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How Market Driven Media is Ruining News

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In a fascinating and indepth look at the radically changing media world, James Fallows at the Atlantic outlines four unsettling changes he believes a more market driven media will foster:

that this will become an age of lies, idiocy, and a complete Babel of “truthiness,” in which no trusted arbiter can establish reality or facts;

that the media will fail to cover too much of what really matters, as they are drawn toward the sparkle of entertainment and away from the depressing realities of the statehouse, the African capital, the urban school system, the corporate office when corners are being cut;

that the forces already pulverizing American society into component granules will grow all the stronger, as people withdraw into their own separate information spheres;

and that our very ability to think, concentrate, and decide will deteriorate, as a media system optimized for attracting quick hits turns into a continual-distraction machine for society as a whole, making every individual and collective problem harder to assess and respond to.

Fallow's article isn't completely negative as he gives credit to the awesome effect of social networks spreading news in the Middle East that helped foster revolutions, but he does paint a worrying picture of an industry that exists in a state of dangerous instability. Most of the article focuses on 'Gawker' the trashy and wonderfully snarky gossip site founded by Nick Denton - a model of rare commercial success on the internet, and quite possibly the precursor to the end of real news as we know it.

Humans are driven partly by our biology - our bodies crave fat, salt and sugar, food stuff that was in short supply in our hunter gathering days, but can now be consumed in vast quantities on demand. Likewise, humans are prone to addiction when it comes to sex, violence and cute kittens - not an everyday spectacle for much of our evolution, but now available at the click of a button. As news organizations figure out that people don't instinctively like reading 2000 word articles on the erosion of trade unions, it will inevitable shift to more trashy attention seeking pieces that will generate more clicks and more money. This has of course been happening for the past 60 years with the advancements in television news, but with the pervading economic theory that places profit above all else, internet driven news could spiral out of control very, very quickly. The beauty and the curse of the internet is that it delivers incredibly detailed metrics instantaneously - media outlets know who is reading what, when, where and how long for. They can track your movements within a site, target advertising according to what you are reading and get a pretty good understanding of how to keep you there.

Thankfully, the internet also provides opportunities to develop new and interesting business models - subscriber driven news and non profits that aim to inform rather than sell the public, but the balance of power is on the side of capital, and at the end of the day, money talks.

Still, as Fallows points out:

Perhaps this apparently late stage is actually an early stage, in the collective drive and willingness to devise new means of explaining the world and in the individual ability to investigate, weigh, and interpret the ever richer supply of information available to us. Recall the uprisings in Iran and Egypt. Recall the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and the earthquake in Haiti.My understanding of technological and political history makes me think it is still early. Also, there is no point in thinking anything else.