The dumbest demographic in America is driving our media.

Hamilton Nolan:

There is nothing that the public (you, and me, inclusive) loves to do more than to complain about the cheap, unserious nature of the media, while also being the cause of that. “The press should be writing about serious issues—not this celebrity garbage and lifestyle fluff and ginned-up controversies,” the public often says. Then you look at the numbers. Nobody reads the serious stories and everyone reads the fluff. The most you can hope for is that publications will be enlightened enough to use the garbage to enable the good reporting. And indeed, that’s how it is. The Iraq bureau is paid for by the Styles section. The public, generally speaking, gets what it wants, even if they don’t admit it. 

There are nuances to this though. Sometimes, the public wants something—local news, for example—but they can’t have it because the economic model that delivered it is broken, and nobody has come up with a new one that works yet. When every newspaper amounted to a local advertising monopoly with huge profit margins, as was the case for most of the 20th century, there was a lot of local news coverage, because the publications in each city were rich. Then the internet came around and huge tech platforms diverted most of the ad money into their own pockets and local newspapers saw their revenue dry up and now, there is little local news. It’s a journalism problem, and a civic problem, caused by an economic problem. (The solution to this is to either tax tech companies to fund journalism or just have the government fund journalism directly. That is not exactly the subject of this post, though.) 

Ever since the internet smashed print media and Google and Facebook et al smashed the economic model for online media, we’ve all been caught in a period of casting-about. Entrepreneurs and media thinkers cast about for ideas of how to fix the broken model, and then they cast about for funders to give them the money to try it. The production of journalism in America depends to a remarkable degree on fooling rich people into thinking it’s a good idea to fund some publication, and then feverishly publishing as much stuff as possible before the rich person figures out that journalism is not a good investment. 

An unfortunate consequence of this, though, is the profusion of publications designed from the ground up to appeal to the demographic of “business people who incorrectly imagine themselves to be ideas people.” That’s who the funders are, and to get the funding the funders need to like the pitch. This sort of publication can hire great journalists and can do good reporting, but its reporting must be forced into an execrable Powerpoint-style package in order to catch the eye of media investors whose brains, after years of abuse by capital, are unable to process anything more languorous than a pitch deck. Say what you will about Gawker (dead) and Buzzfeed (dying) and Vice (bankrupt), but the era of online media defined by those companies was full of all types of whimsy and radicalism that was the downstream effect of a wave of money that fueled the hiring of thousands of young writers and gave them unprecedented freedom. (The freedom was purely due to the fact that tons of content had to be produced to fill the maw of the internet. Any socially redeeming qualities were a side benefit.)