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Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE DON'T TELL THEM ANYTHING, PART II

The first part of this essay discussed advertising and argued that it has converged with propaganda to become a type of anti-information. Advertising is not the only medium to have passed through this type of convergence; newspapers that were not necessarily conceived specifically as propaganda instruments have been on the convergence path at least as long as advertising has. The convergence stretches beyond the model of consent manufacture developed and successfully applied by Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, because newspapers have effectively been colonized, and are now being overrun, by advertising. Research into the various factors that result in changes in newspaper circulation and subscription numbers suggests that newspapers have fallen victim to a 'death spiral' rooted in the fact that their editors and publishers have become convinced they shouldn't tell us anything, and that they can't afford investigative journalism.

Mind you, if you read what many newspapers say about this, you will learn that the causes are quite different. It's the fault of the internet, where you can get up to the minute news for free, and anyone can write articles on what they consider news. I recently stumbled over a statement by a respected foreign correspondent sneering with remarkable venom at bloggers who had the gall to have an opinion and write about news without a degree in journalism. While it is certainly true that newspapers are facing stiff competition from bloggers and other alternative news sources, low or no costs supposedly made possible by cheap web tools and lack of journalism credentials simply don't explain the decline of newspapers.

Using alternative news sources involves some degree of brainwork and precious time, which renders it free only in monetary terms. Not every blogger has something intelligent to write, and not every alternative news source is robust enough to be trusted. Recommendations, ratings, citations, and a bit of monitoring are all needed to pull the wheat from the chaff. Meanwhile, many established newspapers can rely on their reputation and their own advertising to draw readership. If people can be persuaded to do this just because the alternative news sources are free, low cost, or donation-funded, psychologists and marketing firms should be figuring out how to do experiments and focus groups wholly on-line to cut costs and be more effective.

Another explanation is that people, especially 'young people' which seems to mean anyone younger than the newspaper editors and publishers, are apathetic. They don't care about the news, they're too busy on Facebook, watching television and playing videogames (they couldn't care less, but they're great multitaskers). These are the same people who 'can't be bothered' to vote. They don't care about the world or the society they live in. It would be unreasonable to say apathy has nothing to do with the decline of newspaper readership, but it hardly seems reasonable to say apathy explains it all either.

The trouble with the apathy hypothesis is that many of the same people who are supposed to be so apathetic are the ones turning to alternative news sources. They donate money to keep those sources afloat, recommend them to others, and write reams of comments and letters. Why, many of them are the founders, producers, and contributors to those news sources. They likely watch news on television, and may even listen to it on the radio, retrograde as the idea may seem today.

But when you dig beyond the sensationalist 'internet killed the newspaper star' and 'young people couldn't care less' claims, you soon find that the newspaper industry has been frantically studying a much more effective explanation. Newspapers are in trouble because they are suffering a severe and growing credibility crisis; colloquially only lawyers and politicians are rated lower. Fundamentally, credibility headaches come from a failure to provide information and slipping into convergence with propaganda.

One of the studies I encountered in my research for this essay is called "Anatomy of a Death Spiral: Newspapers and Their Credibility" by Philip Meyer and Yuan Zhang. It was genuinely fascinating, but less for its analysis of how credibility relates to circulation and subscription numbers than for one of the data transformations the authors applied. They found that in general, older people and people of colour are more skeptical about what the read in the newspapers, and they deemed this to be a factor that would skew their analysis. So Meyer and Zhang 'corrected' the data for this source of skepticism. Apparently they couldn't believe that the apparent correlation between the experience of oppression and/or longer life experience (ageism is an important source of oppression) and greater disbelief in the trustworthiness of newspapers was meaningful for their study. I can't help but wonder if they had noticed a strong correlation between gender and skepticism towards newspapers, whether they would have corrected for the offending gender, which would most likely be 'female.'

Newspapers and newspaper-like publications actually have a remarkably long history. The very earliest such publications were likely Chinese, if you restrict the question to items printed on paper or paper-like materials. No one was especially measuring credibility then, but the blur between what can be considered bald propaganda and newspapers is almost as old. Even so, the credibility of newspapers appears to have been fairly high until after people began to react against the power of the churches and the invention of the printing press. But things really began to go downhill once radio and television came along. Recent newspaper industry surveys have found that people rate numerous television and radio newscasts and news programs as more credible than newspapers.

Newness hasn't necessarily leant radio and television a boost here all by itself, if at all (people typically respond to new information sources with more rather than less skepticism). A newscaster builds credibility based not just on the information they convey, but also on their body language. We read body language all the time, and it includes gestures we make with both our bodies and our voices. It is an additional information channel that we have evolved to use to sort out who we should believe and how much we should believe them. Therefore radio and television have more 'credibility information channels' than newspapers do, and can potentially overcome a credibility deficit more easily. Changes in internet and computer technology and availability have made it possible for alternative news sources on the internet to have more 'credibility information channels' as well.

