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FEED: You Get What You Pay For

The media is all trash, they say: trash on TV, trash in the news, trash online. Well, the truth is, you asked for it. It’s trash on demand. Time to take responsibility.

by Kyle Adams

I turned on the TV last week to see a talk show feature a 3-minute segment, including a guest commentator, about Miley Cyrus’s new haircut. Was it a cry for help? Is she ashamed of it now? Does she regret it? What does it all mean?

The answer is nothing, of course, and debating it on national television is embarrassing for me as a journalist, because that’s the way many people see us. But I want to lay something out here. We always complain, and hear others complain, about the garbage in the media these days. Celebrity gossip. Bad news. Fluff pieces. Trash.

But the truth is, we asked for it.

Journalism is a business, like it or not. It functions on the principles of supply and demand. Whatever gets the highest ratings/views/etc., is what publications will spend more of their resources on, because it returns the highest advertising revenue. That’s business. The Media– this mysterious entity that many people refer to collectively as if all publications are in cahoots to distract and stupefy the nation– have no constitutional obligation to the national interest. They have a duty to serve the public– but it’s a self-imposed duty, and often a self-defeating one. Producing quality content is like trying to feed a kid his greens: We know it’s good for you, but you just want to skip to the dessert of celebrity gossip and partial nudity. The fact that you see any real news in the media testifies to the noble intentions of many in the profession– because if they were purely concerned about money, you’d never see a business or foreign affairs report again. It would be Wild Young Celebrities 24/7.

In 2011, The New York Times’s most popular news story (the one with the most page views) was “Sustainable Love,” about how to create a happy marriage; for ABC it was a story about the 50 most popular women on the internet; FOX News hit it big with Kim Kardashian; The Wall Street Journal’s leader was a piece about Chinese moms. Only CNN and NBC came in with Japan’s tsunami as the biggest story of the year.

Contrary to how this discussion usually goes, I’m not blaming the news outlets. They’re just doing their jobs. I’m blaming the readers, viewers, and listeners. These were the stories we all chose to read by the hundreds of thousands. This is how we cast our vote for tomorrow’s news lineup: by viewing trash today.

A few weeks ago, a disturbing story slipped under the national radar. News Corporation, Rupert Murdoch’s media giant and owner of FOX News, will split into two separate entities: publishing and TV/film. At a time when newspapers are suffering, it means all News Corp.’s newspapers are no longer tied financially to the more lucrative entertainment side of the business. This is bad news for the newspapers, which include The Wall Street Journal, The New York Post, and dozens of local papers that make up the Local Media Group– not to mention its holdings in the UK like The Times of London and The Sun.

What it seems to mean is that they can be allowed die without bringing the whole company down with them. It’s not clear how the move will affect the newspapers yet, and many are optimistic. But the symbolism is ominous: cut the tethers from the sinking ship.

News Corp.’s split highlights that people are demanding entertainment. That’s where the money is. We demand it with every page view, every time we watch TMZ instead of PBS, every time we read about Miley Cyrus instead of Bashar al-Assad. Those page views and Nielsen ratings translate to advertising dollars, which is pretty much the only way websites make money now– unless you’re one of the good few who actually subscribe to newspapers online.

Good reporting takes time and resources. Cutbacks and demand for trash mean that more publications are producing shorter, shallower pieces that are often just links to or commentary on something produced elsewhere. Journalism is a profession, and journalists are professionals. They provide both a service and a product: information. For this to continue, the public needs to be willing to pay for that product. If nobody pays the baker, they can’t expect bread. For some reason the simple truth of economic transaction seems to be lost when it comes to journalism.

And the result is all this trash. You watch it, read it, view it– for free– then complain about it. You hate it, you say. Well here’s a secret from a journalist: We hate writing it. We hate having to give you what you want. We hate appealing to the lowest common denominator. We want to be Woodward and Bernstein. We want to uncover corruption, hold authority responsible for their actions, cover elections, keep businesses honest, inspire people… all those wonderfully noble things we learned about in journalism school.

But you, the public, want Kim Kardashian. Stop blaming the media for that. If you want smart, serious content, pay for smart, serious content. Spend more time on NPR.com and less on celebrity gossip news. Listen to PBS instead of trashy talk radio. Demand quality, and we’ll give you quality. We’d be so happy to give you quality. All you have to do is ask.

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In Feed, Kyle Adams takes you into the world of journalism– a mercurial bazaar of blogs, tweets, and social networking that’s nevertheless rooted in timeless, basic principles of freedom, democracy, and accountability. He’ll analyse local news, offer his views on media practice, and address the bigger questions: What role does journalism play in our lives, and what does the future hold?

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