You might see a new law in the media: of bad news driving out good news

As more media houses go behind the paywall, more fake news and WhatsApp forwards are likely to masquerade as news now

WrittenBy:Vivek Kaul
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The Indian media in general, and newspapers and digital news media in particular, are in real trouble now. The advertisement-driven business model, where corporates pay and the viewer and the reader almost pay nothing, has totally unraveled. The advertisements have totally dried up since Covid-19 hit the country.

In a piece I wrote in late March for Newslaundry, I had said: “The larger point being that if things don’t improve post mid-April, the very business model of newspapers will be threatened.”

As it turns out, things have gone precisely that way. There are barely any advertisements in newspapers and the number of pages have come down. Newspapers which used to have 30-40 pages are now down to 10-14 pages.

Given that they can no longer cut pages to cut costs, there have been mass firings and salary cuts across the spectrum. Everyone is trying to reduce the cash burn and live to die another day.

In this environment, newspapers and digital news outlets are looking to go behind the paywall in order to get the reader to pay, hope to make money, and continue to remain relevant. The question is, will this work?

Before I try and answer this question, let me take a slight detour.

If you are familiar with the history of money, you will be familiar with Gresham's law. The law essentially states that “bad money drives out the good”. What does this mean?

The law is named after Sir Thomas Gresham who was a financial adviser to Queen Elizabeth I. Over the years, the British monarchs had reduced the total amount of gold and silver content in coins. Queen Elizabeth wanted to correct this by introducing new silver coins with full metal content, where the face value of the coin would be equal to the amount of metal in it.

While the queen’s intention was noble, there was a basic problem with it. Gresham picked up on this and warned the queen that the bad old money which already existed in the financial system would drive out the good new money which she wanted to introduce. This essentially meant that the citizens would hold back the new coins, melt and sell them for their silver content and continue to carry out economic transactions with the old coins.

The old coins, as mentioned earlier, had a lower amount of silver content in them. In monetary terms, they were debased. Hence, the debased old coins (the bad money) would drive out the new silver coins (the good money) from the market. With this happening, Queen Elizabeth’s decision to introduce new coins would not work as it was expected to.

The question is: Why am I talking about this in a piece which starts out with the situation of newspapers and the digital media outlets in India?

Inspired by Gresham’s Law, I want to propose a law for news in the days to come: “Bad news will drive out good news”. What does this mean?

Let me take an example from Alan Rusbridger’s book, Breaking News - The Remaking of Journalism and Why It Matters Now. Rusbridger talks about a horrific attack on a teenage girl in Malmo, Sweden. As he writes: “ Someone calling himself @PeterSweden7 tweeted about his ‘blood being at boiling point...While she was being raped the rapists poured lighter fuel in her vagina and set it on fire. MSM [mainstream media] is quiet. RETWEET.’”

A 17-year-old girl had been raped in Malmo with the attack being widely reported in the press. But the press had made no mention about the details of lighter fuel being poured into the victim’s vagina.

Rusbridger tweeted out an appeal for getting some facts on this. The appeals led to websites behind paywalls. As he writes: “ A couple of Swedish journalists sent me links to reports in the so-called MSM. I tried to read both...but in each case, hit a paywall. One wanted me to commit to £9 a month before it would allow me to read the article; the other wanted nearly twice as much.”

This led Rusbridger to conclude, “ Chaotic information was free: good information was expensive. In the horizontal world of twenty-first-century communications — where anyone can publish anything — the germs about rape in Malmo spread indiscriminately and freely. The virus was halfway round the world and the truth had barely even found its boots. Truth — if that’s what journalism offered — was living in a gated community.”

What’s the point in the Indian context? As more and more media houses go behind the paywall (and believe me, they eventually will, Covid-19 has only hastened that process), what will more and more dominate and masquerade as news are WhatsApp forwards and all other kinds of fake news on social media.

All it needs is one individual with a mobile phone and an internet connection. Also, there is great political incentive in using false news and creating a false narrative and feeding it to the people continuously through various forms of the social media. This when the business model of news journalism is totally breaking down. This is something that is happening all across the world. India is no different on this front.

There is a great danger of bad news driving out good news. Many people now tend to believe what they read on social media and even forward it without verifying it. As Rusbridger writes: “ Bad information [is] everywhere: good information [is] increasingly for smaller elites. It [is] harder for good information to compete on equal terms with bad.”

What is the way around this? People need to get around to the idea of paying for news. At the same time, if the media houses want people to pay for news, they need to up their game and focus on quality content.

As Rolf Dobelli writes in Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life: “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.”

This is something that needs to change. For this to happen, there are two kinds of things that media houses need to engage in: 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. Explanatory journalism has become very important in a world where there has been a huge information explosion. Investigative journalism always was.

This is the need of the hour. And for this to happen, there has to be a symbiotic relationship between readers and the media. Also, as paywalls pick up, the media needs to start looking seriously at micropayments. At the end of the day, everyone can’t buy a yearly subscription to what is behind the paywall. But people will be happy to pay a small amount to read something that they want to read.

Surprisingly, this is something that marketers and editors haven’t really picked up on until now. It's time they did. Or bad news will drive out the good and the world will be a much worse place.


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article imageStop Press: How Covid-19 has proved the inevitability of the reader-funded news model

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