News is not a market commodity


Don't get too cocky, breadsticks.

Don’t get too cocky, breadsticks.

An incredible finding from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism:

In many ways [the rise of fake/inaccurate news offers] an opportunity for existing news brands. Over two-thirds (70%) of respondents to our digital leaders survey say they think their position will be strengthened, by highlighting the need for trusted brands and accurate news at a time of uncertainty. Damian Radcliffe of Oregon University believes some audiences may “increasingly appreciate the importance – and value – of quality independent journalism” and points to the increased rate of subscription for the New York Times, and ProPublica amongst others immediately following the Trump victory.

Why is this incredible? This is certainly logic we would apply to many other things. When Volkswagen was found to be cheating on emissions tests, that clearly strengthened competitors’ positions in the market, just as the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 debacle helped other smartphone makers. Indeed, this is a central part of the “parity product” concept in marketing: One firm’s product can and does step in as a replacement when another’s becomes less attractive for some reason (quality, price, etc.). But the key here is that these consumer products that are not mutually interactive — that is, you can buy a Volkswagen and a Ford, but they’re still just two things rather than something newly emergent from their combination.

News works differently, as really should be patently obvious. For one thing, most of it isn’t bought by consumers. Print publications make up a small minority of news consumption in 2017; instead, people use sources that are freely available, or at most part of a large subscription package (i.e., cable TV). Additionally, people get an enormous amount of news indirectly, with or without source attribution. This has always been true – it’s what the two-step flow model describes – but it’s more common today given the centrality of online sharing to news consumption.

As a result of social sharing and the broader pick-and-choose model of Internet news use, we can see very clearly that news isn’t a typical consumer market; it’s a buffet. The nature of a buffet is that the things you choose from it tend to all pile on top of each other. So it is with news, where your Facebook will intermingle posts direct from news sources with those direct from politicians, those from your agreeable friends, those from your disagreeable friends, and a number of other sources. If one or two of those sources are spoiled, it has effects on your entire news ecosystem. Rather than making the traditional sources look comparatively great, it degrades trust in the entire news enterprise. As Sean Blanda notes, these problems are not just a couple bad apples; they’re baked into the business model of online news:

Yes, most content is consumed via social and search. This is why the trend in online publishing is to go where the people are and be platform agnostic—to post content to platforms like Snapchat and Facebook. News outlets don’t only do this for their content. They do this for their sponsored content (thus becoming “native advertising”). Of course, the news outlet has no control over their presentation on these platforms, further blurring the trust between what is “real” and “reported” and what is “fake” or “advertising.”

Putting your “real” news and other sources’ “fake” news in one big pot and expecting to float to the top fundamentally misunderstands what news is, and it’s the industry’s biggest long-term challenge.

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    • Ben Lyons

      ah, “the media”