Many main stream media companies have decided to invest in technology and Big Data because they feel it will help them increase readership. Is this a smart investment? I would argue the real problem with traditional main stream media doesn’t lie with technology but with lack of trust which translates into a lack of value for most customers. Given the democratization of information via the Internet, there is now significant competition for readers’ attention. Put simply, if the readers don’t trust the product, they will spend their time elsewhere.
A recent Gallup poll suggested that “there isn’t a single news medium that more than one in five Americans have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in.” Technology and Big Data alone don’t solve issues that are core to a business or the industry. While they can serve as tools to tell companies where to place band aids, until the company understands the root cause, cuts, scrapes, and bruises will continue to appear. In this instance, traditional main stream media will continue to see their footprint shrink.
Mainstream media is in an interesting place right now, anyone, including me (thanks, Medium!), is able to become a content creator. The democratization of media has presented a difficult problem for traditional media outlets for some time. These traditional media outlets must understand how to manage this democratization by reducing the prevalence of filter bubbles. In other words, they have to navigate the difficult balance between harnessing the wisdom of the crowds while mitigating the negativity resulting from mob mentality. To illustrate this tricky balance, think of how many times you’ve seen comments like “I will no longer read — — publication, because of — — view that I disagree with.” As the availability of information increases we need to be sure that people increase their ability to think critically, ask questions, and comprehend what they are reading.
As I’ve mentioned ad nauseam, the average consumer does not trust traditional main stream media. There are three main drivers of this lack of trust. 1) The concentration of media ownership is in the hands of a few well connected players. 2) People who disagree with liberal issues are often painted as uneducated and people who disagree with conservative issues are painted as hippies. 3) People are “killing the messenger” rather than considering the fact that a lot of ‘controversial’ opinions are supported by large portions of the country. Take Trump with immigration or Ben Carson with abortion both of them are supported by 30–35% of the country. Said another way approximately 65 MILLION people in the US agree with statements by Trump and Ben Carson. Reading mainstream media you wouldn’t really get that feeling, and by mainstream media attacking the candidates they are essentially attacking the views of 1/3 of all eligible voters and exacerbating the divide created by filter bubbles.
When filter bubbles aren’t a problem on controversial topics, I’ve noticed that the sentiment in the comment sections often times differs from the sentiment of what’s in the article. For example, using Semantria, I analyzed the sentiment of a NY Times article on Caitlyn Jenner. I compared the sentiment of the article to that of the comments. I found the article had a much more positive sentiment than the majority of the comments. As news media outlets become more fragmented and partisan, this disconnect between commentator sentiment and article sentiment is becoming more and more apparent especially on articles that do cross over.
This disconnect highlights a geographic bias (often highlighted by the way we cover sports teams), I refer to it as the Two and Half Men effect. Two and Half Men was one of the most popular TV shows of all time, averaging almost 15 million viewers an episode, even when competing against Monday Night Football. The show was so popular, that its major stars were pulling in $1 million per episode. The shows main character, Charlie Harper, prides himself on living a playboy lifestyle that consists of money falling into his lap, sleeping in, nice cars, a two-story beachfront home, drinking excessively, smoking cigars, taking drugs, constant womanizing, gambling, and usually wearing bowling shirts and shorts. While the show has been off for some time, if you lived in one of the major US coastal cities during its run, how many people did you know that were religious watchers of Two and a Half Men (especially when compared to shows like Game of Thrones which has half as many viewers per episode)? In my informal polling of friends, family, and coworkers, I couldn’t find a single one who watched the show. Enter Charlie Sheen’s, a real life Charlie Harper, explosion onto the scene with his egotistical and narcissistic tirades, misogynistic and emasculating comments, and can’t miss interviews. Sound familiar? Donald Trump, who some have called narcissistic, egotistical, misogynistic, emasculating, and a can’t miss interview is doing for Middle America what Charlie Sheen did for Two and Half Men. The Sheen craziness and Trump popularity are highlighting the fact that there are a large group of Americans that have passions and interests that rarely cross the radar of us “coastal city dwellers.” This Two and Half Men effect is the result of a few things, the first is that 90% of the mainstream media are headquartered in extremely diverse, highly educated, liberal-leaning and increasingly PC locations. Areas where people can be extremely guarded about saying how they really feel about issues especially when they don’t hold a popular opinion. At the same time, despite the ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity in these locations, these cities tend to create urban bubbles and thus producers, managers, and most importantly decision makers at main stream media organizations have a very different and in some ways biased view of the world (based on their daily interactions), especially when compared with ‘Middle’ America.
This geographic bias is made worse by mainstream media’s oversimplification of complex issues. Many articles written by mainstream news outlets tend to tell people what to think about something as opposed to explaining it or even presenting rational or reasonable responses from opposing views (in addition to having click bait titles that appeal to particular demographics creating confirmation bias). This is especially dangerous when you consider that reading comprehension and critical thinking skills have likely not increased at the same rates as access to information. Think of how many times you’ve read something and not sat back to think about ways to challenge what you’ve read, and instead just accepted it. For example, the recent news about the connection between meat consumption and cancer, I would be curious to know how many people sat back to think about whether it’s correlation vs causation or how data on a study like that is compiled (ie is it by survey or in a lab). By presenting complex topics as simple, mainstream media allows people to feel as if they are experts on everything. This feeling increases the effect of filter bubbles but more importantly it prevents people with dissenting popular opinions from voicing those opinions, because oversimplified issues are generally presented as black and white when often time’s things are really grey.
The combination of these three issues trust, geographic bias, and oversimplification of complex issues combined with the glut of advertising and special interests reduce the quality and value mainstream media. There are a few things that companies can do to improve the customer experience. 1) Tap into the wisdom of the crowd and partner with websites like Reddit to bring mainstream media quality journalism to articles and comments that rise to the top on these websites. It’s interesting that the New York Times is struggling with attracting people to their home page, but a website like Reddit is considered the front page of the internet. This is an extremely difficult challenge because of the short time frame these topics stay in the purview of the “main stream”, but as the New York Times recently acknowledge it will be important for the success of the industry moving forward and are expanding their Digital Rewrite Team. The industry should avoid sacrificing quality for speed, and instead spend the extra money to increase quality and decrease time to release. 2) Find a way to present articles in an unbiased manner. Currently main stream media has become very liberal and almost overly PC, which is a reaction to how brash things were 5–10 years ago. My prediction and intuition is that we are moving back towards the center. This PC backlash (which is commented on every single article touching on something cultural) is caused by over simplification of complex topics. For example, many people know that saying black people like chicken and watermelon is offensive but I doubt many people know why. This is an example of an information gap that will be critical for main stream media to get right and highlight in the near future.
Moving forward, mainstream media will need to be able to bridge the gap between opposing ideas and must consider time as the most valuable resource (as opposed to clicks or money). Focusing on money is the wrong approach in the modern economy because as things become more commoditized people generally spend more to maximize convenience. For media companies it will be extremely important to understand how to get more of people’s time and once people value the time they spend interaction with main stream media subscriber rates will begin to turn around.