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Some thoughts on news

It’s tough to compete against something that is free. That is the challenge the news business has been dealing with since the rise of the internet. What would earlier require people to pay a monthly sum was now available online, provided an Internet connection existed. To truly understand what we are dealing with now, we need to take a quick look at everything that has happened in the last two decades.

Online advertising was easier to do and scalable albeit with lower earning potential for a traditional news publication. So they evolved. In a world where page views mattered the most, they evolved into click farms. In a world where opinions got more eye balls, they pushed forward folks with strong voices no matter how extreme their thoughts.

Something else happened in parallel. The bigger websites in the initial days of the Internet were the do-it-all aggregators that pieced together links and content from across the Internet. Remember Yahoo! and MSN? How else were people supposed to find things to read and do online? These aggregators were portals to take you to other parts of the Internet. Now a days, I hear everyone trying to build a website calling it a portal incorrectly, but I digress. At some point these portals evolved into news aggregators with Google News being one of the best in my experience.

While all this transition was happening the user generated content as a percentage of content generated online started to rise. Initially Google offered a separate search for blogs, but later on it was merged into the general search. Google News which initially displayed only content from media sites started blending in results from some newsy blogs as well.

It was around this time that social media started picking up and it became the primary source for news discovery for a lot of people. While led to the trend of click-bait articles that went viral on social media and algorithmic recommendation of content. The other side effect was that people stopped considering what they were reading and where.

By then, a lot of people believed that as long as they read it online, or heard about it on social media, it must be true. After all the news was being shared by real people right? It was this implied trust that was abused by fake news farms. This storm of fake news and outright lies from officials that were published as news by legitimate sources have turned several news sources into propaganda machines.

This so called truly neutral media organisation was always a myth according to me. All of them had their biases; some political, while others were social or economical. However, what we now have are two kinds of media organisations. One that is willing to publish outright lies and the other that will at least add a disclaimer after the lies. This is over and above the biases and prioritised coverage on issues they feel stronger about. On the other hand we have aggregators that display all the articles against an article related to a topic, which is pretty great for someone trying to get a quick grasp of the truth that lies somewhere in between all the extreme opinions. Then there are the social media sites which still lets you post your own opinion against a news article.

It was in this context that Ruper Murdoch’s push for the new anti-linking laws in Australia needs to be considered.

What is the media play here?

It’s money. Pure and simple. If the question is about blocking sites from displaying extracts of the article, there would be some merit to the law. However, it oversteps its boundaries and effectively wants any site linking to it to pay up money to it. That makes very little sense.

It would have made sense if the sites forced Google, Facebook etc to get into a limited syndicate deal to display the news extract as opposed to a plain link, but that is not the case here. It would have been great if the law applied to smaller publishers as well and not just for the bigger media houses.

What about aggregators?

If there are no local news articles to display they could display articles from other websites. However, not displaying content from some websites is anti-competitive and especially for a company that runs at a scale of Google, it will invite regulatory fines and measures. In such a situation they are left with no option other than to no display any news at all!

What about social media?

We know what is up there, because Facebook has already stopped people from sharing content lined to Australian media. The challenge here is that there is no way to counter fake news with links to actual news. This could lead to some very dangerous situations down the road.

What about you and me?

I’ll talk about myself first. I pay for news and so I will continue to rely on my paid news sites for my news primarily. I hope that people discuss and share more about themselves than propaganda garbed as news with this change. I know that is wishful thinking, i reality I know that all those ugly Whatsapp forwards with doctored images will run amock on social media. What about you? It’s back to square one to be honest. Start paying for news again and don’t be at the mercy of social media sites or aggregators for news. That is the only way to stay sane.

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