No matter what your political stripes, we all agree that we have a problem today. The way we get our news and information today is broken. All day long I see bleeding-heart liberal headlines that get my blood pulsing, and my Right Wingnut cousin from the Midwest sees alt-right red meat that makes him roar with reverence.
Everything we see confirms just how righteous we are. It’s awesome. Except that much of what we see is not only biased, it is just simply factually incorrect.
So if we all agree on that we have a problem, then what’s the solution? Personally, I think part of the solution is for each of us to wean ourselves off the steady diet of free online cotton candy and be willing to start paying for high-quality journalistic veggies again.
Remember how we got into this mess? We stopped paying for our news. That’s what happened. The internet gave us a way to get our news for free and we bought it — hook, line, and sinker.
So we cancelled our subscription to the local newspaper, we cancelled our subscription to national papers and magazines, we even cancelled our cable TV package. We didn’t need vegetables anymore — they were giving cotton candy away for free on the internet!
And none of us really thought-through the implications, of course. We changed the economic incentives for publishers without really even realizing what we were doing. Suddenly, because of us, it was now all about clicks. Publishers no longer had any responsibility to subscribers (because there weren’t any), now they had to focus on an economic model that said that every click on a headline gets you a nickel from an advertiser.
Clicks generate page views, and page views generate advertising revenue. Nice and simple. So for publishers the actual content of the article was less important than just getting people to click on the headline. It was a whole new world.
We didn’t fully realize all this then, of course, but we do now. So given the fact that we all know it now and we all are dissatisfied with the faustian bargain we made, let’s get out of it.
Pick a trusted news source that you believe adheres to some tenuous thread of journalistic integrity and become a paid subscriber. Your choices will be different from mine, but I pay for online subscriptions to the NYT and the WSJ (so that I get more-or-less left and right perspectives). For long-form journalism I’m a lifelong subscriber to the New Yorker. Yes, they all still have ads, but the fact that they also depend on individual customers — subscribers–creates a more balanced dynamic to their economic incentives. Incentives that are more aligned with what I care about.
Also, look at the new breed of subscriber-only publishers. I pay for The Information and The Athletic — both publishers of high-quality journalism that with pure customer-based economics. No ads, no popups, no clickbait.
And you’re reading this on Medium — a platform that I pay $5/month for. Again — no ads, no popups, no clickbait.
So that’s my plea to you. We have found out that free news and information has an unpleasant underbelly. The free cotton candy is making our teeth rot. So let’s do our part to get economic incentives realigned with our desire for long-term well-informed health — individually and collectively.