27 April 2009

The News Needs to be Free

The problem with the news is that it is a business.

Any corporate entity which exists to turn a profit will, by necessity, make the pursuit of profit its highest priority. It must, otherwise it will disappear. Its very existence depends on an ability to perpetually take in more money than it expends. By way of a reality check, this is analogous to every 'living' thing our science is aware of. If something needs more resources than it gets, it starves to death.

The vast majority of news organizations depend on advertising dollars for their existence. Advertisers choose where to send their money, and how much to send, based on how many people 'visit' that place and how likely they are to pay attention to the ads found there. This means that news organizations maximize their profit by attracting as much ad money as they can with as small an expenditure of resources as possible. By way of a reality check, this is a description of a business model.

Therefore, the incentives are all wrong. The organizations investigating and reporting the news do not care about the quality of their product. They care about the ratio between how much it cost them to attract eyeballs and how much they can charge advertisers for those eyeballs. The quality of their product is related to that ratio, but only indirectly, and there are many competing variables.

If we, as the public, want to receive the best news possible we will have to take steps to institutionalize the proper incentives. In my opinion, the proper incentive is one which puts the quality of the news at the absolute top of the goal hierarchy. We want news organizations to think first about producing high quality news. This would seem to require that they be freed from worrying about the existence of their organization, since any entity which worries about its own existence will do so first. The only exception is when an entity selflessly decides to sacrifice its existence for something more important. However, this would be effectively useless since it would dissolve the organization we wanted to exist to provide us with news.

One way to accomplish this is to establish a source of money, like an endowment, which supports the news organization. In this way it would be independent of outside interests like advertisers and would be able to focus on properly reporting the news. It is possible (likely?) that there would be less of an incentive to work hard since the money is guaranteed, but this could be mitigated by a board of directors who would carefully choose a CEO for the organization and hold them to high standards.

A news organization like this would be able to provide context for events. When a plane crashes, they could afford to sacrifice space to boring facts like how thousands of planes landed safely at the exact same moment, and how the average person is still safer just sitting in an airplane than anywhere else. They could report ALL the details of a "police brutality" story; like how that poor, mentally disabled man managed to fight off a half dozen officers, and almost got a gun out of its holster, before they decided to taser him. This hypothetical organization could put the events into context, and could report when someone is lying by digging up their own words or actions previously reported (just as one example). The average person could trust this source of information because it would be free from selfish influences.

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