Below is a working theory on the evolution of The Press in the United States as it relates to their relationship with the government and the people. I expect to continue refining the theory as new perspectives and competing ideas are discussed.
Phase 1) TL/DR; The press’s primary value in the system is transmitting a message from the government to the people. The press’s customers are their subscribers who purchase news.
Consider the early days of United States of America throughout the late 1700s and 1800s. As elected officials governed and managed the business of a young country, operationally it was crucial they had a way to broadly communicate with their citizens. They needed to let the everyone know that there was a strong hand was on the tiller, that the people are safe, and they can sleep well at night.
Imagine government’s options to communicate across the country. Think about the technology that was available. How ideas and thoughts were recorded and how they were transmitted. There was no radio. There was no television. There certainly wasn’t an Internet. Ink and paper was the state of the art. While the government could physically write down their message, outside of standing at podiums surrounded by small local gatherings of people or leafletting, they did not have a scalable means of transmitting their message to the masses. So, the government and the country needed assistance. This need is where an entity called “The Press” established it’s value in the larger system — transmission of the government’s messages.
The press had journalists with the necessary tools to record the government’s message down on paper, who would perform some amount of fact checking, and then package the information as a cohesive and largely transcribed story. The press also had access to a new invention called the printing press enabling them to productize the message, such as a newspaper. And most importantly, the press created channels of distribution, such as horses automobiles, and the telephone to deliver the message to a variety of locations where it could be easily purchased. Put simply, the process was the press would be invited in by the government to document their message, print a large number of copies of newspapers, and then make the materials widely available to the people where the had the opportunity to buy it.
This predominately was the value the press provided to the system — transmission. Of course it was important for the press to be mindful about what they printed, particularly the accuracy and relevancy of the message, otherwise people might stop paying for it in favor of another newspaper. The people depended upon the credibility of the press to tell the story right. Let’s not forget this. This dynamic between the government, the press, and the people carried through until about the 40s and 50s when the radio and television began changing the paradigm.
Phase 2) TL/DR; The press’s value proposition in split between transmitting the government’s message to the people to telling them how to think about the message. The press’s customers are their subscribers and advertisers.
Over time communications technology advanced and became far more affordable. Radio became common place in society and television sets started appearing in the average U.S. household in the early 1950s. With these modern tools the government could transmit their message directly to the people across the country and cut out the middleman — the press. The government no longer exclusively needed the press to get its message out to the masses.
And since the government could bring their message directly to the people, and the country was in a more stable position, they didn’t necessarily have to always help people sleep at night. In fact, often the opposite was true. Causing some amount of fear actually helped the government further consolidate their power. As a result, the press needed to find a new way to provide value to the system, beyond just message transmission, in order to maintain their survival.
During this period the press began shifting their value proposition from solely message transmission to telling people how to think about the government’s message. The press would take the governments message, create a compelling narrative to help people interpret the story, and transmit their product to the masses over the television and radio airwaves. As a product, this method of news packaging and delivery was attractive to people. There had become a significant increase of information to parse from a variety of sources, too much for any one individual to decide what was important to consume. The Ted Koppel’s and Tom Brokaw’s of the television news world became the credible sources of the press and filled a void left by the government to help the country sleep well at night.
There were a couple of problems the press needed overcome though. For example, it was not possible for the press to make money with electronically broadcast news in the same way they did with print media. It was not mechanically possible to charge viewers or listeners for news transmitted electronically. The press’s solution was sponsored advertising. News content accompanied by commercials. As such, the more people that watched and listened, and the longer they did so, the more valuable their advertising slots became. Another challenge the press needed to overcome with television and radio was that the physical time available to watch or listen to content was more limited. There is far more space to pack in far more content into the pages of a daily newspaper than what’s possible in a couple of hours of daily broadcast news spots.
Collectively, the new adversing-based business model and a limited amount of space for content changed how the press covered the government’s message in two profound ways. First, it shifted the priority for the transmission and accuracy of the message as their main value proposition in favor of whatever kept people watching and listening. And secondly, the press had to be more choosey with what message and narrative filled the available time and what didn’t. Furthermore, the press had to narrowly cater to a particular demographic of person with their content than what was originally necessary with print. In television and radio the more the news captures emotions and attention, the better the press does financially.
