Whether it’s on Twitter or, like me, via RSS, it’s pretty likely you see the same story reported by multiple outlets over the course of three or four days. There’s an initial surge as everyone is quick to publish the reworded press release or share the same scoop, then other sites pick it up and go with it a bit later. And all these sites may try to get more bites at the apple by sharing the story on social media multiple times over several days.
That’s fine. It’s good, in fact. We *need* a diverse media ecosystem. It’s why years ago when some “thought leaders” proposed a filter on RSS aggregators that would de-dupe the news I and others like me were strongly against the idea. Being able to follow the outlet of your choice is important, even if that means you’re exposed to many versions of the same news.
(Two notes: Those people kind of got their wish, only it’s called Facebook, it sucks as a news platform and it’s why we’re having to relitigate what constitutes “truth” in a news context. Way to be ahead of the curve there, thought leader.)
The problem has unfortunately gotten worse in the age of viral sameness. There are more news outlets than ever and they’re all chasing the same search and social traffic, hoping their headline and formatting for the story about an alpaca in Ohio that can sounds like Al Pacino saying “Hoo-ah!” is better than that of their rivals. This isn’t a blog problem but one that has infected mainstream news outlets, who want cheap content to provide pages for programmatic ads to be bought on.
Even veering away from that, the number of times I see serious, important news stories a dozen times a day is approaching ludicrous. More specifically, there’s often little to no difference between the version of the story I read on any two news sites. They all hit roughly the same beats and end in roughly the same way. They all use the same corporately-provided graphic and extol the same virtues.
That’s problematic. The point of having a diverse media ecosystem is to foster a diverse set of opinions and perspectives. If everyone is saying the same thing in the same way, “What’s the point” becomes much more of a legitimate question.
There are three (admittedly overly broad) symptoms I believe have put us in this position:
#1 – The Quest for Objectivity
It may seem as if objectivity has always been the journalistic ideal but that’s not quite true. Until the middle of the 20th century, it was more or less expected that each outlet would have a slant on the news that was less than neutral. The Chicago Sun-Times would defend Daley even if he were found drenched in mayonnaise and wearing raccoon skins, calling on the City Council to support the Mayor’s bold position. The Chicago Tribune would then be the paper for the Republican suburbs, assuring them that the Democratic city leadership was corrupt while Governor Thompson was a defense against Communism. (Only slightly exaggerating here.)
What Jay Rosen calls “the view from nowhere” strips away all of that. These papers didn’t deal in outright falsehoods but they were partisan outlets. You knew that going in and took what they printed with a grain of salt. But at least they had an opinion. If you take away that opinion, that editorial viewpoint, you create as much of a monoculture as what’s possible if/when Sinclair Media controls half the media landscape. In short, striving for objectivity waters down writing, which is bad.
#2 – The Quest for Ad Inventory
As hinted above, websites see crap stories as cheap content against which to place ads that are now coming in via programmatic buying. This has gone hand in hand with the steady devaluation of writing as a profession, putting a 23 year old who just started a blog last week and is willing to write for $5 an article (or less) on the same playing field as a seasoned professional who treats every word with care and has for three decades.
#3 – The Quest for Social Traffic
Much has been written about how hard publishers have grasped for the ever-diminishing referral traffic sent via Facebook in particular but all social platforms as a whole. That means they’ve pivoted to video, experimented with “clickbait” headlines and engaged in other tactics to try and game the algorithm. Those technical and tweaks have not been good for editorial standards, though, encouraging outsized stances and outrageous claims to be made. Those may seem counter to me “everything looks alike” thesis, but usually everyone then has the same dramatic take on a story because they’re playing off the same card their competitors are.
This is so bleeding obvious I feel a little silly saying it out loud but the fix for this is something along the lines of: Hire good writers and pay them to share their perspectives, clearly stating their biases and opinions on the news at hand so the reader can judge for themselves how much weight to assign it.
There’s zero problems with multiple news organizations covering the same story. But do so in a way that offers the audience even a single thread of originality and uniqueness to grasp. Differentiate your coverage from that of your competitors in a meaningful and interesting way to hook the readers. That way when they’re doing whatever works for them in terms of news consumption they will pay special attention to what you publish, even if they’re already read the news elsewhere.
That’s going to become even more vital if more publishers move toward a digital membership model of some kind as ad revenue continues to drop. They will have to offer a unique and enticing value proposition to the reader in order to make the conversion.
In a way it comes down to one of the foundational principles of blogging circa 2003: Do what you do best and link to the rest. It’s alright if you don’t have a strong editorial opinion on a story or have something original to add to the conversation. Focus on those areas where you *do* and then point to where readers can find everything else.
30-40 years ago that’s exactly what the Tribune and Sun-Times were able to offer Chicagoland residents. It’s part of why my grandfather, as I’ve talked about before, would read both papers on a daily basis, to get different perspectives on overlapping news stories as well as see what stories were unique to each paper. He knew the value of a well-rounded media diet.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.