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The trouble with news…

The trouble with the news industry is it’s been disillusioned for at least a century.


Firstly let us say that survey data sucks. People always lie to themselves and then in turn lie to researchers.

Secondly let’s say that people lied about their level of current events knowledge. If you asked a person in the 1950s if they watched the news and read the newspaper, they wouldn’t have dared say, “You know, not really. I have the TV on in the background during dinner and I scan the headlines in the morning, but I wouldn’t say I truly absorb anything.” But that was the reality. Sure, they got the newspaper delivered to their door everyday but that was “just what you do” back then. If someone wanted to seem particularly astute, they’d subscribe to numerous print newspapers and magazines.

The order of the pages read was also a thing. My mother tells the story of my father chastising her for always reading the comics page first. It wasn’t something “intelligent” people did, apparently. I found some talk about this online in a forum. The posters were anonymously admitting they read the (print) newspaper from back to front, all giving their “reasons” for doing so: I’m a sports nut. I’m left-handed. It was as if they weren’t permitted to read the paper in any manner they pleased.

Thirdly let’s say that these conventions are gone. I don’t recall helping my kids with a “current events” assignment in school (we’d have to go BUY a newspaper if clipping one was required). I don’t hear chatter on the street or in the grocery line about the front page of the newspaper. People seem to be less aghast if someone admits to being in the dark about some news item or another. We all have so much information coming at us, it is understandable if one has missed the latest update on some world event or another. To think, they used to teach children in school how to “stay current” and “engage in informed conversation” on current events! It’s almost laughable.

So now that we have this plain fact –the news industry sees itself as far more important in everyday lives than in is – let us move on to the new role news is taking now. The picture, as I see it, is far, far better than what news has been previously and what the industry fears it is becoming.

old newspaper color ad for "post toasties" cereal

by danzil raines on Flickr


What happens – just judging by your own life – when you have too many choices? Let’s take the famous cereal aisle example. SOOOOO many brands. Say you’re new to the country, new to cereal, and your family wants to start eating it. What do you do?

There are plenty of ways to approach this problem, and most people use a combination of solutions. Here are some:

  • Ask others for recommendations
  • Systematically try one-by-one
  • Shop at stores that carry fewer brands
  • Don’t eat cereal (give up/abstain)
  • Join a “cereal-of-the-month” club so you can sample a few brands
  • Whittle down a list of acceptable ingredients, then search for cereals that comply

Nowadays, information is the cereal. Everyday we are an immigrant in the cereal aisle. Even without consciously realizing it, we form habits and practices that help us deal with the onslaught of choices. Most of us make routines. Me, I check email and Twitter first thing (that’s why you see most of my retweets in the morning hours. My stream shares news early). Later on in the day, I scan FB for headlines my friends shared. My husband checks the sports scores and articles while he eats his morning cereal (Frosted Flakes, if you’re wondering) and scans headlines at lunch. I’m sure you have your own way of finding news.

Here’s the rub: most of us are consuming WAAAAAAAAAAAY more news than we ever did (this increase in consumption also includes those types that got a daily newspaper delivered to their door). Yet, now we lie by saying we don’t spend that much time online, that we don’t partake in the news cycle. It’s become a bad thing to be obsessed with turns of events (because that means we spend too much time online, which is considered an anti-social habit).

So although we are consuming more information we are loath to admit to it.


The news industry would do themselves a favor if they ate a box of RealityChex. People don’t see news as a daily need, and they have shown they won’t pay much (if at all) to gather it. People are lying to themselves, of course, because news is becoming more and more part of their everyday flow. Nevertheless, they don’t believe news is a commodity they need to pay for. They may never see it as such, as there are many other avenues through which to get updates.

Like the beginnings of all product launches, perhaps a bit of user education is in order. New cereals include “how-tos” in commercials (e.g., shown with pouring milk or made with hot water). Perhaps news outlets should consider an education arm. “How to start your day well” or some crap like that. I’m sure the Positive Psychology types would kill for a chance to work with news outlets to develop a “well-being” department.

Ad dollars. Ah, the almighty ad dollars. The concept is this: News orgs had the market cornered on ad dollars. There was plenty of money in print ads. The Internet killed print. Where’d the money go? To YouTubers and bloggers? Perhaps. I don’t particularly know where it went but I do know this: Where there are eyes, there are ads. My guess is Facebook is getting the lion’s share of that chunk of cheese. News orgs should be charging Facebook for its users’ license to post links.

I know this sounds backwards: Facebook paying the Philadelphia Inquirer a license fee? WTF? Well, news, photos, writing, is all Intellectual Property, and license fees are paid for such things. Facebook relies on users’ eyes being present for ads. The sharing of news items is a BIG traffic draw for FB. (In fact, I spoke to a FB rep recently – off the record – and he said the Pew estimates of # of users and # of users who share/find news items via the social network service were astoundingly low. (Pew estimated 64% of the US population admits to using Facebook and of those 62%, 30% admit to gathering news there). LOW. News is driving Facebook participation. Participation would go down if links were blocked. The NYT saw this in action when they erected a paywall. What would FB be willing to pay in license/subscription fees to news outlets if the users weren’t permitted to share links? Also, another social network would come along soon enough that was willing to pay the fees.

Internet Service Providers could also be tasked with distribution of news. “Free Philadelphia Inquirer [online] subscription with any new Comcast account!” <- offers like this will get the news industry back into the public’s good graces. After all, newspapers were kept quite cheap back in the day, so if you hadn’t read the paper back then it was seen as completely unacceptable. Even a bum could scrape together the 3 pennies.


  1. Get off your high horse.
  2. Stop panicking. The news is in its best position ever.
  3. Make news ubiquitous and cheap for users first (using B2B sub models).
  4. Set up human-filtered news packages that are customizable for the users (make “news personality” profiles and hire curators to fill the day’s paper with headlines).
  5. Commit to caring for the whole person. News isn’t cereal; It isn’t just breakfast. It is information itself. Take up the task of filling a person’s information needs, on all emotional and mental levels.


When it floods, people seek dry land for safety. They don’t stop drinking water. We are in a flood of information. We need filters and ways of living. The ad and subscription money is out there. The news industry just hasn’t kept up with current events.









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