Journalism in the Age of Clickbait

Newspapers are the lifeblood of American democracy. At least they were. But the last three decades have seen a seismic shift, with storied and less-storied newspapers closing shop as Americans abandon traditional media in favor of more tailored, narrowly focused, and increasingly digital sources of news. More than half of Americans now rely on social media and other algorithm-curated news sources to help choose the articles they read. And only 16% continue to read newspapers and other print news sources, down from almost 50% as recently as 2013. Local newsrooms have been particularly hard hit, with nearly 1,800 newspapers having closed since 2004.

In her new book, Saving the News, Harvard Law School Professor Martha Minow warns that the shift to online news is no mere change to digital window dressing. It is a revolutionary departure that could prove catastrophic for the democratic engagement that news reporting nourishes. Most disruptive to the news industry, says Minow, has been the loss of the subscription revenues that newspapers rely on to fund newsgathering and investigative journalism.

The News We Read

Subscription revenues have been undermined in two ways. First, consumers have become so accustomed to free online content that newspapers have been forced to follow suit—offering up content for free and relying on advertising revenues to fund their operations. Like many businesses, newspapers have struggled to make the transition. A few marquee publications have successfully migrated their subscriber bases to an online format, but many more have been left scrambling, and largely failing, to attract online views.

Second, the online revolution has pressed newspapers to unbundle their content offerings. Like cable-television providers, newspapers long sold large bundles of content, lumping together everything from national politics to high-school athletics, weather forecasts, and crossword puzzles. Readers interested primarily in national politics and crossword puzzles subsidized local newsgathering and vice versa. Now, however, readers can play their daily word puzzle in one place, often for free, and find their political news elsewhere. With so many options available, readers see no need to get everything in one place. This puts newspapers in competition with more streamlined services for niche content and eliminates an important source of revenue.

It would be one thing if newspaper readers were exchanging their print newspapers for digital ones. But for most publications and for most readers, the shift has been more than a change in medium. Readers are not just receiving their old news sources digitally; they are consuming different genres of news altogether. At the heart of the shift, says Professor Minow, are platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Netflix, whose business models have fundamentally changed our media-consumption habits. Anyone who has found herself scrolling through her Twitter newsfeed or Netflix recommendations is familiar with the new landscape: A virtually infinite variety of content is there for the taking, all tailored to individual preferences. Instead of choosing from whatever is currently playing on the Big Three television networks, viewers now direct their own media consumption.

As platforms become ever more attuned to our preferences, we find ourselves inside individualized content bubbles that show us only what we want to see. This trend has carried over to the news industry. Not only have they changed television viewing habits, Minow explains, but “Amazon, YouTube, and Netflix changed the way vast numbers of people find news.” What’s more, she laments, decisions regarding users’ access to news and other media are made “without even consulting them.” “Instead of offering clear choices, digital platforms . . . rely on analyses of computer data usage that is opaque to users.”

The shift toward self-directed, Netflix-style news feeds has changed not only how Americans read the news but also the types of news stories they choose to read. With more and more news being consumed electronically, there is less need for the capital investment and bulky, expensive printing equipment required for traditional publishers. Low entry costs mean that anyone can become a publisher, whether or not they have investors, capital, or anything useful to say. Even low-quality, cheaply produced, clickbait-type articles can be profitable as long as they attract enough online viewers to bring in advertising dollars.

Media outlets have responded by adopting strategies that maximize revenues in the era of cheap content and self-directed media consumption. One such strategy is narrowcasting, where a news story is tailored to appeal to a small slice of the population rather than the public at large. Traditional publishing formats required newspapers to design content with broad appeal to attract a large subscriber base. But internet publication is so inexpensive that it is now a viable strategy to develop content for a single, niche audience.

Many media outlets have also begun to focus on sensational stories that rouse emotions and attract views, clicks, and advertising dollars by splitting the public into opposing camps. The effect, says Professor Minow, “is to make the user into the product and potentially provide easy vehicles for those who profit from increasing social division, fomenting hatred, and undermining democracy.” Perhaps most concerning of all, however, is the type of content we are losing: independent news outlets, regional news coverage, state and local politics, and investigative journalism—the sorts of reporting that drive vigorous participation in the political process.

Saving the News thus exposes an important trend in American journalism: Tailored, divisive, and potentially addictive online content is supplanting many of the news sources that Americans have relied on for the last century and which have been critical to democratic participation. Professor Minow’s critique, however, somewhat overstates the problem. It must be remembered, after all, that the news sources being displaced by digital media bore their own set of flaws—many of them little different from those we see today. Before Buzzfeed’s ten-question personality quizzes and “Foolproof Signs Your Partner is Cheating,” we had Cosmo and People magazines. And before Breitbart News and David Avocado Wolfe, we had cable news and radio shock jocks. Sensational journalism, narrowcasting, and the other tactics have been around for as long as humans have held idiosyncratic preferences and been attracted to salacious content. Content tailoring and scandal peddling may be cheaper and more targeted in the digital age, but the basic premise is nothing new. Everyone likes a good gossip column.

