How Bias Became Essential To Today's Content Industry
12 October, 2017
There are endless quotes from journalists about what working on a newspaper represents but this is one of my favourites, from Joseph Pulitzer who transformed America’s media and whose name is synonymous with great writing: ‘What a newspaper needs in its news, in its headlines, and on its editorial page is terseness, humor, descriptive power, satire, originality, good literary style, clever condensation, and accuracy, accuracy, accuracy!’
They’re still principles that, 150 years later, print and broadcast journalists consider sacrosanct. But the internet has fuelled a more powerful and potentially lucrative ‘need’. Bias.
What a digital media company needs in its news, in its headlines and on its editorial page is bias. News has made way for content. Newspapers are now considered channels. Originality has been replaced by opinions. And accuracy has been superseded by noise.
It’s why I believe one of Britain’s most high-profile journalists is quitting the most powerful news organisation on the planet to start his own company.
James Harding, the BBC’s director of news, says he wants to build a business that offers “a clear point of view” and a perspective that the impartial corporation is not allowed to provide. In other words, biased opinion.
And why not? After all, the so-called commentariat is where the real interest lies today. Breitbart, Huffington Post, Salon, Slate, Politico are as influential as any print publication. The best performing ‘newspapers’ in Britain in terms of increased readership are the weekly, highly opinionated, partisan and niche New Statesman and Spectator, their websites often setting the agenda.
The Guardian newspaper’s Comment Is Free channel is often far more interesting than its news pages. The Telegraph sees its commentators’ offerings as ‘premium’ and thus hopes to make money from their trenchant views. The Canary website has blossomed as the sparky focus of Corbyn-mania and The New European has defied print’s doom-mongers by becoming a brilliantly-noisy – and successful – anti-Brexiteer attack dog.
It’s not just politics. Websites such as The Pool are giving voice to generations of women who want to express themselves in the same way that parents on the pioneering website Mumsnet have for years.
And LinkedIn has morphed from a recruitment site into an essential tool for businesses and individuals to express their motivations, experiences and beliefs. It’s a place where opinions matter more than skills.
We were once convinced that the lasting legacy of media’s digital transformation would be free. No one would pay for content, insisted the new gurus who spoke with the force of evangelists but whose overly enthusiastic pronouncements lacked evidence.
It has taken a long time for companies like Facebook and Google to realise that free is not a business model that will benefit them and their Silicon Valley colleagues in the long term. It was a useful and essential tactic at first in generating massive audiences. But the by-product has been an information overload in which the cheap, fake, poorly-written and loudest have risen to the top. Or perhaps we have sunk to the bottom, it’s difficult to tell sometimes.
Good, investigative information costs the kind of money that media companies don’t seem to possess at the moment. But good opinion is both cheaper and far more influential. It doesn’t need facts. It requires little investment. It doesn’t even take much time. And it certainly doesn’t need to waste space by reporting both sides of the same coin. It just requires a point of view – a visceral point of view imbued with all the things Pulitzer demanded - terseness, humor, descriptive power, satire, originality, good literary style, clever condensation and accuracy.
This is the essence of modern journalism, transformed by a social media that places attention-seeking over fairness, where we seek approval for what we say and believe. We want our biases confirmed. We retreat to the reassuring confines of like-minded bubbles. Our thirst for information is sated not by how much information we can consume but on how accurate it is to what we already believe.
For all the boundary-busting shininess of digital media, its real impact is more akin to an old-fashioned soapbox. Noisy, opinionated, willing to embarrass, goad or hurt – and, importantly, unafraid to express a ‘truth’. A universal or personal one.
I wonder whether Pulitzer thought about adding ‘making mischief’ to his list of principles. After all, journalists have always been rather adept at that. Perhaps that’s what the former newspaper hack James Harding, enslaved by the BBC’s reputation for impartiality and fair-mindedness, misses most.
It will be interesting to see what mischief he makes…