Affect and effect

I’ve just got back from News Foo Camp, an event built around trying to imagine new futures for journalism. It was fantastic. The next few posts on here are going to be little shards of things I’ve been thinking about since.

Here’s the first of those. American newspapers are terribly proud of their objectivity and impartiality. They’ve elevated it to a creed. But is this virtue actually a weakness?

At the conference, one session compered by Howard Weaver on the nature of “fact” in journalism digressed into a discussion of ethics and objectivity in news organisations. I’ve got to admit that for a few moments I was perplexed. Growing up with the British media landscape, even the idea of an unbiased newspaper seems quaint. Our newspapers despise each other, even as writers move between them; the Guardian thinks the Telegraph's cryptofascist, the Telegraph thinks the Guardian simple-minded, and everyone thinks the FT is looking down on them (which it is). What you might miss, however, is that this means they leave political space for each other — each has something unique to offer the reader.

By contrast, American papers have often felt flat and affectless to me, sanctimonious and dull. It’s not the writers or the culture: some American political bloggers from all ideologies are as smart, sharp, witty and aggressive as the very best British political writers. The arts and sports coverage, where personality and taste shine through, are likewise as good in American papers as anywhere else. So, for the formerly-print media, it’s not “can’t”, it’s “won’t”.

But why? That decision looks strategically indefensible to me: you just commoditized yourself. The facts of any news story are available almost anywhere, for free, immediately. Your facts aren’t factier than another paper’s, you probably won’t scoop CNN, and you definitely won’t scoop Twitter. (Could this be why is investigative journalism is so lionised in the US? It’s the only way to own facts, and hence a story, at least temporarily). So any business value in that content is marginal and temporary at best.

To expand on that, it’s because you’re squeezed on both sides: Demand Media and friends have better SEO than you and will best you on the long tail search terms. What’s more, mass-production data-distribution platforms - like Bloomberg or Timetric - are even flatter and more affectless than the newspapers: through that, though, we’re less biased, and through our economies of scale we can do whole classes of facts faster and cheaper than newspapers can. Taking technology firms like us on at our own game seems, well, brave.

There’s an alternative, though, and the British press points to it. Why not try taking a side? It’s got some real virtues. It gives you clear strategic space: imagine a Republican and Democratic pair of national papers scrapping it out. Reading one becomes a statement of identity, and that gives the readers a sense of belonging. The debate’s sharpened, the media overall represents all viewpoints, or at least all the viewpoints of the economically-significant parts of society, and two papers might be able to coexist in one metro without fighting to death.

It’s a huge change in style, though, and one which might be a bit much to ask. Still, it’s hard to dismiss out of hand.

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