Dear Struggling Newspapers,
Over the past months I have learned a few things about the world of finance, and do you know what has surprised me the most? Nope, not the twenty-something Wall Streeters who think that if they earn more than, say, Desmond Tutu, their work is of greater value, since thus spake the "free" market. I know, that's multi-level shocking, but I live in New York, and knew about it. No, what really surprised me is this whole secondary market in risk, and the industry's willingness to operate in a way that allowed banks to profit from their own customers' losses.
Once their main profits no longer came from customer payments, it seems, banks no longer had any reason not to grant people unaffordable loans, since defaults hurt only the customer, and not the bank. In this way, their interests and their customers' interests fell out of alignment--until the whole industry collapsed, and we, the bank customers had to foot the bill, because selling risk, as it turns out, is more of an art than a science.
What does this have to do with you, Struggling Newspapers? Outsized profits and salaries are hardly your issue, and of course this collapse wasn't your doing. But there is an important lesson in it for you, and I'm worried it's a lesson that you aren't taking seriously.
The problem is that you, too, have reorganized your industry in such a way that the customer is no longer your primary source of profit, and your interests and mine are no longer clearly aligned. I understand you have had to adapt to the world of internet publishing; it's hard, because the information marketplace got massively flooded by tides that will never recede. Like all those exurban homes, in a sense you are "underwater" and in order to float, you are trying to lighten up. Since I read the news online, you have stopped charging me for my paper, and you are relying on my clicks to drive up advertising revenues.
I am thirty-two years old; I stay current, and in my lifetime I have probably spent more on tic-tacs than on newspapers. That is literally true.
While this is fun for me, Struggling Newspapers, and I am very well-informed at no personal cost, the problem--and it's a big one--is that like the banks, you no longer have much incentive to look out for my long-term needs. As things stand today, my need for information about the world must align with your advertisers' need to maximize the number of hits your websites attract. This is a losing battle for me, because even if an investigative piece about government corruption gets the same number of hits as a story about the octomom, you have paid a whole lot more per hit. I know you're trying, but that's not really money you have.
Covering late night talk show zingers gives you good stories, and I'm the first to admit to reading them all. When teams of professional writers and producers collaborate on something, the chances of it being funny, insightful and surprising ought to skyrocket. Similarly, when the lives of celebrities take soap opera-like turns, these stories are more interesting because they involve public personalities that the entertainment industry has already invested in hugely to sell albums and concert tickets. We're already familiar with these characters, which leaves much less work, i.e. cost, for you. If it's a story about Kanye, chances are good America will click.
When the stars of a news story are already stars, the story has an allure similar to the one created by reality TV. Both offer us the chance to cross a boundary between the worlds we see on-screen, and the one we live in. This would be a harmless and temporary indulgence--People Magazine has always offered it--except that at a time when TMZ.com is thriving, but the New York Times is reducing salaries and cutting whole sections, you need to be worrying about the impact all of this is going to have on your readers' perceptions of reality overall. If we all prefer Hollywood reality over our own, is it really in our best interests for your content to reflect that? Nobody in their right mind is going to say yes, even the most craven and gossip-hungry among us. We want, and need, the news. We just like reading about people like Kanye, too, and there are a lot of them.
Just as risk is an essential element of finance, reality is an essential component of journalism--one I am afraid that you are trading away for clicks behind closed doors. But shaping our view of reality is your purpose, Struggling Newspapers, just as managing risk belongs to finance. We need your pages to be our windows to the world, not mirrors of our taste in entertainment. When people expect to be entertained, one of the first things we do is settle down and suspend disbelief. This is a problematic approach to the news for you to be encouraging. I hate to think you are dismissing these changes as inconsequential to our shared future, and these days there is one particularly big reason why.
Whenever the name "Rush Limbaugh" is in a headline, everyone, including me clicks. When moderates are in headlines, we click sometimes. Struggling Newspapers, we need you to stop just counting these clicks, because extremists will always be the loudest and most colorful, and right now, your interests are aligned with theirs. Rush Limbaugh, with his absurd new power over the GOP, is like a giant steamed pudding of proof that our democracy is in trouble, and that part of the problem is people's difficulty distinguishing entertainment from leadership. Recessions, might I add, are a particularly dangerous time for voices like his to gain a mainstream national audience.
Is it possible in this flooded market, that you, Struggling Newspapers, have begun to feel all too mortal, and forgotten how essential you are to our democracy? There is nothing in the bill of rights enshrining a bank's right to operate without government interference, after all, but you have the signature, number one amendment on your side. The founding old guys knew your reliability would be essential to the country's political health, and that was well before we had spinners of reality like Richard Nixon and Dick Cheney to contend with--not to mention Hollywood and the internet.
You have this protection because we need to see the world clearly, but since you are working for your advertisers now and not for us, you are clouding it up with fun, clickable stories instead. Struggling Newspapers, we need your content to be a bit less democratic. How else are we supposed to know enough about the world to elect proper leaders? Can you think of any elections in the past, say, ten years that suggest we could be losing our edge? Let the government represent us (and our bad taste). We need you to be representing everything else so we don't get even worse.
You can't just keep scratching your heads on this one and blaming the customers for reading too much gossip. We love gossip. Always have, and always will, and we're not going to stop reading it in the hope that doing so will inspire you to reopen your foreign offices. So before Rush and his kind become even powerful, you need to reconfigure your businesses back to one in which our real information needs have more influence over your content than our taste for instant-gratification gossip stories. I think the way forward on this is clear: you have to start charging us directly, and give us our voice back. We will tell you, I'm positive, that we want real news, which I'm sure is what many of you would rather be spending your time on anyway. (Then maybe the next time Wall Street goes AWOL on their customers, you will catch them at it.)
Figure out, please, how much this sway towards the entertainment world is worth to you, and bill me and the rest of my information-hungry, freeloading generation for your return ticket. I'm sitting right here at my computer, reading you for free and feeling like a thief. Stop letting me. My generation grew up with computers; we know it's reasonable to pay for something even if it's not lying on the doorstep every morning. We may whine a little and hold out, but we'll come around. Once we see that you're working for us again, and not your advertisers, it will even make us feel important. My generation loves that.