Media -the Fourth Estate in a Death Spiral

My most important news comes from my twitter feed where I follow newsmakers and journalists around the globe. I ignore broadcast TV especially “the news” and I despair at the mainstream daily newspapers who all seem to be trapped in the death of a thousand cuts.

Those cuts come from click bait and the overwhelming pressure for publishers to become lemmings jumping off a cliff. We have reached the time when if we want a healthy fourth estate we have to be prepared to pay for it and that means paywalls of some kind.

Alan Kohler wrote The media’s five revolutions (and counting)

Ironically it may be that his post is behind a paywall now so I have quoted extensively below.

“The advent of programmatic ad exchanges is the fourth successive media convulsion within the digital revolution that began in the 1990s. The first was portals like Yahoo! and Alta Vista, then came pure search as Google carried all before it, then social media with Facebook and Twitter, followed by Instagram, Pinterest and a host of others and then programmatic ad exchanges, which really got going with the acquisition of the DoubleClick ad exchange by Google in 2008”.


“The basic, no frills CPM rate for a digital ad is now $2 (per thousand page impressions) and big partnerships are almost dead. Even major national advertisers are moving to the ad exchanges for their campaigns.

At that rate a publisher needs 5 billion page impressions to make $10 million; a journalist needs 200,000 clicks per day to pay for a salary of $100,000. You might get that if you luck on a story about a kitten being rescued from a drain, or you’re the one assigned to the Brussels bombing, or your yarn gets picked up by Buzzfeed and goes global, but for everyday journalism in Australia, it’s simply impossible.

That’s fundamentally why newsrooms are shrinking. I wrote last week that the market will dictate the size of newsrooms — well, in fact it is actually becoming a market exactly like the stock exchange (which is also being taken over by programmatic trading, by the way) and advertising has become commoditised.”


“Publishers are working hard to readjust their business models and keep up with these continuous convulsions and these new, enormously rich competitors and they’re trying, with some success, to get readers to pay them directly, but it’s tough.”

In that story Kohler makes the point that Facebook and Google don’t pay for their content yet they know more about their readers than anyone else and this is why programmatic trading of ads is killing the ad funded media.

To put it simply when newspapers are full of click bait stories about kittens, crocodiles and sharks almost none of the real stories stand a chance of being read.

And nothing in Kohler’s story even mentions ad blockers.

“In the 1970’s, Herbert Simon pointed out that when information becomes abundant, attention becomes the scarce resource. In the digital age, we’re living through the pendulum swing of that reversal—yet we consistently overlook its implications.”

From Why It’s OK to Block Ads

And continuing…

“Your technologies, on the other hand, are trying to maximize goals like “Time on Site,” “Number of Video Views,” “Number of Pageviews,” and so on. Hence clickbait, hence auto-playing videos, hence avalanches of notifications. Your time is scarce, and your technologies know it.

But these design goals are petty and perverse. They don’t recognize our humanity because they don’t bother to ask about it in the first place. In fact, these goals often clash with the mission statements and marketing claims that technology companies craft for themselves.

These petty and perverse goals exist largely because they serve the goals of advertising. Most advertising incentivizes design that optimizes for our attention rather than our intentions.”

“Before software, advertising was always the exception to the rule—but now, in the digital world, advertising has become the rule.”

“If enough of us used ad blockers, it could help force a systemic shift away from the attention economy altogether—and the ultimate benefit to our lives would not just be “better ads.” It would be better products: better informational environments that are fundamentally designed to be on our side, to respect our increasingly scarce attention, and to help us navigate under the stars of our own goals and values. Isn’t that what technology is for?”

“The burden of proof falls squarely on advertising to justify its intrusions into users’ attentional spaces—not on users to justify exercising their freedom of attention.”

We haven’t heard the last on this. We all have a need to be paid fairly for work done but blunt application of technology is not the answer. The sheer overwhelming amount of information out there gets in the way of us doing that.

Programmatic ad trading can tell us there is volume traffic in stories on kittens but there is no weighting for the value of human life in there. Remembering back to Terminator series of films and the fight against Skynet.

Skynet is here already. It’s just that we think it is friendly and helpful but really it is google and facebook with a reverse AI algorithm on it.

In my view the sheer overwhelming number of ads in various online media means that I avoid visiting any of it. It has swamped the valuable content with trivia and sponsored content is even worse.

Peter Arnett wikipediaIn a recent profile of Peter Arnett How New Zealand’s Peter Arnett, the world’s greatest war correspondent, found peace at last By Ben Stanley; Arnett makes the point that there is a difference between information and journalism.

“He’s open about his admiration for the likes of Vice News and ProPublica (a New York-based non-profit investigative website) and his handle on the problems of revenue streams for online news is impressive, but he disagrees with rhetoric that journalism is entering a ‘bold new era.’

“It’s not a great new era of journalism – it’s a great new era for information,”

Arnett says, still under the sun at the French cafe. “I don’t think it’s a very good era for journalists at all. What I think would change it all… would be the kind of story so big that it demands disciplined, superb journalism. Unfortunately that category is a big war, a major depression, [or] a cataclysm – Christchurch on a larger scale – that rivets public attention on good journalism.”

Hat tip to Bernard Hickey who flagged this story from Kohler.