News vs Journalism

Posted: 11/09/2020

With the advent of widely available broadband internet and mobile internet since the late 1990s and early 2000s services, applications, and webpage have an inherent assumption of being free to use. Users already pay for the internet connection so why would they pay for the applications on the internet?! For example, you wouldn't pay to use google.com would you? Or your email client (gmail, yahoo mail etc). There are exceptions though: in the late 90s and early 2000 video and music piracy was at an all-time high. Then companies like Hulu Netflix Spotify and Apple made it easy and a norm to pay for content you consume (TV/Movies/Music). Still today there is piracy but far less than there was in the past. As Spotify’s founder, Daniel Ek, put it “you need an experience better than free”. When users don't pay for content they consume they get ads. When we search or watch YouTube videos: ads. Advertising is the de facto business model for services on the internet (besides e-commerce/actually selling stuff). Mobile Android and iOS app’s are plagued with ads in strange places.

There is an underlying problem with this free model: users end up expecting news to be free! Not too long ago a large population of people paid for a newspaper subscription and it was delivered to the front door step. When news is free, the incentive of the writers/the systems changes to try and draw the user in, to spend more time on the page, to look at more ads; not necessarily to share a newsworthy story. In fact the entire existence of buzzfeed.com is to create content that goes viral. In other words engineer news/articles/pages that go viral. Free news does not do a good job of telling the story, finding the facts, and just telling the truth without opinions. Journalism on the other hand is the act of independently researching writing and publishing stories/current events.

There are the larger papers that do “independent journalism” (I'm looking at you NYT) which you should and can pay for to read journalism. There are platforms like Medium where you can pay to read someone's blog. There's still no good solution to reading journalism where journalists can be truly independent without the affiliation of a large paper. In recent times it is common for authors to have newsletters, write books, and host a podcast.

I don't know the exact numbers/have data but I intuit that the majority of readers do not pay for what they read in the present day. The result is what we see today: new’s that we feel we cannot trust.

As for a solution: Perhaps a platform where journalists can independently publish news and users can pay for journalists. This model does however make it unstable for the journalist. I am sure if someone has tried this idea, but if they have not (or have not succeeded) there is your next unicorn startup (or non profit to change the underlying incentives). In any case, in the present I do not have a clear solution for this problem of news consumed through the internet.

There are the following orgs: NPR, PBS, and ProPublica that are nonprofits, independently funded, or government subsidized. Unfortunately they are not the most popular sources by mainstream consumers and they have problems/controversies themselves.

Have an idea or solution? Let’s talk.