid-1990s — the paper that was probably going to make it was the paper of record; that is, the one in which courts required legal notices to be filed.

But when everything went online, subscriptions fell off by a lot.

Craigslist sucked up all the classified advertising, at least until newspapers moved their classifieds sections online and started charging next to nothing for ads.

And display ads — the ones you’d see on the pages of the paper as you flipped through — went online and, instead of being paid by the column inch, the papers were paid by page views.

Page views. That meant that in order to get any money, the paper needed you to click on a story.

It didn’t matter what you said you wanted; it mattered what you clicked on. If you said you wanted more positive news but didn’t click on it, the positive news went away.

And that’s how we got to paywalls and click-bait headlines: If you’ll only click on something if it tricks you, well, that’s the only way to get paid.

It’s not fantastic, but the idea that great journalism would stand out didn’t come to bear. Not everyone can win a Pulitzer, or they wouldn’t mean anything. And sometimes you need to know about a car accident or the weather or whatever.

I don’t like the click bait any more than you do, but for what it’s worth, you need to read the whole story, not just the headline. Reading just the headline is how we got to angry and divided in the first place.

The Society of Professional Journalists has a Code of Ethics. It’s somewhat idealist, since it turns out that people won’t really pay for all that much ethical journalism, and the problem with running a business is that you have costs and you need to turn a profit (especially if you’re a publicly traded company).

Don’t be sneaky. Give voice to the voiceless. Expose unethical behavior. There are a lot more, but those are some of my favorites.

If you think journalists are shady now, you should take a look at how journalism was when our Founders decided we needed a free press.

Ben Franklin used to write a column in his paper, write an argument against it in someone else’s paper under a fake name, and then respond with an argument for it in his own paper under someone else’s name. He might have been America’s original troll.

There was a whole genre called yellow journalism. Think click bait, but with no actual truth in the story, and not even an argument using the subject’s manipulated words to attempt to back up claims. Just plain old fiction.

I feel like I shouldn’t have to defend the need for a free and independent press, but I should probably make the point. When the government handles all reporting on the government, they tell you whatever they want. You can’t even search for Tiananmen Square from an IP address within China. When you control the narrative, you control the people.

An antagonistic press is important. And let me be clear: Journalists should be antagonistic to all leaders. Report truthfully, don’t play stupid gotcha games, but every decision should get a thorough questioning.

Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. That’s our job.


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