We all know that print journalism is dying a slow death and migrating to its online afterlife, where the eyeballs are. However, there is another dimension to this process: the death not just of journalism, but of the human editor.
What’s happening to news is similar to what has happened to music. Those old enough to have grown up with vinyl records will recall the sense that an LP represented a whole package: all the songs went together, with an expansive artistic expression on the album sleeve to boot. Very likely, you would put a record on and listen to it in its entirety.
Digital music has removed that sense from many who have grown up with it; they think in terms of individual songs, not albums. And now, frequently, with streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora grabbing the torch from iTunes, you don’t even get a stream of songs from the same artist; you get a mix of songs from different artists, allegedly tailored to your tastes.
News Algorithms and Polarized Opinion
This is what’s happening with news. No longer do you get a selection of news curated and shaped by an editor, such as the late Benjamin Bradlee of the Washington Post. More and more, readers don’t even come to content by navigating to a publication’s website. The news they see comes to them in a stream curated not by a human, but by an algorithm -- via Twitter (TWTR) , Google (GOOG) , or Facebook (FB) .
It’s estimated that FB alone drives 20% of traffic arriving at news sites. (Note: GIM owns GOOG for some clients.)
We noted above the increasing tendency of media consumers to inhabit an “echo chamber” where they only encounter voices that agree with their own views, increasing polarization and the inability to find common ground with adversaries. The rise of robo-editor algorithms has the potential to exacerbate this problem.
Of course, the companies which provide your news stream to you in this way, innocently saying (as does FB algorithm engineer Greg Marra) that they are delivering a “personalized newspaper,” want to sell ads. And they have the tools to do so more effectively than any newspaper.
Is This New?
Is this so very different from what newspapers have always done? In a way, no -- there has always been a struggle between newspaper editors’ independence and the company’s need to generate advertising revenue.
And there were always great editors and great journalists who stood up for objective, truth-telling reportage.
However, we’re not sure we’ll find such editors and reporters among the algorithms and the opinion-based charismatic pundits who are taking their place.
Investment implications: Investing is a data-driven activity. Patterns of news dissemination are changing.
We’re grateful for the wide range of news that digital media put in front of us. At the same time, we are aware that algorithm-based news distribution could quietly restrict a broad and dispassionate investigation of what’s happening in the world. We remain vigilant to seek out a broad range of print and digital media. An accurate, and at times contrarian, view of the world is an indispensable advantage to the thoughtful investor.
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