Internet News is All Wrong

  By Shamus   Jul 10, 2014   203 comments

Back in July June The Atlantic had an article titled Why Audiences Hate Hard News—and Love Pretending Otherwise. It says what I think a lot of people have been afraid to say: The trashy stuff everyone says they hate is the stuff they’re actually willing to read. The celebrity gossip. Top ten lists. Photo galleries, usually of beautiful people or ugly deeds. Lazy “what new terror is killing our children this week?” type moral panic. Inflammatory quotes, taken out of context, trimmed to their most provocative phrases, and re-arranged into headlines.

We can complain all day about how much this stuff sucks, but it’s what people read. It’s what they share on Facebook. It’s what they comment on. International news about complex geopolitical issues? Not so much. We seem to think we need those stories, but we’re happy let other people do the work of reading and thinking about them. This isn’t just a problem with news. Everyone claims to dislike trash culture like reality TV, Michael Bay movies, and toothless vapid pop music, but that’s what the public consumes. It’s what people will pay for. To a certain extent it’s unfair to blame a news organization if it’s simply reflecting the preferences and habits of the audience. How dare you give me what I want! You should instead make less money by offering up a product I’ll ignore!

It’s like getting mad at McDonalds because people don’t eat their salads. Dude, the salads are there. Eating them is your job.

But I don’t think you can blame the entire problem on the filthy peasantsI’m not a filthy peasant. I just showered.. A big part of the problem is that our news organizations are stuck in 1950. News stories are written like newspaper copy: Intro paragraph, details, background, public reaction, byline. That makes sense in print, but it fails to make use of the strengths of the medium. It would be like introducing TV news to the public by having a static shot of a guy reading the newspaper out loud. And to be fair, early news shows were pretty much that. It took us a while to add things like picture-in-picture of related footage, and a text news crawl at the bottom.

Here is the top story on CNN as of this writing:

news1.jpg

Not one link in the first five paragraphs. Hamas? Gaza? No link to the event that originated this particular rash of violence? Why are these sides fighting? Who shot first? WhyObviously the answer is “it depends on who you ask.” And that’s fine if the story doesn’t tell you. It just needs to acknowledge the question before moving on.? This is a news story written for someone who already has a complete grasp of the situation. Which is a minority of the population. Which explains why almost nobody reads it.

If I was telling you this story in person and you weren’t already up to speed on this stuff, you would stop and ask me these questions. You’d need that context before you could even begin to care about the he said / she said between the various leaders. In an ideal scenario, I should be able to find out about the Six Day War, Yasser Arafat, and the United Nations Partition Plan, all without leaving the news site.

The article does eventually get around to giving the background of the conflict, along with some links. But that doesn’t happen until you’re 500 words in. So if you’re trying to catch up on the news you have to scroll way down the page and read bottom-up? Is that how this is supposed to work?

I don’t think people are nearly as averse to news as they seem to be. What people are averse to is hassle, and reading real news is a hassle compared to reading almost anything else on the web. I say this as someone who forces himself to read international news and is meticulous about avoiding celebrity gossip in all forms. I’m supposedly the target demographic here: A guy who actually wants to know what’s going on. And while I find the subject matter interesting, actually reading about it is a chore.

A while ago I had a good three or four day stretch where I didn’t read any news. I don’t remember why. I was probably coding. When I came out of my accidental news blackout I tried to get caught up. ISIS was fighting in Iraq! I hadn’t heard of ISIS before. I read the top story, and the previous story. Both told me what ISIS was doing without explaining their overarching goals, their leadership, or their area of influence. I’m glad I already knew about the basic breakdown of Iraq into Shias, Sunnis, and ethnic Kurds in the north, because the article didn’t even hint at that. I had to go back to the previous day’s news to find the introductory story and get caught up. And I had to find that article on my own. That’s madness. Reading a major news site is like reading a version of Wikipedia with no cross-links, a terrible search function, a habit of beginning every story in medias res, and a popover ad on every third document. Who has time for that? No wonder people just want to read self-contained, easy-to-digest fluff pieces. Everything else is a research project and a scavenger hunt.

