The New Divide: News For Decision-Making vs. News For Entertainment

December 9, 2016

Last November’s election revealed a growing divide among news consumers: Those who seek facts for decision-making, and those who seek ratification and entertainment. And then a second alarming truth revealed itself: the number of people who seek facts for decision-making seems to be a considerably smaller group than those who consume news as entertainment.

The divide played itself out through the explosion of fake news websites as well as the fight to combat fake news with real news rebuttals. But the vast majority of readers don’t care about real or fake, because they’re just seeking a news entertainment-dopamine rush.

There’s a truism known to every salesman and entertainer: Give the people what they want, and they’ll come. So, Macedonian teenagers built real-enough looking fake news websites and cashed in with Google Ads covering the sites. Who were these people? It doesn’t matter. Now that the jinni is out of the bottle, these are likely just the first of a series of fake news purveyors to prey on American audiences.

The news industry, long protected by the cost and barriers of production (“never fight a man who buys ink by the barrel”) has been vanquished by the internet. Practically anyone can create a website, put up some catchy content, promote it and reach an audience–sometimes of millions of people. It is a reality that has made thousands of great news businesses possible–including my own–but also changes the rules of credibility: In the market of mass information consumption, consumers no longer determine credibility by brand reputation, but by how much the information conforms to a reader’s preconceptions.

We’ve been building up to this point for some time, starting with think tanks that cooked up desired results; to advocacy news websites that promote celebrity news anchors that “destroy” someone or something they disagree with. Now, with a marketplace flooded with “news” of a million different flavors, consumers are simultaneously overwhelmed and enabled to choose the news that best suits them.

In the eyes of citizens enraged with whatever crisis has lately grabbed their attention, fake news is just a slightly modified version of the advocacy news they’ve already been consuming for the last decade. The fake stuff is just more gratifying. Forget “destroying” your political enemies with polemics, you can read reports that confirm they were liars and cheats all along!

But of course, not everyone is focused on self-gratification. There are readers of all stripes who want to discern the facts, to make critical decisions about the world around them. These people come from every walk of life: They can be flaming radical progressives, to upstanding conservatives, young, old, rich and poor. They can strongly disagree on solutions, but agree on facts.

Yet, it seems that the pool of fact-oriented readers is a much smaller group than those who seek entertainment and a brief dopamine rush. Anyone who has spent any time in the news industry or politics has felt this fact in their gut.

Whether you call them “critical thinkers”, “deliberate people” or just plain “smart”, these are the ones who seek multiple sources, and are wary of making decisions without more information. They know the value of good information and are usually willing to pay for it.

Although I lack hard proof, my intuition says the divide between those willing to pay for good news versus those just looking for a “news hit” follows a similar split between those who are willing to pay for expensive iPhones versus free or cheap Android phones. It’s probably an 80-20% split between consumers seeking a free/cheap product that just gets the job done versus a high-end solution that enables you to do more.

There’s good mass market news out there–many metro dailies are producing great reporting–but economics reality seems to be trimming their ranks. We should expect the number of free/cheap publications to continue to decline while the number of elite, subscription-based publications, purchased by people who carefully discern their information, will increase.

Pressure will increase on these free/cheap publications, and network television news is very susceptible to this pressure, to dumb down and lighten their content. Meanwhile, subscription-based publications will remain dour in comparison, hewing hard to the facts to serve decision-makers, or those want to be able to think clearly about the world they inhabit. Subscription-based publications will also become increasingly expensive, as they seek profits from those most able to pay.

Non-profit reporting will occupy a middle space, providing mass audiences a reliable information source, and their readership will grow accordingly–to a point. For ultimately, most news consumers simply consume news as way to fill time.