Saturday, 17 August 2019

Polarisation and profitability as media compete for readers

Last week on Friday I unfollowed Greg Jericho on Twitter. I had been a follower of his since about 2009, before he was a Guardian employee. He used to follow me, too, but this circumstance had changed in recent months for some reason. Greg used to be a good journalist and would use lots of figures in his Guardian stories which were, however, often hard to follow. His writing style was not all that hot but he had a reputation for being fair and measured in his conclusions.

In recent times, however, Greg had become more and more polarising online and more and more overt in his ideological preferences. Following Jay Rosen's dictum that journalists should declare where they sit on the ideological spectrum, Greg would fulminate openly about, say, private education or about the use of renewables for energy production. It became more and more difficult to engage with him because of the types of rhetoric he would use to express himself in arguments with people whose views he disagreed with.

In a real sense, the decision to unfollow Greg embodies older ideas of mine about the internet. There is less and less room for debate as people become more and more extreme in their language choices. They do this to get more followers and to get retweets and likes. Funnily enough, on the same day as the unfollow happened I saw a headline from the ABC about media and the profits to be made from polarisation but looking for the story proved difficult after I had briefly seen the headline on Twitter.

Profitability as it pertains to the media is something I am always interested in, for obvious reasons. The Australian reported on the same day I unfollowed Greg Jericho that News Corp had reported 2019 full-year revenue of A$14.8 billion, a 12 per cent increase over the previous year. The Guardian reported that the company globally had reported a profit of A$228 million but said, on the same day, that, “Revenue at the Australian mastheads run by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp fell by 6% last year.” Nieman Lab reported in a story I saw on the same day that the NY Times "now has 3.78 million digital subscribers". "There was [A$165] million in digital subscription revenue, up 14 percent over this time last year." And on 1 May the Guardian had reported, “Guardian News & Media recorded an [A$1.43] million operating profit for the 2018-19 financial year — compared with a [A$102] million loss three years previously.” (For convenience I have converted all the figures into Australian dollars at the exchange rates that applied last Friday.)

The Guardian is one organisation that seems to have taken a leaf out of a book opened by Rupert Murdoch over a generation ago. In her book ‘On Disruption’ (review on this blog on 9 July last year), the Guardian’s Katharine Murphy regrets the polarisation that had started to take over the public sphere but her colleague was now ignoring her warnings having turned the practice into a fine art, one he prosecuted with acid wit.

When I posted about what had happened that morning, one person I know from my childhood, who is also a journalist, commented, “There’s no clicks in balanced. Plenty in outrage, [outspokenness], shock and put downs. Gets 50 per cent of the readers liking you and the other 50 looking at what outrage you’ll make next.”

There’s money in a bad attitude, but the public sphere is being debased because of it. Conversations can only be held with people with views like yours. Anyone else will lose their temper and unfollow you or block you. Or you will do one or the other to them. No quarter is given and people go in hard and fast to avoid similar treatment. The bubbles that people inhabit are becoming less likely to overlap with others, those of people who think different to them. Dialog is difficult and compromise impossible. What kind of government will arise as a result of this situation remains to be seen but I’m not optimistic.

The issue of polarisation is actually a very important one because if you are always unthinkingly wedded to the policy platform of your preferred political party, or if you will only listen to what its spokespeople say when an issue is raised by the government, and follow that lead, then you are going to miss out on the benefit of the good policies from the government that might be proposed. It just doesn’t make sense to always follow the lead suggested by the Opposition, if you are politically inclined that way, as you restrict yourself unnecessarily to a narrow set of ideas and principles that might not, in all cases, be suitable for the production of good laws.

This kind of politics is endlessly frustrating. We need to be able to pick and choose the good policies from both the government and the Opposition so that we avail ourselves of a wider range of ideas and principles than would otherwise be available to follow.

When it comes down to it, your view on any issue will correspond to your values. If your values require that your preferred political party is in government, then you will always criticise what the other party says. This is a kind of tribalism, which is something that is a major problem for people living in developing countries. The difference in a pluralist democracy being that the tribes correspond roughly to political parties.

But if your values demand good governance and the implementation of good policy, then you will cherry-pick from the parties’ responses to whatever issue comes up, and choose the best one. Is winning more important than good governance? I think not.

The reality, however, is that many people find the public sphere too complex to navigate. Surveys that have been conducted recently in some countries, showing that younger people are often in favour of abolishing democracy, point to this fact. Democracy requires that the individual deal with a broad range of issues that are thrown at them constantly, day in and day out, in a busy media ecosystem. Following a political party simplifies the process for people. If people are always being asked to decide where they stand on every, single issue that arises, then the danger of burnout is real.

So party loyalty is a coping strategy that most people resort to in order to maintain their equanimity. Resorting to a primary media outlet that shares the same values as you do, makes this easier to do. People don’t necessarily want the truth, they want comforting verities that resemble it often enough not to worry them.

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