Note how “sticky” Wikipedia is. Same goes for TvTropes. They do for prose what Google Earth does for maps. You can stand way back and look at the big picture, or you can zoom way in and examine a minute detail. The strength of the net is the ability to make small articles that branch out into larger ones, giving the reader freedom to adjust their reading.

You wonder what something is? Click on it! And while you’re reading about that you’ll probably run into something else you didn’t know, or had forgotten. Pretty soon you’ve got a half dozen tabs open, you know a bunch of new stuff, and you forget where the whole adventure began.

You want more clicks on your news site? Make more links to click. Did a story mention Obama? Make his name a link that takes the reader to a 100-word overview and a link to the last 50 news stories that mentioned him. Yes, basically everyone knows who Obama is, but people will click through just to see what it says. And when they get there, they will likely see something else that makes them curious. Click, click, click. There’s the pageviews you’re so hungry for.

Vox is a recent effort to make news more accessible. I applaud this. It’s a huge step in the right direction, although I suggest we could do even better. Rather than a 2,000 word introduction to a topic, the average reader would probably be best served by a 200 word overview that links to 20,000 words of detail. I know this sort of wiki-like structure takes time to build. Which makes it all the more frustrating that large news organizations are spending all their time making dead-end news articles that only offer information to the already-informed.

Yes, french fries will always be more popular than salad at McDonalds. But that doesn’t mean we need to sell salads in heavy, hard-to-open containers. No degree of effort will make reading about ISIS more immediately satisfying than looking at pictures of cats, but we could be doing a lot better than we are now.

NOTE: It should go without saying, but bringing up Obama, Iraq, and Israel does not leave an opening to argue politics. Let’s stick to talking about internet news. And please try to be be patient with each other. The intersection of news and politics is always kind of fuzzy and often results in a lot of proxy debates between partisans. This is natural. But this is also not a great place for that sort of thing.

A Hundred!A Hundred!3203 COMMENTS? What are you people talking about?!?


  1. Shamus says:

    I just noticed that the previous article in this category is “Cat Pictures”. Perfect. I honestly didn’t plan that.

  2. Bropocalypse says:

    This is why I only read BBC news anymore. They only have trashy articles occasionally. But, they still have the old-media problem you describe: No convenience of background information delivery. They DO list related articles at the bottom, which is a baby step in the right direction.

    • Amusingly enough, I’ve noted a exodus of people away from using the BBC amongst my extended friends over lack of detailed coverage there. Want to know what is happening in the Middle East and surrounding regions? AJ English will have twice as many of the events and far more analysis. Care what Labour (US translation: Democrats) are up to? New Statesman or Guardian. Tory (US: GOP)? Spectator or Telegraph. I believe the US has a similar issue with CNN being unwatched (unless you want to hear about the search for a plane, for months) while Fox and MSNBC broadcast to their audience. Impartial is basically impossible to create and the audience brings in their biases that change what they think is impartial presentation anyway. Take an angle, build a base, readers are aware where you stand on the slant you’re presenting.

      As for the wider point above about “this is what you actually want”. I’m not sure how much data there is about that. “This is what we spend a significant percentage of our budget on telling you you want” is generally where culture is. Do female protagonists sell less in games or do games with female protagonists get less of a marketing budget and less polish so of course they don’t sell the CoD numbers? Chicken and eggs make analysis of the large scale data less than useful.

      I’m a big fan of links but I’ve worked places where management/EIC was strongly against any link off the domain as they saw it as “losing audience”. And making the content internally for every item you need to get a primer on: that’s above the abilities of the content team a lot of the time. Right now we’ve got browsers where you select some words in a page and a right-click option brings up the Google or Wikipedia search for that in a new tab. It’s becoming less critical to make sure you link everything people need to understand to read. I’ve got an extension that means Google gives me dictionary pop-ups when I ctrl-select a word. Most of them even have pronunciation guides, with audio. I remember when that was the domain of expensive software for specific learning disabilities. We live in an age of information overload and the typical forum response to “what’s this mean?” of “I’m not here to educate you, look it up”/LMGTFY link.

      • Bropocalypse says:

        I guess there will always be a better source for a more specific type of information.

        Personally I don’t care about British politics because I’m American.

      • Mark says:

        “Impartial is basically impossible to create and the audience brings in their biases that change what they think is impartial presentation anyway. Take an angle, build a base, readers are aware where you stand on the slant you’re presenting.”

