This piece is a sort of a sequel to in September 2019. I say sort of because you don’t have to necessarily read the September piece in order to make sense of this, but you will understand the issue better if you did.
Also, this piece is based largely on ideas from the book Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life, written by Rolf Dobelli.
In the book, Dobelli basically asks people to stay away from news as it is conventionally presented and published if they want to live a happier, calmer and wiser life (as the subtitle of the book suggests). He offers many reasons in order to make his case. In this piece, we will look at two reasons which are important in the context of the broader point that I am trying to make.
The world that we live in is a complex place, although the media more often than not tends to ignore this, given the limitations of space, time and money. As Dobelli writes: “Cause and effect don’t hang together in linear fashion. In almost all cases, the interplay of hundreds or even thousands of causes lead to a particular event, yet this event is often attributed to only a few…In this way consumers are given the illusion that the world is simpler and more explicable than it actually is.”
An excellent example here is that of the monetary policy of the Reserve Bank of India and how it gets reported in the Indian media. Within some time of the RBI cutting the repo rate, or the interest rate at which it lends to banks, stories suggesting that loan EMIs will now go down start appearing in the media. But that, as people who have borrowed from banks know, has rarely turned out to be the case in the last few years.
This is because interest rates that banks charge on their loans are not just a function of the interest rate at which the RBI lends to banks. There are many other factors involved, which the media either misses out on or simply chooses to ignore, in order to make the story straightforward and simplistic.
So, what is the way around this? As Dobelli suggests: “If you avoid the news and instead either read long articles and books on a particular topic or discuss it with experts, you’ll get a much more realistic picture of the situation. And you won’t fall prey to the illusion that the future is easy to understand.”
Dobelli also talks about Sturgeon’s Law in the context of news. Sturgeon’s Law is named after a successful American science fiction writer, Theodor Sturgeon. Sturgeon, among other things, also wrote several Star Trek scripts. Critics did not take too kindly to his success and jeered that 90 percent of science fiction was rubbish.
Sturgeon coolly responded that 90 percent “of everything [emphasis in the original] that is published is rubbish, regardless of the genre”. Of course, this includes news as it has evolved over the last couple of decades.
As Dobelli writes: “Sturgeon’s Law…means that newspapers, broadcasters and websites are increasingly turning into a sort of large-scale bathroom wall. You’d expect the media to function as a bullshit filter for readers, listeners and viewers. Yet increasingly the news media is trending towards the opposite, becoming a magnet for bullshit of all kinds. Nonsense is not only tolerated and repeated, it’s actively given top billing.”
Also, it needs to be said here that the media and its owners know exactly what they are doing when it comes to this. As Dobelli writes: “They publish crap because their consumers lap it up. By publishing crap, the media encourages crap.”
In order to avoid this, it’s best to not read, watch or follow news. But the trouble is if people stop reading and watching news, who will keep an eye on those in power? As Dobelli writes: “Democracy only works when it’s accompanied by a free press that brings the truth to light and depicts situations in all their complexity. This is far harder than reporting the news.”
In order to achieve this, there are two kinds of journalism that are needed – investigative journalism, which uncovers facts and wrongdoing, and explanatory journalism, which provides the bigger picture of the world in an accessible language without making the issue simplistic.
Both these kinds of journalism require skill and time, which basically translates into the need for money. This has become even more important in an era where public relations/corporate communications/marketing departments of companies determine more and more what is getting written in the media, especially in the business media. Given that most media houses now run on advertising from corporates and the government, it has become even more important that readers and other news consumers pay for news.
In that sense, dear reader, if you want to strengthen democracy and not let corporates and governments determine the news you read or consume in any other form, you need to pay for it. And paying Rs 5 per day for a daily newspaper is not paying for news. It takes much more to print the newspaper. At best, you are paying for the cost of distribution.
But the question is, will a significant number of readers and other consumers of news pay for it to make sure that enough media outlets can run a viable business at the end of the day, without having to depend on advertising? Competition is important even if advertisers are not paying for news. As regular readers would know, I am not so optimistic on this front.
There is a reason for it. As Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah write in In Service of the Republic: “Individuals are very interested in the knowledge that matters to them directly – e.g., a person learns about motorcycles before buying one…Individuals will not take the trouble to understand GST or Public Debt Management Agency. This is because people respond to incentives: The improvement to the life of an average person, from devoting 10 hours to learning GST, is roughly zero.”
Along similar lines, paying for news to read long pieces which are paid for, as Dobelli suggests, requires significant commitment of time, attention and money. Also, at the end of the day, the gains are not very clear (What’s in it for me?).
This is something that I hope will get clearer in the minds of news consumers over a period of time. Meanwhile, there are several niche paid-publications catering to a very specific audience that have started over the last few years. Over and above this, epapers of several newspapers have gone behind the paywall in the recent past. On the whole, the digital media in India at least seems to be moving towards getting the reader to pay for all or at least some of its content .
The ball is now in the court of readers and other news consumers. As Dobelli writes: “Apart from professional publications, no business model has proven stable enough to support explanatory journalism on a large scale. Yet the more the people stop reading the news and start to value quality reporting, the greater the likelihood that one day it will become sustainable. This about-face must be led by consumers. The market will respond accordingly.”
As an economist would have put it, it’s all about the right incentive.
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