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Our Media Diet

It is rough out there for all forms of news media people. Newspapers and even big, venture-capital-backed sites like the Athletic are laying off reporters amid the economic fallout of the global pandemic.

As everything changes, we will have to find our news elsewhere. For people my age and younger, this is nothing really new, but for people used to reading the One View from the local columnist or the television editorial, this is a drastic change.

COVID-19 has hastened some already inevitable trends. The newspaper business is dead, but local news is not. We have seen a preponderance of subscription-based sites in recent years. The earliest models even laid the groundwork for something like The Athletic to thrive for a while. This is the future, as Ben Thompson of Stratechery lays out so wonderfully:

[N]ewspapers were the primary outlet for advertising that didn’t work (or couldn’t afford) TV or radio — and there was a lot of it. Maximizing advertising, though, meant maximizing the potential audience, which meant offering all kinds of different types of content in volume: thus the mashup of wildly disparate content listed above, all focused on quantity over quality …

In short, the business model drove the content, just as it drove every other piece of the business. It follows, though, that if the content bundle no longer makes sense — which it doesn’t in the slightest — that the business model probably doesn’t make sense either. This is the problem with newspapers: every aspect of their operations, from costs to content, is optimized for a business model that is obsolete. To put it another way, an obsolete business model means an obsolete business. There is nothing to be saved.

So if the next model is a choose-your-own news kind of life, one issue we will have is the lack of collective frame of reference. When everyone was tuning into one “news” there was only the interpretation thereof, but we all received the same “facts”. Of course, in reality, the news did some heavy editorializing and any news operation filters the events of the day through what its audience and its advertisers will allow.

When you consume a subscription site, there is danger of the producer writing what the audience wants to read. That’s the nature of the business. You are relying on my personal integrity when reading the analysis.

Again, this is something that had happened already. As Matt Taibbi wrote in his book Hate, Inc, everyone makes money off publishing what you want to read — or more specifically, what riles you up emotionally.

It is incumbent upon us all to be intentional about what we read, and consume have a healthy skepticism about the media that we choose. I was reminded of this when I read this tweet.

The first thing is that *I* knew why Colin Kaepernick started kneeling. I knew that his demonstration was never about showing disrespect to the flag, to the military, or anyone who had served. It was always about police brutality. I also know that he knelt because a veteran player suggested it as a better means of protest.

Given this twitter user didn’t know that, we can surmise that he did not consume the same media that I did. Cool. Happens. We can see a bigger flaw in his final sentence — “Why hasn’t the media ever bothered to mention this?”

Who is “the media” in this sentence? It was repeated on ESPN, twitter, newspapers, other newspapers, another newspaper, ANOTHER newspaper, nfl.com, youtube, the BBC, CNN, SBNation, CBSNews, NBC, and more.

I listened to a lot of Rush Limbaugh in high school. I worked in a small business part time, and conservative talk radio was on from morning to night. I know there is a skepticism of “the lamestream”, lefty media. Still, I know that “the media” is code for the usual suspects. To say that they did not “mention” it is at worst a lie, and at best a clear indicator that this guy does not know what he is talking about.

So what are we to do with his criticism? (Well I am writing about it in addition to what follows) We can ignore it. I agreed with a quote-tweet of it that I saw — basically “you can tell a lot by people who use the term ‘the media’ — but maybe you agree. Maybe you think “yeah, I didn’t hear about it in the things that I consume so therefore it was not NEWS”. That would be factually correct but still very wrong.

The media has to mean something. If you want to have a good-faith argument about who should cover what and when, you have to acknowledge that the media did, in fact, mention this. The diet of media that this person consumed did not. (Assuming he is commenting in good faith) He should acknowledge that he was wrong and reconsider his media diet.

What does it mean for us?

Here in sports-land, the common criticism from the message boards is that someone/anyone/all of them are out to get your favorite school. The truth is much more depressing: no one cares enough to dig that deep. The life of a beat writer or columnist is structured such that there is little in the way of opportunity to dig up reasons to slight or defame your favorite school.

We have mentioned previously that this league is made up of members in need for attention and support. While there are many good beat writers that cover this league (fewer each day because of the aforementioned cuts) there are always the ones who drop in, do the minimum and simply repeat the talking points given by an AD, or a communications person, or rattle off the media guide at you and call it a report.

This is our own fault, as fans. There is little incentive to do otherwise.

Consider that the most devoted fans of the program is more interested in the latest recruiting gossip than in any reporter digging up dirt that is going to put the school in trouble with the NCAA. We, as consumers of media, have to take responsibility for our own diet. The various media — in the truest sense, as in the plural of medium — are responding to the public.

I can tell you no one wants to read about the mediocre teams. The biggest traffic drivers are stories about the winning teams and the coach about to be fired. Similarly, few want to be challenged, or told that they could do better — see the criticisms of the CUSA media deal that are mainly the fault of fans of the league.

We have to be honest in our criticism and clear in what we want from the organizations that provide local news. If all you want is something to tickle your ear and make you feel good about your choices, then admit that, and move on. If you truly want something objective and critical, be prepared to be made uncomfortable.

Whatever you choose, remember you chose it, and take responsibility for your choices.

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