        Yes, absolutely. This is actually an enormous problem with old media. If you tune in Fox or MSNBC, you know the bias of what you’re going to get and you can theoretically take it into account (or, well, use it as an excuse to ignore any news you don’t like, but at least it’s out in the open.) If you tune in CNN or read the New York Times, you’re going to get something that claims it’s straight neutral down the middle just the facts ma’am but in reality is just as biased as Fox or MSNBC, because it is written by human beings.

        • This might lean into politics, but, no. Other outlets aren’t just as biased as Fox and MSNBC. Not by a long shot.

          It’s akin to saying that every building will smell of human activity because they all have humans living and working in them, which means that a home belonging to a family of four will smell just as good or bad as the locker room of an ill-maintained gym.

          • Wide And Nerdy says:

            I think you underestimate the present bias in other media but I agree its not as bad in most major outlets as Fox and MSNBC.

            But even taking that into account, I do trust those two a bit more because they’re honest about it.

            Technically, I can trust Slate and Huffpo too because even if they don’t admit their leanings, its still obvious where they stand on things.

            But when I was still paying attention, the only source I knew of that had anything approximating a straight delivery of facts was CSPAN and only when they pointed a camera at something and let you see it for yourself. Even then, there’s the bias of what you choose to point your camera at. Choosing the stories can have just as much influence (thankfully, the internet kind of takes that tool off the table, whatever you think of Drudge, he fought that one effectively.)

            My favorite bias tool just on a personal level is quoting. If you don’t like the person, you transcribe the quote with all the errors and stutters intact (very very few people can manage not to sound stupid in print when transcribed and this is why I’ve never blamed Obama for using the teleprompter as much as he does). If you like the person, you clean up the quote and edit it.

            • syal says:

              Equally, if you like someone you quote “what they say as a whole and complete thought”, and if you don’t like them you quote their individual “words” to make them sound “offensive” while you paraphrase the main “point” they were “making”.

          • Mark says:

            No, it’s like saying every building is going to smell of _something_, whether it’s unwashed gym socks or strong chemical cleaners. A news source doesn’t have to have a stereotypical left-wing or stereotypical right-wing bias to be biased. In the case of outlets like CNN and the NYT it’s a technocratic bias — one that many people in both major American parties share — towards thinking that all problems can be solved by handing power over to a large enough bureaucracy run by the right people.

            • Bropocalypse says:

              I don’t think that anyone sane truly believes that bureaucracy in of itself is a good thing. It is sometimes necessary for due process, however.

              • Mark says:

                Heh, well, speaking of bias that’s _my_ bias showing. :)

                I’ll back up try to describe the technocratic viewpoint in a fairer way: The big problems facing our nation and the world suffer from various versions of the tragedy of the commons, where citizens’/individual nations’ self-interest (or just ignorance) leads them to take actions whose consequences, in aggregate, are negative. If it was left up to democratic decision-making to solve these problems, they by definition wouldn’t get solved. Therefore, smart people who understand these consequences must be given governmental power to make citizens/individual nations do the right thing.

                Since I don’t like technocracy, I’m probably still being subtly sarcastic or unfair without even realizing it, of course. Like I said, bias is human and universal. But that aside, given this point of view it’s not hard to predict what the New York Times’s editorial position or news slant is on most topics.

        • Zak McKracken says:

          On “bias” in media: There’s just plain old bias and being limited to certain perspectives on a topic, and there’s knowingly falsifying facts*.

          If I read news I want to see that the author makes at least an effort to hear the other side, doesn’t call people names and maybe occasionally actively tries to make a counterpoint to their own opinion. That last bit is actually pretty cool if it happens.
          Any news source I know has some bias, and it can often be noticed and accounted for, as long as I know I’m getting the honest impression of someone who at least tried to understand the stuff rather than just taking the superficial strory and painting it in whatever colour the target demographic expects it.

          I think this is where Fox in the US, the Daily Mail (and Sun, and the whole tabloid bunch)in the UK, Bild in Germany fail utterly. Do not read them. There are serious sources of diverse political convictions.

          * AKA lying. the Daily mail has been found guilty of more lies than the rest of the tabloid scene combined. They don’t care.

