One of the best things about having new people joining your team is that they ask new questions, and force you to think about old problems in new ways.
Bronwen (who joined us a couple of months ago to drive growth for inkl) recently asked what I think is the one thing, just one thing, that is broken about news and that we fix. It was a simple question. Maybe even an obvious one. But I’ve had my nose pressed up against it for quite some time. So my initial reaction was that the question is unanswerable. News is too badly broken, in too many different ways, to just pick one. And it would be tempting but wrong to blame the publishers for this. They are usually the ones left trying to make sense, and make good, of an increasingly inclement environment for news.
But back to the question at hand. How could anyone possibly pick just one thing? For starters, there’s too much news now for any one publisher to cover. Coverage has also become more subjective. So you can’t make do with just one perspective. Quite often the news you see is prioritised based on metrics that have nothing to do with informing readers. The goals are to generate clicks and likes and retweets — content that will please the search and social media gods. And the goal of those gods (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple) is to attract as much of your time, money and attention as they can. Technologity is the new Christianity. So we’re all stuck seeing news that they want us to see, not news that we need to see. And if there’s one universal truth about religion, it’s that there’s a vast ocean between what gods want and what humans need.
Then there’s the issue of privacy and coercion. If your ex behaved the way ad technology does today, you’d have slapped them with a restraining order years ago. In fact, they’d probably be in jail right now.
And even once you fight off the stalkers and hawkers, and swim through the morass of mediocre mal-content to get to a newsworthy article, the experience that awaits you is enough to put you off ever trying again.
Paywalls, ‘continue reading’ buttons, ads that pop and flash and talk at you, pages that load slowly and jerkily and that you have to keep logging into — is it any wonder people don’t bother to click on headlines any more? And they’re the ones who can afford to buy multiple subscriptions because, let’s face it — even if you buy one subscription, or two, you’re still going to hit paywalls everywhere else.
Do you see what I mean about picking just one thing? And yet, the question must be answered, because a three-paragraph diatribe doesn’t make for snappy copy. So, here’s my take on the one thing that I think is broken in news, and that we’ve set out to fix.
The awful reality of news is that the will of readers has been broken. Readers have been trained (not least by Facebook) to expect an experience that ought to be unacceptable. To be stalked all over the internet. To be knowingly fed bullshit stories. To be unable to access important ones. To have to swat away swarms of messages before they can see the story. To be interrupted halfway through reading it. And to leave, with unanswered questions about whether they’ve gotten the full story.
That’s what’s broken.
It’s taken me a long time to realise this. But in hindsight, it explains a lot, including why we’ve always chosen to see, discuss, and reply to every single person who has ever written to us. I know it’s freaked a lot of people out when they’ve written to us and received a page-long email from me in reply. But we’ve always wanted to know when we haven’t met expectations — because we want our readers to expect more. In fact, we want all readers to demand more. We want them to not be satisfied with the status quo. We want them to see problems, call them out, and help to fix them. And that’s because, funnily enough, it’s why we started this business in the first place. We wanted to help create a world in which people are clear about issues, and motivated to fix them. What I’ve slowly come to understand is that this work begins with changing what people expect from news itself.
“Take nothing on its looks; take everything on evidence. There’s no better rule.”
― Charles Dickens, Great Expectations