Netflix-like data to shape political reporting—Should we worry?

Pierre Omidyar, the billionaire eBay founder concerned about NSA surveillance and threats to press freedom, is creating a new news venture, to the tune of (at least) $250 million. His plan to fund investigative journalism will help bridge the gap between what a vigorous democracy needs and what current media markets can support financially.

But one feature has gotten no attention: the plan to be a “general news” venture, including sports and entertainment.   Why do that? Sports and entertainment news are doing just fine, thank you, and don’t need a billionaire ’s charity. Plus the old-fashioned full-service approach doesn’t jibe with Omidyar’s “entirely new,” legacy-free rhetoric.

In fact, the brief explanation for the full-service route, communicated in an interview Omidyar gave to Jay Rosen, raises important questions. First, Omidyar is saying, implicitly, that others’ solutions for journalism, funding the unfunded content with the likes of Pro Publica and Kaiser Health News, is seriously incomplete. Is he right? Second, Omidyar may be planning a potentially creepy use of Netflix-like personally data to shape the public interest journalism. That would be ironic, since one of his first hires is Glenn Greenwald, famous for his NSA spying scoop. Should we worry?

First, a brief account of the causes of journalism’s ills. (For a full account, see the FCC report.) Once upon a time, the communication “pipes” of newspapers, magazines, and (later) broadcasters were expensive to maintain. Advertisers had few alternatives and paid good money to send their advertising along the pipes. With the money media made from local car dealer ads and such, they could afford to pay for city hall corruption investigations and the correspondents in Egypt. Plus, people, hungry for information, paid good money for subscriptions.

Then came the Internet. Advertisers had Craigslist, Google and so much more. With so many choices, they started paying bottom dollar. Subscriptions were hurt with most of us are drowning in information without paying for it. Many newspapers and magazines—and jobs in journalism—died. News organizations slashed editing and other support, due to cost pressures.

And because it is now so easy to copy and spread information, investigative reporting—really any discovery and communication of facts—brings no financial reward. To some extent, you can still sell the written words—the particular account of the information. But once a fact is out there, it’s copied, almost immediately, and you can’t sell it.

Sure, there are countervailing forces from technology that help journalism and the public interest, like lower production costs and access to virtually everything written anywhere in the world. But there are still some big gaps.

As diagnosed by the FCC, our biggest problem is that there is no one to pay and support time-consuming investigative reporting and other democracy-relevant stuff that takes a long time to figure out. With the focus on information needs, solutions have been of the Pro Publica model. The same rationale is partly behind a proposal by Don Waisanen, Andrea Gabor and myself to have public interest journalism done in universities even by non-journalism faculty. Hence my interest.

Much of Omidyar’s venture fits squarely in this same mold of paying for expensive information production, along with “high standards of editing” and other support.  His particular surveillance and government watchdog concerns mean yet more funds are needed for lawyers and encryption software. And those concerns limit news organizations’ other sources of revenue to those that can’t be threatened. No wonder so many media watchers have been ecstatic.

But why, I wondered, bother to support sports and entertainment, which don’t have funding problems? (You might wonder why they don’t. Brief version: high demand, product placements, low costs, and time sensitivity for sports.)

Maybe Omidyar plans to use profits from lighter content to help pay for the core mission. (The venture, formally for-profit, is not intended to bring Omidyar any return on his investment but there are hints it should become “sustainable”.) Or maybe he sees a lack of quality, independent sports and entertainment news too.

But the stated reason is different. Rosen:

Omidyar believes that if independent, ferocious, investigative journalism isn’t brought to the attention of general audiences it can never have the effect that actually creates a check on power. Therefore the new entity…  will have to serve the interest of all kinds of news consumers. It cannot be a niche product. It will have to cover sports, business, entertainment, technology: everything that users demand.

