Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Trouble with Choice: thoughts on the decline of newspapers

I read the New York Times (or parts of it) online every day. At a minimum, I scan the headlines and read a few Op-Ed columns. I also always check the box at the right of the screen with the “Most E-mailed” list (simply because it is the default mode of the box; the other options are tabbed as most blogged, searched, and viewed, but I usually don’t bother comparing and contrasting the lists unless I have quite a bit of time on my hands.) It is an exercise of my ‘freedom’ to read only what I choose.

This experience is vastly different than reading the print version of the Times.  As I unfold the crisp paper and smell the ink, my eye is fixed on the top half of the first page. My glance encompasses the headlines on that page, and as I track a story into the depths of section A, B, or C, I’m led past other photos, headlines, and paragraphs that catch my eye, exposing me to information that I wouldn’t necessarily have chosen to read. The juxtaposition of disparate topics regularly leads me to discover threads and themes that I had completely missed reading online that very morning. In one instance I remember reading (in the physical paper) about an act of corporate pollution (having to do with mining in South America, if I recall) and catching, by the by, a small story about how the EPA has had to shelve more than 1500 legal actions against companies for polluting thanks to an ambiguity in the language of the Clean Water Act. (Namely, the Supreme Court has left uncertain which waterways are protected by the law; companies claim that the language of the regulation, which states “navigable waterways”, allows them to dump oil, carcinogens, and bacteria into lakes and rivers that aren’t used by commercial ships.) By these lights, 45% of company polluters are outside of regulatory reach. A separate article in a different section concerned a particular cancer that is tied to environmental toxins (a fact I knew because of my work; this wasn’t the focus of the article). In other words, a bigger picture emerged through reading the physical paper than I would normally get from following only my own pre-conceived interests, my choices, online. (Oddly, when I returned home and tried to find the article about the EPA online, it was difficult to locate, and certainly not on the landing page.)

This difference in subjective experience is related to Amazon.com’s marketing technique of tracking member purchases and sending perky emails every so often with ‘new recommendations just for [me]’. If I purchased a recording of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4, the email will list five other recordings of Beethoven piano works or recordings by the same artist. I admit that on rare occasions I’ve been intrigued by some item they’ve proffered, but 99% of the time their algorithm fails to come up with anything that actually speaks to my interests. Past amazon.com purchases are a poor prognosticator of my future purchases, not just because I buy a number of gifts online that reveal little of my personal preferences, but because I actually purchase a good portion of my books in actual book stores (where they are not privy to amazon’s nosy little tactics), and, most importantly, because all a computer algorithm can do is give me more of what I’ve already got, and generally that is not what I am looking for.

Don’t get me wrong, I find amazon.com very handy. But when I visit the site I am usually looking for a particular title I’ve seen mentioned somewhere. My search is focused. I might purchase the book online, but more likely I will trek to a bookstore—an excursion that invariably exposes me to all sorts of tantalizing diversions on the way to whatever obscure shelf I’m seeking.  As with the newspaper, the experience of being in a bookstore is quite different from being in the virtual website environment.

The same contrast obtains between listening to cd’s at home vs. going to a concert, where you're likely to hear music you wouldn't have chosen to listen to, and hear familiar music in a different way. I could go on, but I think the point is clear: consumer self-selection is ultimately self-limiting. This is one serious drawback to asking students to evaluate "the relevance" of what they've learned in a course right at the end of the semester. Chances are, they'll not be in a position to judge, perhaps for some time.

Given how challenging it can be to expand our repertoires, it's easy to see why we opt for the familiar. But we are the poorer for it.  We need to cultivate an ability to tolerate uncertainty, ignorance, feeling a little bit lost, in order to savor the joys of exploration and self-expansion. Perhaps this is why the proliferation of pre-set social identities has seemed to generate only an increasingly flat and stereotyped sense of self.

This is why marketing strategies seeking to “give the customer what s/he wants” are so insidious. They cater to all the lesser appetites and, by doing so, create a more ignorant, more limited consumer while inflating that consumer's ego with a false sense of empowerment. Who is a child to know what a healthy diet is? Who is a student, to know how a professor should teach, or what material needs to be covered? Who is a reader or listener, to know what news is important and how the stories fit together? (Notice that I do not call the child, student, reader or listener "consumers" of parenting, education, or knowledge—a forced economic identity that is itself repulsively thin and one-dimensional.)

Newspapers are in trouble in part because they’ve failed to uphold their journalistic responsibilities in the name of giving readers what they want. I happily pay for journals that present analysis and good writing; I see no reason to pay for schlock. Yet in their desperate race for popularity—their first mistake—newspapers have shirked their duties to inform, educate, stimulate, and challenge readers or the powers that be. Instead, they have been bought by the powers that be, which has driven them even further away from their calling.

The latest capitulation in the war on journalistic integrity?  The New York Times, apparently feeling anxious about its decision to put up a paywall, is cozying up to some pretty powerful economic interests. To wit (from ClimateProgress.org):
What is the New York Times thinking?  The one-time paper of record has partnered with a major oil company to sponsor a private, elite conversation whereby Shell gets to leverage the credibility of the New York Times brand along with high-profile journalists (Frank Rich!) to attract an elite audience to peddle its greenwashing.
It’s bad enough I have to skip over ads when I view articles online, but this morning I received an email from NYTimes.com with the subject line: "Enjoy unlimited access to NYTimes.com, courtesy of Lincoln." Yes, Lincoln, as in those humongous gas-guzzlers driven by TV crooks in 70’s cop shows. Here’s the text of the email:
Dear NYTimes.com reader,
As a frequent reader of NYTimes.com, you’ve demonstrated an uncommon interest in a wide variety of today’s most important topics. This makes you anything but average. In fact, it can’t help but make you “smarter” — just the kind of person we at Lincoln want to engage.
Though NYTimes.com will soon begin charging for unlimited access, Lincoln is offering you a free digital subscription for the remainder of 2011. Enjoy all that NYTimes.com has to offer every day—investigative news and special reports, videos, blogs and more. It’s all yours at no charge, compliments of Lincoln.
Aside from the peculiar language and punctuation (why is “smarter” in quotes? what does Lincoln seek to “engage” me in, exactly?), I find the brazenness of these new partnerships with Big Oil and the auto industry disturbing. How will the Times report about climate change now? How will this affect their reporting on big industries, or on regulatory policies those industries want to crush?  And didn’t the Obama administration just bail out the auto industry?  If this is the result of our taxpayer investment, how can anyone complain about a measly 20% federal support of NPR? I’m just waiting to see Big Pharma get in on the game; maybe Viagra will sponsor a year's subscription to The Economist.

I don’t object to paying for good journalism; I simply doubt that the blatant industry interests the Times is courting are compatible with it.

The notion of cultural choice is touted as our pre-eminent political and economic virtue, but the truth is that a host of grandly leveling market forces have foreclosed choice. We think we’re empowered, that we’re free to choose anything money can buy. But the market has laid siege to our private lives; our social and political institutions are being hollowed out from within. Educational institutions, affordable housing, healthcare, and even prisons are now largely private growth markets. Patient, employee, and consumer rights are playthings for lobbyists; the sacking of the public sphere is taking place right under our noses. Where are the papers that will publish the analyses we need, to show us what our choices have wrought?

Oh, I forgot: when everyone is 'empowered', there's no need for criticism.

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