Put Your Money Where Your Mind Is

Perhaps more correctly, “put your money where you want your mind to be.”

Much has been made in recent months of the decline in journalism. Specifically, that journalism has responded to changes in our culture and information consumption by becoming less of source of information and more of a source of entertainment. Quoting Seth Godin’s blog this morning: “… newspapers won Pulitzer prizes for telling us things we didn’t want to hear. We’ve responded by not buying newspapers any more.” The implication is that if newspapers and other sources of information want to survive they need to tell what we want to hear.

That needs to change.

As a culture we currently seem to be in a deep mode of “like me good, not like me bad”. Given the opportunity to see things about those not like us, or things that don’t appeal to our values, or things we don’t already like and understand, we’re more likely to click away and go view something more comfortable.

In a way, it’s not really surprising. When scared we naturally gravitate towards things in which we find comfort; things like us, things that we’re already familiar with. Exposing ourselves to bad news, new experiences, different people, and scary ideas, is not something that comes naturally when we’re already leaning towards “fight or flight” mode in our discomfort.

And yet, and in part, that’s exactly what we need to do.

Put more succinctly, perhaps, we need to seek out and support media that truly informs and challenges us. Less entertainment, more information. We need to reward media that provides the information we don’t necessarily want to hear. We need to reward the media that takes the risk, invests the time, effort, and money into providing the information we need to hear.

Note that I’m explicitly avoiding terms like “fair” or “objective” when characterizing media. For one thing, I don’t believe that it’s possible to be completely fair or objective – everyone has a bias, even media. The other problem is that fair or objective is too often in the eye of the beholder. More important, perhaps, is to simply be aware of your own biases, and then be open to information that might challenge them.

What’s changed, dramatically, is the economics that support the information providers. In the past a print newspaper could rely on good reporting to increase circulation, which in turn allowed for a stream of advertising revenue that supported operations. Even then the revenue model of the newspaper wasn’t really about selling subscriptions. While that was important, it was secondary to selling subscriber eyeballs to advertisers.

That model still holds true today. News sources still sell eyeballs to advertisers, only they do it online. What’s changed is that advertising is sold by the page view (or in some cases the click) rather than the subscriber. He who gets the pageviews gets the revenue. The result? What I call “clickbait nation.” Salacious headlines to get you to a page. Once you’re there the job of the information source is over – you’ve been delivered to the advertiser. The content provided can be thin, unrelated, misleading, wrong, or even non-existent.

Every time we fall for clickbait we reward the system. Every time we choose kitty pictures over potentially uncomfortable news, we tell the news providers that there’s no money news reporting. We’re telling them that they’re better off teasing us with the latest celebrity gossip than they are actually providing useful information.

What we tell them needs to change.

We need to support the media that we believe is capable of providing the news and information we believe is necessary. Again, I’m leaving any definition of what specific media that might be – what you consider to be objective and worthy of your attention – up to you. There’s never been agreement on this since news reporting was invented. Instead, as long as more people make a conscious decision to support what they believe to be accurate and insightful information gathering, I’m fairly certain that the average will lift us all up above where we are today.

To me, that means:

  • Paying more attention to “real” media sources, as opposed to entertainment (and, lord help us, fake) sources of information.
  • Consuming news and information of relevance, even if it’s somewhat uncomfortable.
  • Paying for information; putting your money where your mind is. Pay for a subscription to the newspaper(s) you might otherwise skim for free.

All three are difficult. With so many things competing for our time and our money today it’s hard to tear ourselves away from what’s easy to focus on what’s needed.

To quote Seth again: “Vote with your clicks, with your sponsorship, with your bookstore dollars. Vote with your conversations, with your letters to the editor, by changing the channel…”.

For the record, to put my own money where my mouth is:

We’ve been long time subscribers to our local newspaper (The Seattle Times) in order to receive a daily physical paper. In years past I’d considered pulling back to only reading online – for free. I realize now what a mistake that would be. Physical paper or not, supporting journalism – especially at the local level – is critically important.

I’ve since added paid subscriptions to both The Washington Post, as well as The Wall Street Journal.

I’ve also increased my financial support of The Electronic Frontier Foundation. Freedom of the press appears under imminent attack, particularly when it comes to the impact of technology on news gathering and dissemination. The EFF works to protect a free press, among other important tech issues.

Whether you support these organizations specifically, organizations like them, or organizations diametrically opposed to them, I feel it’s important that you show your support in some way. And that means with your time and most importantly your money.