On Conflicts of Interest

Think of it, from the ads agencies perspective: Do I really want someone to see my ad by all means? Seems like the common wisdom is “Yes”. No matter what my mood is going to be after going through that piece of shit that you call “article”, I’m going to be bombed with ads coming at me from all directions.

The real answer is “we don’t really know”. The problematic with ads is well-known: no matter how big my billboards are, I cannot make a direct relationship between my marketing budget and my eventual sale. I can infer, correlate, imply and deduce, but in the end it all comes to the same thing: I can only guess.

Whatever. “They came to a blind date, and what happened next will left you speechless” will still have the appealing for viralisation, regardless of the actual waste of energy or time spent into something vague and at this point impossible to assess.

Native advertising

This one is my all-time favourite: destroying the reputation of a brand and a newspaper in one go.

Maybe you haven’t run into the term ‘native advertising’ before, but sure as hell you know what it is. A piece of news with the next headline:

“This is what your kids need to have for breakfast to excel.” Sponsored by Dairy company

How can I trust a company who tries to subtly trick you into reading a completely misleading information in the form of a reputable piece of news?

It’s worse than that. How many real stories are out there, not covered by the media, because those who would be damaged by its disclosure are the ones paying the bills?

Moreover, the reputation of the newspaper is now in the downward trend. How can I trust a newspaper that blatantly lies to their readers for a wage?

This needs to change.

There is an obvious problem with the media’s business model.

Up until very recently, the reputation of media was its most valuable asset. It was put on the line everyday, by means of pieces of news being delivered by conventional channels (TV, radio, newspaper) to the world: this is the truth. It may be a bit biased (it’s Journalism 101 saying that every journalist is biased in some way), but this bias was managed as much as it was possible.

Enter the Internet, blogs like this one, and many others. The information is now bi-directional: A professional journalist, with experience in the field, some years in college and a passion for its job is fighting for attention against a 15-year-old kid posting photoshopped pictures of Trump captioned “LOL who did this?”

It’s obvious that media companies are still trying to figure out how to handle this breakthrough, but they’ve decided to fight that 15-year-old kid at his own game, by pretty much producing the same meaningless stuff. They did so because

  1. It’s way cheaper than hiring a capable journalist, and ad companies couldn’t care less.
  2. For reasons they don’t really understand, people keep coming for more. Maybe that’s why ad companies couldn’t care less what is posted, as long as it is posted.
  3. We’ve reached a sub-optimal level in which we understand what ‘clicks’ and what doesn’t, so things seem to be contained for now. As long as my paycheck is coming, everything is OK.
  4. I can reshuffle my newsroom so that I can fire those costly journalist and hire those overly naive interns to do that “Twitter stuff” for me. Any MBA would back me on that.

It’s obvious that this situation is far from desirable, and the consequences are now known: if we lose touch with seeking the truth, the easier to access “fake news” spread faster, polarising society in ways that are yet to assess.

The answer

“That you are here - that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.” Walt Whitman

The answer is not going to be “back to the professional journalist era”. That is over, and will never come back. The acclaimed series “The Newsroom” is the last cry of a luddist generation that refuses to accept that journalism ought to change.

We need to look on the incentives. As always.

The claim that the subset of people who view an ad and the people who buy are somehow the same is a bold claim. It might be, but it isn’t always true, and it doesn’t have to be true. We’ve built a trillion-dollar empire on wishful thinking that, should we prove it wrong, will make the whole media industry fall like a house of cards.

The answer has to be, for people to pay for their own news. For them to be the ultimate responsible for their own data, information, and wisdom.

It has to be, and it needs to be. And steps are being made in that direction.