August 24th, 2008
I first met Mark Anderson about ten years ago when I was Program Director at Seybold Seminars. He was a frequent keynote speaker, and justifiably so. I learned then of his remarkable newsletter, Strategic News Service, to which I’ve subscribed since just after meeting Mark. Two things struck me about Mark: he’s brilliant, and like the best of the brilliant, as affable a man as you could ever wish to encounter. As I note in my Friends links, Mark’s newsletter is not widely-known or quoted. It’s pricey (although there are several generous introductory prices), but its subscribers, as you will see, are a who’s who of the high tech industry.
In the last issue Mark wrote what I felt was the best and most heartfelt analysis of what’s wrong with the news (and newspaper) industry today. He has kindly agreed to allow me to reprint it in full:
Where Is the News?
I just hate the “news,” don’t you? And it starts with where we get it from.
It used to be that the picture of contentedness was Dad in his slippers, in the Big Chair, with a pipe and a brandy, Lassie at his side, reading the evening newspaper. Or a young couple on Sunday, spending all morning in bed reading parts of the Sunday New York Times.
Today, here is where my news comes from:
1. I wake up in the morning to my clock radio, set to news, National Public Radio. All I hear is stories of bloodshed and death, and I always end up turning it off as I feel the headache coming on, replacing it with classical music from Canada.
2. I see the morning Seattle papers, and USAToday. If I read one of them, the other two are pretty much copies of the first. There is rarely anything they deem important that occurs in only one: they are clones. And most of the stories they carry are wire stories, so I read about the kinky dog thing in Oklahoma in two or three papers.
3. I see the morning national papers, such as the WSJ and NYTimes. Their stories, too, are rote, generally remixes of press releases, or providing the propagandic mouthpiece for political hacks, without doing any investigating to find the “truth of the matter” being sold to me as fact.
4. I go to the Net, where I get more of the above in online form, or the Wild West of bloggerland, with its best (fresh, independent) and worst (no fact-checking or little editing) sides.
What Is the News?
Who decides what the news is? Perhaps it used to be Edward R. Murrow, but today, it’s someone with an economic gun to his (or her) head. If you doubt me, ask anyone at the LA Times or the Chicago Tribune, whose most recent owner is cutting jobs as fast as he can, after his plans to sell ball clubs and other assets went south; or ask anyone from the NYTimes, which is so badly managed now that its independence is doubtful; or ask anyone from the WSJ, whose happy new owner, Rupert Murdoch, didn’t bother waiting a full year to break his agreements with the Bancroft family and violate the editorial integrity of its staff.
Newspapers are vanishing, as their classified ad revenues are stripped away by Craigslist and other Net offerings, as they cut their news staffs to nothing, and as they shift to tabloid headlines or become reprinters of wire stories.
A friend of mine used to run the TV news for NBC in Los Angeles. You’ve all heard the “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra, but things are worse, and more detailed in practice, than that. At least in his case (and he was a rising star), the priorities for this top American market were simple: fires, murder, gunshots, disasters. FMGD. You can use “Fairy Makeup: Gossamer Diamonds” to remember this critical in-house mantra for the crap you’ll be seeing on the local news for the next 10 years.
For whatever reason, this remains the norm for the local TV news today. My friend Barry Diller, whose media sense I greatly admire, thinks local news will survive, even as other traditional news media decline, and he’s probably right. My only request: just stop calling it “news.” It sure doesn’t contain anything I want to hear about, and it is almost clinically depressing.
Even in such rarefied markets as Technology News, Green News, and Business News, I find that the news redistributed by major channels is just a re-chewing of press releases from the major companies. Here is this product: review it. Here is this new CEO: interview him or her. This is usually followed by a sidebar by one of a million “pundits” who have really strong opinions, but no track record, nor any reason I can fathom that they are even being asked for input.
And that is the “news.”
The News Experience
Which brings us to the experience of taking in the news each day — for many of us, throughout the day. Whether you’re a trader, investor, manager, or product chief, you tend to keep coming back to learn what’s going on. (When CNN began branding individual Iraq wars with their own logos and lead music, I started to understand how warped the coverage of news had become.)
The experience of taking in the news today, on a regular basis, is punishing: emotionally, spiritually, intellectually.
When I said “clinically depressing” a few paragraphs above, I was being deadly serious: I have a theory that today’s “news” is generally mentally, perhaps even physically, depressing. Subject matter is often dark — even if pandering to morbid group fascination for dark subjects — and is chosen to be so. And there is a lot of it, so it weighs heavily on the soul. (How many thousands of deaths can you take per day? And there is not a thing you can do about any of it.)
Today’s news, no matter how you get it, is a passive experience. The handful of remaining owners (in U.S. markets) are the distributors, and we are, quite literally, the victims. Feeling a little down lately? Try staying away from the “news” for a couple of days, and take a walk in the woods in the mornings instead. Wow! What a difference.
The whole news establishment is “off,” in my opinion, and the Net has helped to give people enough choices that TV and Newspaper news operations are going to be completely dumped, whatever is left of them. Local news consumers will split between the lurid National Enquirer crowd and those who care about local sports, events, and charities.
Alcohol, a chemical depressant, is also addictive, in perhaps the same way that news is. Lucky for us, news is easier to walk away from, and that is what many people today are doing. The majority of the younger U.S. demographic now watches comedians, rather than news anchors, for their nightly news. The reportage of Walter Cronkite, who served as the conscience and news filter for several generations of Americans, has now been replaced by that of stand-up comic Jon Stewart.
Is there any confusion about this trend, or what is behind it? No. People are replacing Goebbels-like propaganda with comedic entertainment, and getting more honest information-handling in the process.
Rupert’s Fox News channel, once claiming to be “Fair and Balanced” before this became so patently laughable on a propaganda-only station, would be Exhibit A of what is wrong with TV news today. Its news actually contains proven lies. And Fox knows it: it has even dropped that disgusting motto. Wow.
As comedian Stewart once publicly said to CNN’s Tucker Carlson: “You’re harming the country. Stop it.”
A lot of people — particularly in the 18-25 age group — have just stopped watching, and reading, the “news” altogether.
Mark did not just write a polemic, but also offers a solution. As I wrote to Mark when requesting permission to republish this piece, the solution would be somewhat obscure to those who are not familiar with Strategic News Service, and he agreed with that. As he wrote in the newsletter, “I am also pleased to announce that, as of today, we at SNS have created a new way of selecting, experiencing, and relating to the news. We’re calling it SNS Interactive News — or “SNS iNews.”
To my mind it is a stellar version of the long-awaited “community of readers.” The SNS community is a close group, interested in one another’s ideas and undertakings, and Mark has created an ideal platform for readers to keep track of what matters to them, and to keep in touch with each other.
You have two choices now. Send $14.95 to SNS for a four issue subscription, or write to me directly (firstname.lastname@example.org). As a subscriber I’m allowed to forward this issue to you, cc’ing Mark, and you’ll receive four issues for free. You will have a chance to make your own evaluation of SNS iNews, as well as the remarkable newsletter. I’m sure you won’t regret it.