(Sunday Thought) Fixing the News

What’s worst about social media comes not from the platform itself but the advertiser model. Algorithms, which drive political division and misinformation, were meant to drive engagement for advertisers. The more you’re engaged, the longer you stay on the site. The longer you stay on the site, the more ads you see. The more ads you see, the more money the platform makes.

On a subscriber model, there’s an entirely different incentive. The platforms want you to be happy enough to keep your subscription, of course, but beyond that, they have no particular incentive to keep the load high on their servers. Think Netflix versus Facebook.

If that’s true, then is the problem social media? Or, is the problem our unwillingness to pay for it? Seems to me “you get what you pay for” generally applies.

So, too, in journalism. Are we really surprised at the quality of news we don’t pay for? After all, someone has to, and if that’s not us, are we really surprised that the news serves their interests and not ours?

More and more, that interest is a partisan interest. And look where we are.

Incidentally, the problem of free news is different than the problem of open science. Scientists are not funded by readers, where, if we don’t pay for a research paper, science suffers. This is why the science publication market is such a corporate scam, especially when they’re charging for research funded by taxpayers! We should continue to press for open, free access to science.

But if we want news (and social media) to serve the great mass of people, rather than the narrow extremes, then the great mass of people are going to have to start paying for it. And that means you and me.

The problem is that there are many news sources, and staying informed — staying ahead of bias — means reading widely from many of them. This is different than the situation with Netflix.

Because no one new outlet has a handle on truth, good access to news is wide access to news. A subscriber model means I have to pay for so much more than I could ever consume (or, indeed, even want to consume). Some people can’t afford ten subscriptions a month. Others will object to regularly funding certain news organizations and retreat to their islands of belief.

Newspapers could cure some of their woes, then, and ours, if they moved to a token system where, instead of subscribing to a particular newspaper, we subscribed to a reseller (at an up-charge) who gave us access to a range of sites.

You wouldn’t have unlimited access. Instead, your annual subscription would buy you a set number of monthly digital tokens, based on your plan, that could be exchanged at various rates for access to specific articles, or to the latest issue, or to the whole periodical for, say, 24 hours if you were a student needing to do research on a particular topic.

Newspapers could set their rates. The Economist might want to charge two tokens for a standard article compared to the The Columbus Dispatch’s one. They also might charge more for longer articles or for an investigative series.

But under this system, a single monthly subscription would give you access to a wider range of outlets than you might otherwise support individually, and it gives news outlets access to a wider paying audience than the subscription model allows. It also allows new or smaller outlets, who will have a harder time attracting subscribers, a chance to enter the market and challenge the older, established ones.

News outlets will still court subscribers, of course, just as they still court advertisers. But that’s good. Maintaining a diversity of revenue streams, I would argue, makes it easier for the paper to pursue topics that may not be popular with any one of them.

Resellers would make money the way gyms and gift cards do. Gyms lose money on regular gym-goers, but more people have a gym membership, or receive a gift card, than use it, which means revenue exceeds cost.

There are drawbacks to this system, to be sure. It wouldn’t prevent ideological clustering, for example. And it doesn’t force people to be better consumers of news. But it does reintroduce a common market, which the world surely needs if we are going to heal our partisan divisions ahead of war.

More importantly, it’s better than what we have now, where newspapers, following social media, are pursuing “audience capture.” They’re becoming more partisan (and less reliable) in an effort to drive high engagement among a set audience while at the same time driving that audience like cattle away from all others, a market strategy that will have long-term consequences for those raised in it.