News Consumption: One-Off vs. Subscription

I’ve been reading the book Trust Me, I’m Lying recently about the state of internet news, and one of the most interesting parts is how the author relates the current “blog-o-sphere” back to the Yellow Journalism of the early 20th century.

If you’re not familiar with the term yellow journalism, you should check out its short but well-cited Wikipedia page. Here’s my one-sentence summary: yellow journalism is the use of exaggerated and sensational headlines in order to increases sales of newspapers and tabloids.

In this model during the early 1900s, papers would be sold on the streets by small children shouting out the headlines. Since the main form of advertising was this shouting and the large headline “above-the-fold”, the more dramatic and eye-catching these were, the more papers were sold.

It’s pretty easy to see how yellow journalism is very similar to the Buzzfeed/Huffington Post/Breitbart/Drudge Report blogs (and their ilk) “one-off” model of news. It’s all about the click – whether you believe (or even read) the article is unimportant.

Facebook’s Metrics

Combine this need for a click by the blogs, and Facebook’s need for engagement to sell ads, and suddenly all sorts of things become clear.

Lots of barely-reputable blogs have become huge by simply crafting misleading or outlandish-sounding titles. When a user (whether they agree or disagree with the article’s title or premise) clicks on that link, both Facebook and the specific blog are incentivized to do more of the same.

Most blogs get revenue from ads, and the amount of income a blog receives is determined by the number of impressions (views) and clicks that an ad receives. If a particularly inflammatory headline gets 10x or 100x the number of clicks from Facebook or Googe, then that blog is going to have an incentive to keep turning up the rhetoric – to keep people clicking their links.

From the blog’s perspective, it doesn’t matter if anyone reads the article. All that matters is that first click.

Facebook’s algorithm is optimized to keep people engaged. While lots of emotions can keep people on the site, one of the best to get people to actively participate is anger.

If you get angry or frustrated by a post or a link, you’re likely to click, or comment, or hit the “Like” button. It doesn’t necessarily take posting a comment to show engagement. Even just typing up a comment and then deleting it can be a signal to the algorithm.

All of these signals go into your “file” so that Facebook can fine-tune just how much dreck you can take. From Facebook’s perspective, getting you involved in a long, drawn-out argument is better than showing you pictures of a cute baby. An argument encourages you to visit (and revisit) the site many times over hours or days, letting Facebook show you lots of different ads. Clicking “Like” on a baby picture or two doesn’t trigger the same reengagement over the following hours and days. Of course, if your news feed goes too far in the “upsetting” direction and you quickly leave the site or close your browser tab, Facebook will modify what they show you.

It’s all about maximizing the time you spend on the site. So Facebook (and all the other “news blogs”) are optimizing for clicks. If you click on something, you can expect to see more of that kind of thing. If you’re logged into Google, your Google results behave in a similar way.

Google is not as manipulative as Facebook, however, since you must first input a query to get Google’s response. However, if you are logged into your Google account and consistently click Google results from a specific site, Google will “personalize” your results by bumping that site up when you are logged-in and search.

Similar things probably happen when you’re signed in and just browsing around the web on Google’s Chrome browser. Google can see which sites you prefer (even if you enter a site’s address directly and don’t go through Google Search) and bump those sites up in the rankings.

This kind of “yellow blogging” is in contrast to a subscription model.

Break Free of the Algorithm

The subscription model, by contrast, encourages you to get news or information from a few, high-quality sources.

Instead of chasing attention by using more hyperbolic headlines, organizations that use this model generally try to go deeper. Instead of chasing clicks (and not worrying about their reputation), this kind of business model encourages an organization to establish themselves as an authority.

The more regular, consistent income of a weekly, monthly, or yearly subscription lets these groups take more time with their articles, podcasts, or video, and not meet a daily quota. The extra time can be used to go deeper into a topic, whether it’s politics, technology, or whatever.

This idea of “subscribing” to a website, blog, or news source doesn’t even have to cost money.

My preferred method of keeping up-to-date on what’s going on in the various news, tech, and music realms is with an RSS reader. I’ve talked about setting up an RSS reader before, and I highly recommend it over clicking through news links on Facebook or even Google.

You can set up a good RSS reader for free (Feedly is a great one to start with) and add almost any website you want to get updates from. This way you’ll see all the news, not just the stuff cherry-picked to get you angry or stressed out.

For more information about how to setup your (free) RSS reader, check out this blog article I did a little while ago.