Backgrounder: ‘News’ by Algorithm

October 3, 2019

AN EDITOR FRIEND, forced to watch close-up the death throes of our hometown newspaper, offered a fresh perspective on the threadbare issue of journalism’s demise. She thinks it has to do with confusing compliments with subscriptions.

We ran out of publishers able to provide an adult presence, she might say. That’s when yuppie editors began flooding the front page with soft feature stories and cute takes on vaguely topical issues, all of which were hits with the in-crowd at the white-wine dinner parties. 

What wasn’t understood, though, was that compliments come cheap, subscriptions are hard-won.

The friend, who once solved a murder on the phone from her desk, spent her career arguing with superiors about the importance of content. Readers may tell publishers they want “good” news, she found, but when they renew their subscription it’s because the newspaper proved itself a trustworthy source of serious information. When boring property taxes go up, subscribers want to know the boring details.

Market research backs her up. Readers are notorious for lying as to why they dropped their subscription. “They give answers that make them sound discerning, even sophisticated,” one researcher told me, “something like ‘the commentary was off the mark,’ or ‘the articles were too heavy,’ or ‘it didn’t reflect my lifestyle.’”

But you get a different response when you ask ex-subscribers the question, “Why did you take the newspaper in the first place?” The answers include expectations of hard news reporting, of an accurate and full picture of the day’s events — all expectations unmet.

In short, the news business forgot what news was about.

Joe Bob Briggs, the syndicated columnist, recently ran an experiment along these lines. Briggs, in an article entitled “Man Bites Dog but Nobody Cares,” listed the stories on his daily Internet newsfeed placed ahead of a Stanford University research project identifying the cure for the common cold. The Briggs list:

“The original purpose of a newspaper was to organize all the events of the world in order of importance, using fonts, type sizes, headlines, and other conventions to indicate relative importance,” Briggs writes. “That has been turned into its opposite: ‘We don’t know what the hell is important, so you decide.’”

He notes that Facebook, Google and Microsoft select stories by algorithm (high-tech mumbo jumbo) on the basis of your past reading. They are, therefore, by design, not news to you. Terrific.

Of course, the craft has always had its flaws, many of them of human origin. As callow but self-inflated world-shakers on the overnight desk of a metro newspaper in the ’70s, we counted as the sum of our community contacts, the only “real” people we knew outside work, a half-dozen bartenders and 7-11 cashiers on our route home.

The difference from today is that neither we nor the bartenders nor the cashiers were allowed to set the front-page news budget.

The readership, I can now say with certainty, was the better for that.

— tcl


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