Minow lays bare a dramatic shift that is underway in American news reporting, and she shows how reform may be possible even within the confines of the First Amendment.

Free Speech Questions

A second shortcoming is related to the first. Professor Minow levels a powerful critique against Facebook, Twitter, and the clickbait articles that they host. Such “computational propaganda,” she argues, “enables a surprising amount of disinformation” by attracting user views (and advertising dollars) with “arresting headlines and attention-drawing ads.” That is certainly true, but by stopping there Professor Minnow leaves largely unexplored the other side of the phenomenon—the Americans who repeatedly choose to read such material and whose historical content preferences have trained the algorithms that now fill their social-media feeds. Online content may be vapid, misleading, and even blatantly false. But it is what Americans choose to read.

That is how the whole big-data, social-media machinery operates: Algorithms figure out what we most like to read and then hit us with a never-ending, firehose blast of it. They are Robert Nozick’s pleasure machines actualized! Behind the battle over social media, we thus find the age-old question of individual freedom versus governmental authority to impose well-meaning restrictions in the name of the public good. By approaching Big Tech one dimensionally, as a malevolent power force-feeding us harmful content, Professor Minow overlooks the struggle within each one of us between what we want in the moment and what we know is good for us.

This criticism of its framing aside, however, Saving the News makes at least two important contributions to the debate. First, it brings into unusually stark relief an important trend in American news reporting: the decline of local, in-depth, and investigative journalism. That in itself would be contribution enough. But Professor Minow’s work shines even more brightly when it turns to consider the First Amendment’s place in the online-news and disinformation debates. Does not the First Amendment, she asks, bar congressional action that would implicate expressive internet content? Were Congress to regulate online news reporting directly, of course, it would almost certainly run afoul of the First Amendment. Adherents to “First Amendment fundamentalism” might see this as the end of the inquiry, but, explains Professor Minow, this view misses an important nuance: Although the First Amendment prevents Congress from abridging the freedom of speech, the Constitution is no bar to Congressional action to strengthen speech.

The distinction between abridging versus strengthening free speech is the cornerstone of Professor Minow’s argument. To illustrate the point, she recounts the history of the Federal Communications Commission’s Fairness Doctrine, a rule formally announced by the FCC in 1949, but with roots much earlier, in the first decades of radio and television, when the scarcity of available frequencies limited the number of companies that could broadcast programming. To optimize use of the scarce signal spectrum, the FCC adopted the Fairness Doctrine, which placed significant restrictions on radio and television broadcasters’ freedom to select content: It imposed “must-carry” requirements on broadcasters to host news and other programming thought to be in the public interest, and, when discussing controversial issues of public concern, required broadcasters to present competing points of view to ensure that all sides of the issue were discussed. Despite these significant restrictions on broadcasters’ expressive activity, the Supreme Court upheld the rule against First Amendment challenge in its famous 1969 decision, Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC, reasoning that the scarcity of available frequencies made broadcast licensees trustees for the public and that the challenged Fairness Doctrine would enhance rather than restrict freedom of expression.

The history of the Fairness Doctrine and the Supreme Court’s Red Lion decision thus support Professor Minow’s basic point: Governmental expansion of avenues for speech on important issues is different from naked restriction of speech, even if some speech must be restricted in the process. Of course, the Fairness Doctrine was terminated in 1987 as part of the Reagan Administration’s deregulation program. And, Minow concedes, “A fair question is whether it would remain viable legally as the predicate of spectrum scarcity fades, given that content is now carried not just by broadcasting but also over cable and the internet.” Yet, even if the Fairness Doctrine itself might no longer be constitutionally sound, Minow urges Congress to take inspiration from it and consider new, alternative measures that would, as the Red Lion Court found, “enhance rather than abridge the freedoms of speech and press protected by the First Amendment.”

After introducing this key insight, Professor Minow avoids putting her weight behind any particular reform proposal. Instead, she presents a veritable smorgasbord of ideas. Social media companies might, for example, be required to pay local news sources for their stories, with the hope of reinvigorating local journalism; or consumer protection law might be leveraged to force platforms to remove fake or fraudulent online accounts; or Congress might even adopt the British model and use taxpayer funds to support newsgathering and reporting directly. In a way, what approach we should take is not Minow’s point. Her point is that traditional news journalism is in trouble and that we must resolve to do something about it, even if we don’t yet know exactly what.

In Saving the News, Professor Minow lays bare a dramatic shift that is underway in American news reporting, and she shows how reform may be possible even within the confines of the First Amendment. There is room to disagree on the proposals she offers, and her account of social media’s ills must be tempered by consideration of our own role and the importance of individual self-determination. But Professor Minow offers a compelling account of a shift we have all felt, toward sensationalistic and divisive media content. Anyone who thinks on these issues will benefit from her work.