Of News and Newborns

The media circus surrounding the Royal Baby revealed a rivalry at heart of the news industry that's slowly tearing it apart

Quick post today as I have a few half-finished pieces on the go that have been long neglected already. In case you have been living under a rock that past week (or out of earshot for any of the major news networks), there was a baby born in London just days ago who has created quite the fuss. The weeks of anticipation, which for some intrepid reporters involved literally camping outside the hospital for weeks on end, ultimately culminated in the rarest of glimpses of the future monarch that set off the celebrations of royal watchers everywhere.

But what interests me about this story are not the dubious claims of England’s economic gains from the new arrival, stories purporting a false sense of surprise that Twitter now dominates “breaking news” (surprise: this is hardly news!) or even the seemingly endless, terrible puns littering headlines across the globe. Rather, it is how clearly the media coverage illustrates the central paradox of the modern news organization’s business model.

At some level, these organizations all appeal to their audience based on an altruistic, higher purpose to their work. They are here to inform the viewer about the world around them, provide a view of the truth that lies slightly below the surface and, most of all, offer their audience a filter to what is truly important in a world of seemingly endless content.

This sense of purpose permeates throughout these organizations. Not only are their reporters raised on a steady diet of the societal benefits of a strong, independent press corps, but their brand often revolves around it. While the interpretation may vary by institution – spanning from truth seekers reminiscent of the Watergate-era like Propublica to openly agenda driven pundits like Fox News – the view that the news organization provides a lasting benefit beyond simple entertainment persists.

But what’s important is not necessarily what sells. For every hard-hitting piece investigating the shady dealings between the IRS and non-profits there are a dozen Buzzfeed top 25 lists getting many multiples in views for fractions of the cost. To legacy news organizations, the content that generates the most hits is the same “trashy” content they are pledged to protect against. To sites like Gawker, this low-cost news is a $300MM business that took less than a decade to build. As financial pressures continue to climb on “old media” companies, the click-mongering content that is quick to read and even easier to share has become an antidote that is too tempting to turn down, no matter how bitter the taste.

“God help us if it’s a long labour”

Ultimately, the disconnect boils down to the structure of the modern news organization. These institutions are almost unanimously split between the business and editorial wings with limited cross-pollination between the two. While the release of a major report pulls in the marketing / advertising teams or the launch of a new product requires tailored content from key columnists, few individuals wear both hats within these organizations. As a result, the editorial side is left upset with the cheapening of their content while the business side is frustrated by the lack of flexibility by their journalist counterparts.

This dynamic is what was on perfect display throughout the royal baby media frenzy. The news media had what could be considered a perfect story: unknown details prone to breaking beforehand (will it be a boy or a girl??), endless opportunities for speculation (what will it be named!?) and the chance for events to unfold rapidly at a moment’s notice (she’s in labour!!). Savvy marketers could manufacture non-stop live coverage and commentary to dominate headlines for weeks. The story would be a boon for clicks and views and would require only a brief abdication of an assumed responsibility to report on more important events elsewhere.

But this “brief” abdication exacts a greater toll on media organizations than the casual observer may realize. It’s not just that producing mindless content is unrewarding for journalists who’ve been raised to aspire to grander ambitions. Nor is it merely that these reporters miss better scoops in more exotic places. Instead, by producing vast swaths of undifferentiated content on seemingly trivial topics, they’ve lessened the value of the whole universe of content their organization creates. Great pieces of journalism unrelated to the particular media circus of the day are lost in the noise, if the resource reallocation doesn’t eliminate them entirely. Eventually, the news organization’s brand loses its ability to speak authoritatively on important issues and the soapbox upon which its media personalities depend is gone.

And so, in the midst of the royal baby bedlam, reporters revolted. Individual journalists offered scathing critiques of the mainstream media’s obsession with the event, even while their own outlet often was cramming their front page or live coverage with the latest details, no matter how innocuous. The clearest example came from BBC’s Simon McCoy, who’s snarky commentary on the absurdity of the entire media circus became only more potent and visibly frustrated as the hours of mindless coverage dragged on.

Even within the broader organizations there was often a clear contradiction between the bizarre coverage of the event and their analysis of that coverage. In the case of CNN, who apparently knows nothing of the meaning of irony, this involved posting articles on the “Five stories you missed…while trying to find out the name, weight, gender, hair colour, taste in music and political disposition of the new heir only moments after giving viewers an in-depth sense of the Duchess’ medical condition by interviewing a woman actually in labour.

If that’s not news, I don’t know what is.

Finding a saviour

Maybe the birth of a new member to the royal family did deserve some portion of the endless coverage it received; this may be especially true if the event does in fact mark the culmination of a turning point in the public’s perception of the British Monarchy. Regardless, something is still afoul in the newsrooms of the world, and it starts with a rivalry between the two halves of the organization that has only grown in the wake of the digital era.

Greater integration between the business and editorial sides of the organization would help, as would a greater alignment of incentives between the two (e.g. unique visitor targets for writers, retweets/audience responses to articles for product managers). But these would only partially relieve the pressure, not eliminate it, and the central contradiction to the news business would remain.

Perhaps the easiest and only truly lasting remedy is a trail previously blazed by the New York Times with the Sulzberger family: find a wealthy benefactor willing to subsidize a journalist-first business. As the Times now relies on public money (which plays no small part of the troubles that plague them), there is a new, unlikely standard bearer for this model: Al-Jazeera. Owned by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Than, the emir of Qatar, Al-Jazeera is able to pursue an editorial policy often devoid of the business-first considerations of its peers. While the network is no stranger to controversy for its editorial choices and political stances, it is this lack of financial pressure that makes their statements about their disinterest in covering the royal baby so credible.

So the task before organizations who wish to damn the torpedoes and push for an editorial policy entirely free from the shackles of earnings expectations is to find another benevolent individual willing to subsidize them. Lucky for them, there may just be a few of such individuals left.