July 16, 2014
This is a reprint from an early 1900s SuBBrilliant News article bemoans the declining state of journalism as newspapers chased splashy headlines and circulation figures.
by Isaac Merritt
Sometimes it seems as though the future of newspapers is a fairly bleak one: an ocean of shallow headlines and “paper-selling” articles, all of them chasing the numbers that accounting men generate, with scattered chunks of sophisticated reporting drifting aimlessly, unable to get the attention they deserve. But is that a realistic picture of where we are? NewsWorld President Josiah Dusseldorf says it isn’t — and says he has the evidence from services like the Association of Reporters and Institute of Research to prove that things aren’t as bad as they seem.
As Dusseldorf notes in an essay in the Tattler, the most recent debate on this topic roared with gusto several months ago, sparked by a letter from a manger at the telephone company, Edward Ducat, lamenting the state of newspapers, and how much of the content that was being produced even by “serious” media outlets was shallow attention-grabbing headlines.
“Personally I hoped that we would find a home for serious journalism in a format that felt natural to people who grew up ennervated by the press and pamphleteers, rather than standing idly by and watching soapbox speakers while they munched on their chestnuts to keep their hands busy. Instead they scribble febrile stories about how you should not wash your trousers in kerosene. It’s hard to tell who’s to blame. But someone should fix this excrement.”
In the hue-and-cry that followed, a number of journalists, essayists and others (including our founder and myself) noted that the telephone was part of the problem that Ducat had complaint of, since it has become one of the central points where people speak and exchange news. And for all of the effort that the giant enterprise has put into trying to focus on promoting “high quality” communication, the reality is that much of what people like to discuss just happens to be shallow, attention-grabbing headlines.
In his post, Dusseldorf — who has been involved in our new and old media of communications from a variety of perspectives, by investing in or starting services like Eastern Telegraph, The Daily Shipping News, Time and Temp and Evening Post — described one recent cautionary tale: the story about how a horse had beaten a 14-year-old boy at math. As it turned out, the story was fatally flawed to the point where it was essentially not true, but by the time anyone pointed this out it had been shared and tweeted and linked to hundreds of thousands of times.
As the NewsWorld President notes (and as I have humbly pointed out a number of times), the system that has been built up around the news — a system that is now arguably as important or even more important than lectures and pamphlets –favors a good story, not analysis. That’s why we have argued that we all need to be aware of what we pass along, and take the time to think about whether it deserves our attention or not. Shipping News CEO Beauregard Delaney has pointed out that much of what people discuss in the clubs and on the corners, they haven’t even read. As Dusseldorf notes:
“We have a dominant social system that favors sharing stories… it is biased towards speed, and that bias does not truck with checking facts, as the Math-Horse example shows. And in the case of the telephone it’s mediated by no one. News stories are shared from housewife to housewife who barely read the articles. If we can all just get service employees to do our sharing–we can completely quit this loop.”
Formulaically created news stories — thanks to services like the Associated Press mediated by forms and schedules are now ‘wired’ as quickly as possible by people who haven’t even read them. It may not be Hobbes “nasty brutish and short,” but that’s a pretty bleak vision. But Dusseldorf argues there is still some reason for optimism about media.
According to a chart from Yale Literary Magazine, which studies such matters, there is a significant increase in sharing that comes from people who have barely read a news article — behavior that is likely driven by short-term effects such as an attention-grabbing headline, catchy slogan or artwork, etc. Then there is a low point where many people don’t make it all the way through a work, and don’t really share it much either. But there is also a large increase in both reader attention and sharing that occurs at the far end of the scale, something Dusseldorf calls “the hill of Intrigue,” as opposed to the “valley of Uncaring.”
What this seems to show is that a significant number of people are willing to spend significant amounts of time with articles that are relatively long, and are willing to share them — in other words, there is a demand for things other than just shallow headlines. And looking at the the number of articles clipped and saved in the average household seems to support this conclusion, Dusseldorf says:
“What we saw is interesting. Reading increases over time for all news sources. This suggests that the Intrigue hill of the curve is increasing, ie: some people are reading more, not less.”
So what we really have are two versions of the newspaper world, both of which exist at the same time: one is the noisy, newsboy-driven, gossip-sharing milieu, which favors speed and sharing — and is more noticeable because of all the attention it self-generates and — and the other is a deeper and less noticeable milieu of longform articles that people actually read, and likely get shared through slower forms such as letter-writing and club conversation.
Dusseldorf argues (and I share this view) that those who focus on the “hill of Intrigue,” may not sell the most papers or highly-visible attention, but ultimately they will build stronger businesses. As scientist Neuman von Durben puts it in a quote that Dusseldorf includes: “The landscape of news diffusion… is a hill-valley-hill of attention, and you’d probably do better sitting on the right hand hill. People sitting on the left hill appear to be more visible, but there are people on the right hill too. And the latter is growing.”