Why Free News is (usually) Bad News

Pretty much everything about the next week will be unpredictable. But whatever happens on Nov. 3, I’m sure there will be much teeth-gnashing and navel-gazing about the state of journalism in the election aftermath.

And there should be. I have written much about the deplorable state of that particular industry. Many, many things need to be fixed. 

For example, let’s talk about the extreme polarization of both the U.S. population and their favored news sources. Last year about this time, the PEW Research Center released a study showing that over 30% of Americans distrust their news sources. 

But what’s more alarming is, when we break this down by Republicans versus Democrats, only 27% of Democrats didn’t trust the news for information about politics or elections. With Republicans, that climbed to a whopping 67%. 

The one news source Republicans do trust? Fox News. Sixty-five percent of them say Fox is reliable. 

And that’s a problem.

Earlier this year, Ad Fontes Media came out with its Media Bias Chart. It charts major news and media channels on two axes: source reliability and political bias. The correlation between bias and reliability is almost perfect. The further a news source is out to the right or left, the less reliable it is.

How does Fox fare? Not well. Ad Fontes separates Fox TV from Fox Online. Fox Online lies on the border between being “reliable for news, but high in analysis/opinion content” and “some reliability issues and/or extremism.” Fox TV falls squarely in the second category.

I’ve written before that media bias is not just a right-wing problem. Outlets like CNN and MSNBC show a significant left-leaning bias. But CNN Online, despite its bias, still falls within the “Most Reliable for News” category. According to Ad Fontes, MSNBC has the same reliability issues as Fox.

The question that has to be asked is “How did we get here?”  And that’s the question tackled head-on in a new book, “Free is Bad,” by John Marshall.

I’ve known Marshall for ages. He has covered a lot of the things I’ve been writing about in this column. 

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” 

Upton Sinclair

The problem here is one of incentive. Our respective media heads didn’t wake up one morning and say, “You know what we need to be? A lot more biased!” They have walked down that path step by step, driven by the need to find a revenue model that meets their need for profitability. 

When we talk about our news channels, the obvious choice to be profitable is to be supported by ads. And to be supported by ads, you have to be able to target those ads. One of the most effective targeting strategies is to target by political belief, because it comes reliably bundled with a bunch of other beliefs that makes it very easy to predict behaviors. And that makes these ads highly effective in converting prospects.

This is how we got to where we are. But there are all types of ways to prop up your profit through selling ads. Some are pretty open and transparent. Some are less so. And that brings us to a particularly interesting section of Marshall’s book. 

John Marshall is a quant geek at heart. He has been a serial tech entrepreneur — and, in one of those ventures, built a very popular web analytics platform. He also has intimate knowledge of how the sausages are made in the ad-tech business. He knows sketchy advertising practices when he sees them. 

Given all of this, Marshall was able to undertake a fascinating analysis of the ads we see on various news platforms that dovetails nicely with the Ad Fontes chart. 

Marshall created the Ad Shenanigans chart. Basically, he did a forensic analysis of the advertising approaches of various online news platforms. He was looking for those that gathered data about their users, sold traffic to multiple networks, featured clickbait chumboxes and other unsavory practices. Then he ranked them accordingly.

Not surprisingly, there’s a pretty strong correlation between reputable reporting and business ethics. Highly biased and less reputable sites on the Ad Fontes Bias Chart (Breitbart, NewsMax, and Fox News) all can also be found near the top of Marshall’s Ad Shenanigans Chart. Those that do seem to have some ethics when it comes to the types of ads they run also seem to take objective journalism seriously. Case in point, The Guardian in the UK and ProPublica in the U.S.

The one anomaly in the group seems to be CNN. While it does fare relatively well on reputable reporting according to Ad Fontes, CNN appears to be willing to do just about anything to turn a buck. It ranks just a few slots below Fox in terms of “ad shenanigans.”

Marshall also breaks out those platforms that have a mix of paid firewalls and advertising. While there are some culprits in the mix such as the Daily Caller, Slate and the National Review, most sites that have some sort of subscription model seem to be far less likely to fling the gates of their walled gardens open to the ethically challenged advertising hordes. 

All of this drives home Marshall’s message: When it comes to the quality of your news sources, free is bad. As soon as something costs you nothing, you are no longer the customer. You’re the product. Invisible hand market forces are no longer working for you. They are working for the advertiser. And that means they’re working against you if you’re looking for an unbiased, quality news source.

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