In my research on the history of newspapers, I learned that for a long period before world war two, 'yellow journalism' was predominant in North American newspapers. 'Yellow journalism' is sensationalist, scare-mongering, potentially even violence inciting headlines and stories that downplay real news for attention-diverting material. The lure of yellow journalism is increased sales. Interestingly, yellow journalism fell out of favour around world war two, as dreadful rumours and stories of Nazi persecution of Jews began to filter back to North America. Based on my definition of anti-information, material that provides no information itself and cancels out information, yellow journalism qualifies for the label. Over the past five to ten years, there has been a move back towards yellow journalism, especially in the form of an expansion in tabloid-format newspapers. ('Tabloid-format' in this case meaning a fairly square page shape with no central horizontal fold, higher picture to text ratio and greater use of colour.)

'Credibility' isn't just about looking and sounding believable; you still have to tell the truth if your credibility is going to be more than ephemeral. Newspapers are probably at the height of their credibility curves when they are perceived to be willing and able to reveal and verify truths that influential figures like politicians or CEOs might prefer to have kept firmly covered up. In the long term, investigative journalism and general journalism focusing on real news (e.g. social issues, the economy) appear to correlate with newspapers getting the bills paid and increasing their readership and circulation. The sticky part here is 'long term.'

Since newspaper publishers became corporations or were absorbed into corporations, and legal decisions declared a corporation's sole duty was to make money for its shareholders, the long term has been driven out of the equation. In the short term, forfronting sensationalist headlines, puerile celebrity stories, and sports can generate more revenue right away. But like advertising, it wears off. Newspapers have been making up revenue shortfalls due to sales losses with more advertising, placing themselves in an awkward position. It's difficult to pursue investigative journalism when the investigation might make an advertiser uncomfortable. Newspapers are also becoming far more partisan, becoming entrained via editorial policy with specific political parties or ideologies, while purporting to cover 'all sides of the story.' This corresponds to the common working definition of propaganda, and it can do serious credibility damage outside of the party faithful. Obviously that is no recipe for readership expansion.

Meanwhile, the grade level of newspaper text has been dropping, slipping from grade nine (the rating quoted in my grade twelve social studies textbook) to grade six today. The articles are far shorter, and the belief of certain media analysts in the miniscule attention spans of so-called 'generation x' means sentences are shorter, and so are the words chosen to write them. Beyond banner headlined pieces, articles now appear to be fitted in around advertising rather than vice versa, so that if an article is split across at least two pages, the article sections are typically at least ten pages apart.

All together, these developments make reading a newspaper an unpleasant and frustrating experience. By nature they are printed on cheap paper with cheap ink, so it can also be a messy experience. It hardly seems worth it to do the work to get through the advertising and the non-news to get to the meaty stuff. And then the meaty stuff is turning out more and more often to be spam rather than real meat. Adding insult to injury, even if you never buy a newspaper, you'll get plenty of advertising for free, because the mail carrier stuffs your mailbox full of 'bulk mail'. At least on television or the radio it's possible to change the channel. Even web browsers are now providing ways to block ads from being loaded with the rest of their host webpages, and companies are backing away from 'push techniques', a polite term for pop-up windows and pop-in ads1, in favour of RSS feeds and more information.

There's no point in buying a newspaper if you expect it to give you real information2, and it doesn't. Newspapers may still be more credible than politicians for now, because they have a lingering reputation for serving as a check on criminal behaviour in politicians. But this credibility advantage can't survive if newspapers continue to indulge in the sort of water carrying characterizing Canada's most recent federal election, or the run up to the war in Iraq.

  1. 'Pop-in ad' is my term for advertisements that literally appear on top of the web page you were trying to look at, blocking the content and apparently impossible to dismiss. I remember which sites have them in order to avoid them.
  2. However, when it comes to "real information" things seem to have gotten even worse, alas. I effectively went onto a news-less diet some years ago because of a paper suggesting that this would be of help reducing stress and feelings of helplessness and depression. For my own part, I must endorse the idea, because that is what I have found. It is also worth reading Rolf Dobelli's article Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet. He is making many of the same points as I have here, though his additional comments about neuro-plasticity and news supposedly destroying our capacity to read longer form text put me into leery mode. A lot of claims are hung on neurological studies or the reputed results of neurological studies, which may be repeated in quite reputable non-scientific sources. Which is not to say that Dobelli is wrong or reporting inaccurately, just that personally I would need to learn more about the evidence for his point there.
Copyright © C. Osborne 2017
Last Modified: Friday, August 30, 2013 00:27:11 MDT