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Les Sillars: Get what you pay for


WORLD Radio - Les Sillars: Get what you pay for

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Monday, February 18th. Good morning! This is The World and Everything in It from listener-supported WORLD Radio. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. In December, the Weekly Standard magazine published its last issue, just 23 years after its first.

Last month, online publication BuzzFeed laid off 15 percent of its staff.

And the media company Vice recently let go of 10 percent.

Verizon, which owns the Huffington Post and Yahoo, also cut 800 media workers.

It was another series of blows to a struggling news industry.

REICHARD: WORLD Radio commentator and Patrick Henry College journalism professor Les Sillars has some thoughts on this.

LES SILLARS, COMMENTATOR: Only a few years ago observers thought that BuzzFeed and its ilk had found an answer for journalism’s financial crisis. The formula: Attract big online audiences with “viral” stories, namely, listicles and click-bait. Then advertising will pay for serious journalism.

These were the latest moves in a 20-year scramble to finance real news.

After the internet arrived, around 2000 print media dumped their stories online for free. They hoped that website ads would make up for lost print ad revenue. It wasn’t even close.

So news outlets started a series of failed experiments to recapture audiences and ad revenue. First it was search optimization, then video, then social media partnerships, then mobile apps, then “branded content,” which tries to fool people into watching ads that look like news. BuzzFeed figured that the right combination of Twitter, video, sex, and snark would work.

Well, not so much.

For more than a century journalism’s ad-based business model made piles of money. But now it’s collapsing. Journalists must compete for attention in new ways with each other and an ocean of soul-sucking dreck. It’s brought to us courtesy of Comcast, AT&T, Facebook, Google, and our own bad judgment.

The future of news is likely pay for content online. Think Netflix and Pandora, only for news. The New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and many specialized and local news outlets have installed or tightened paywalls in recent years. News media that rely on donations, from WORLD to NPR, are finding success and stability by producing news people value and financially support.

The dreck we will always have with us. The Kardashians of the world have no reason to quit. But audiences willing to pay nothing for news will soon find themselves with news worth nothing. The days of reliable “free” news are numbered.

This is a good thing. It makes journalists directly accountable to their audiences, instead of advertisers.

And hopefully audiences will learn the real value of their attention. The pioneering American psychologist William James observed in 1890 that “my experience is what I agree to attend to.” He added, “Only those items which I notice shape my mind. Without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.”

That reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s words in Romans 12: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds.”

We’re going to absorb news one way or another. We can allow ourselves to be shaped by dreck, or we can support news that renews our minds.

For WORLD Radio, I’m Les Sillars.


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