So are Pro Publica and its like (and our academic journalism proposal) much less of the solution than we thought? Of course, we know that in a world awash in content, attention is a scarce resource. Getting attention and being recognized as an organization that gets to say what’s worth looking at is critical, as Henry Farrell stressed.  But why sports?

Besides, the Omidyar/Rosen explanation made no sense to me. When people had to buy an entire magazine or newspaper in order to read a story, they wanted to get coverage of basketball games, TV shows, local corruption and the Middle East all in one place. Entice them with basketball and maybe they’ll read about the Middle East. Now, we can read each story from a different outlet. People often find what they read through Google searches, Twitter or Facebook. Only the likes of the New York Times have readers who regularly peruse their home page—and reportedly that approach is falling.  Given Omidyar’s emphasis on the “personal franchise model” or journalists with their own reputations, an often-visited home page seems less likely.

So, how will covering sports get “general audiences” to even read the NSA surveillance stories, much less become more engaged citizens? Are they envisioning a sort of product placement promoting the citizenship relevant stories within the sports stories?

A few paragraphs later, almost tucked away, Rosen provides the answer:

Part of the reason he thinks he can succeed with a general news product, where there is a lot of competition, is by finding the proper midpoint between voicey blogging and traditional journalism, in which the best of both are combined. The trick will then be to combine that with the things technology companies are good at.

“Companies in Silicon Valley invest a lot in understanding their users and what drives user engagement,” he said, mentioning Netflix as a clear example. NewCo will have to serve users of news in the same personalized way, he said. He didn’t want to reveal too much at this stage, but as the founder of eBay he clearly has ideas about how a next generation news company can be built from the ground up.

Many of us give our video ratings to Netflix, which they combine with our actual viewing patterns, to feed to software that decides we like “strong female leads” and suggests more videos. But many are unhappy that marketers and political parties increasingly have equivalent information about us. Do we want political journalists to have and use that information?

No doubt it’s just me. But I am less concerned about the government tracking the time and recipient of every single phone call I make than I am about someone using the fact that I like shows with “strong female leads” to shape the supposedly independent political journalism provided to me. And it’s not because I mistrust Omidyar: He seems highly publicly spirited and honest.

Maybe what I envision is not what Omidyar meant. Maybe the tailoring will all be just writing style and salient examples. But part of me wonders if this data can be used in a way that both engages people who would not otherwise choose to be engaged and does not move towards propaganda.

I wish that Omidyar would choose to “reveal too much at this stage.”

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3 thoughts on “Netflix-like data to shape political reporting—Should we worry?

  1. See http://billmoyers.com/segment/john-nichols-and-robert-mcchesney-on-big-money-big-media/ I just saw this program after reading your post…quite relevant on the need for investigative journalism. Need to hear why the academic venue is the right one…clearly the commercial is no longer viable. Germany, Norway, England subsidize public media…is this a better approach? Am also concerned about local news…most important to many people…would academics address this? Who would pay for academic media centers…am not sure higher ed is prepared to fund this. Am looking forward to hearing more.

    • Government funding is pretty much out on in the US because of our politics and budgetary crisis. In addition, most people, particularly most journalists, fear government intervention, perhaps unreasonably. Certainly, the small amount of public funding we had in the past has mostly gone. We don’t think that academia is the only solution or will work for all forms of investigative journalism. Academia’s main strength is what we are seeing already: academics writing analysis and synthesis pieces that once would have been primarily written by journalists. But we do think that some forms of beat or investigative journalism could be done by people with teaching jobs that basically pay their salaries. It would be things that lots of expertise help and that is not precluded by a regular teaching schedule. Non-profits, like Pro Publica and Kaiser Health News and a growing number of others are a good source. And NPR is essentially a non-profit these days, with a just a tiny bit of government funding. And I actually think that billionaires, particularly public spirited, smart tech billionaires, are a great source of funding. Omidyar doing this is great. I just didn’t get the sports and entertainment aspect. And then when I delved in was surprised, and a bit worried, by the brief, vague explanation.

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