Fast forward several decades under these conditions and the people begin to clearly see a lot of bias in the press and an agenda. And while bias and agenda is certainly present, how could there NOT be, but in this context it’s best not to think the press is taking a principled stand. They’re not. Instead think of their bias and agenda as simply the press’s way of focusing their product at a particular customer like any business would. The press is drawing a circle around a suitable demographic for their product and value proposition, which again is to both transmit the government’s message and tell people how to think about in a way that helps to maximize ears and eyeballs. For example, there effectively isn’t a left-wing or right-wind press in a truly principled manner. The exact opposite is true. There are left-wing and right-wing people where the press tailor makes a narrative based on the government’s message that is compelling to them.
Phase 3) TL/DR; The press’s value proposition is telling people how to think about the government’s message. The press’s customers are advertisers.
Enter the Internet in the early 1990s where transmission of information had become easy and inexpensive for everyone, and not just within the United States, but the entire modern world. The government no longer needed the press to transmit their message to the people at all. The government could transmit directly to the people or the people could go directly to the government. No middleman required. Without anyone needing the press for message transmission, as a business, print media fell off a cliff in under two decades. For survival sake, the press had to complete the transition away from transmission of the government’s message as a value proposition to nearly exclusively telling people how to think about it. That’s all of value they offer and in doing so message accuracy can be sacrificed whenever necessary. And of course the press’s content is heavily layered with advertisements.
As is turns out, the best way to attract more viewers for longer is to connect on a deep emotional level. Do whatever you can to rile up your viewers and they’ll continue coming back for more, even share the content forward to others in their social group, where even more ads can be lucratively served. Press outlets such as Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, and more all cross the political spectrum have strongly adopted this approach. The press outlets that didn’t adapt, died.
As a product, these sources offer people a compelling and packaged way to validate their worldview — and THAT’s what keep the press ultimately credible and trustworthy in their minds. As evidence notice how the Ted Koppel’s and Tom Brokaw’s of the press have been replaced by Alex Jones, Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann and Don Lemon’s. Is this change of their starting lineup designed to give viewers access to more accurate news or instead get people emotionality invested? Even when the press is demonstrably biased, factually incorrect, call it ‘Fake News’ if you like, it’s extremely difficult for people to suddenly distrust the press they decided to loyally watch for so long and find another compelling source. Perception becomes reality and exists long after the occasional and quietly posted retraction.
Phase 4) TL/DR; If via the Internet people once again adopt a direct paid-for news model, the press’s primary value become providing people with an individually relevant, timely, and accurate news source of the government’s message.
Going forward into the future, many feel there is a demand for relevant, timely, and accurate news sources. News that’s devoid of the influences of advertisements and paid directly by the people. Several press outlets have set-up paywalls and the business model is showing signs of success. All people have to do is register an account on a website or mobile application and supply a credit card online to become a subscriber. Another business model is micro-payments, where viewers pay for their content a la carte — by the article. A relatively new web browser named Brave, which includes ad blocking, offers native push button micro-payment functionality which supports participating content publishers.
Here’s the thing: If any transition back to directly paid-for news truly starts gaining enough traction to threaten to the ad-based model, fierce resistance by the advertising industry is sure to follow. Google and Facebook, which dominate the online advertising industry, who along side many others who make all their billions annually off ‘free’ content, will do everything they can to prevent the transition. Their livelihoods depend on it. Regardless, if it so happens that the paid-for model once again takes hold, many positive externalities may also come with it. Fake news goes away. Click-bait headlines go away. Online spam goes away. Privacy invading ads go away. All of these shady practices found on the Internet depend wholly on advertisements to function. The adoption of ad blockers, which now stands over 20% marketshare, indicates that people are making a choice, even if they aren’t yet paying for their content. Broad access to new technology is once again causing a shift in the press and how the government communicates it’s message.