          • Deoxy says:

            I don’t watch any news TV on a regular basis, as the little tidbits I do watch are always horrendously bad, but I will say that, at least when Fox started (goodness, 15-20 years ago now), they were the only station that actually had both viewpoints represented. From what I can tell, that seems to have mostly slipped by the wayside, and now they are nearly as one-sided (just in the other direction) as the other big players are (CNN, MSNBC, etc).

          • Zak McKracken says:

            In an effort to take some of my own bias out of that post: My impressions of Fox news are the bits that get posted on youtube or elsewhere to demonstrate how awful they are. In between doing these things they may actually be doing a decent job, and I wouldn’t know.

            That said: They have repeatedly broadcast lies, and even fought (and won!) a court case to allow them to keep doing so: http://foxnewsboycott.com/resources/fox-can-lie-lawsuit/
            (I just dug that site out, wouldn’t trust them too much, but the quotes look legit and match what I remember of the story)

            The Daily Mail operates on a similar basis, and so does Bild. Other outlets have distorted views and limited perspectives and whatnot, but that’s a different thing from just making stuff up, in order to serve your audience the version of reality that they want to see.

        • Mistwraithe says:

          You seem to be saying that, because all statements made by humans are biased, it doesn’t matter who’s statements you listen to. I strongly disagree with that. It is much, much better to read a news source which is at least making an attempt to be impartial (but inadvertently has a bias) than to read a deliberately biased news source which will also have inadvertent bias away from the deliberate bias.

          Unless you saying that one should read both Fox and MSNBC and then average the results? In which case I can see some merit to that, but you would also want to read a few impartial sources because the truth isn’t necessarily at the midpoint between two linear extremes, it could be in a different direction completely.

          • Deoxy says:

            Unless you saying that one should read both Fox and MSNBC and then average the results? In which case I can see some merit to that, but you would also want to read a few impartial sources because the truth isn’t necessarily at the midpoint between two linear extremes, it could be in a different direction completely.

            Groups acting in bad faith take advantage of this basic, “meet in the middle” tendency people have by deliberately staking out positions RIDICULOUSLY far to one side.

            “You owe my 50 TRILLION dollars!”
            “No, I owe you 5 dollars.”
            “OK, well, since we disagree, let’s just meet in the middle, eh?”

            Heh, yeah.

          • Fox and MSNBC are not on opposite sides of an ideological spectrum in any case. In a field of width 10 feet representing such a spectrum (and ignoring various ideological charting systems with more dimensions), they’d be around six inches apart, two feet from the rightward end. It’s just that the “commented-on” spectrum of US politics is very very narrow, so they seem far apart.

      • Alan says:

        The facade of being impartial leads to several awful things. We get idiotic witch hunts against reporters for the audacious crime of admitting to having opinions. We also get attempt to the impartial by giving equal weight to positions which don’t have equal evidence. If the Robots First Party says that 2+2=4 and the People Are People Too Partys say 2+2=5, you don’t report the controversy; you report that 2+2=4 and that the People Are People Too are wrong in this.

        There is value in trying to minimize the bias in reporting; trying to figure out biases and eliminate then will help one get closer to the truth. But we’ve got it backward: we fight against the appearance of bias, but go wild as long as you’re discreet about it.

        I want facts. Where certainty isn’t available I want the best answers given available research, with notes on other answers with non-trivial levels of research support. Mainstream news are depressingly bad at this.

        • Deoxy says:

          I want facts. Where certainty isn’t available I want the best answers given available research, with notes on other answers with non-trivial levels of research support. Mainstream news are depressingly bad at this.

          No, they are ACTIVELY, intentionally bad at this – they simply claim certainty on the stuff that they want people to believe, with notes on how awful and stupid anyone is whose claims otherwise are too loud to just completely ignore.

        • Joe Cool says:

          I want facts….

          Aye, but there’s the rub, i’n’it? Outside of the world of Mathematics, and particularly in anything of a political or controversial nature, raw, objective facts can be nigh-impossible to ascertain.

          The most eye-opening article I ever saw on this was about the Ladder of Inference. The Ladder goes like such:
          1. I observe objectively – Observation by itself is not a biased activity. When I observe I see what happens, hear what was said, or experience a situation – no more and no less. This would be what a camcorder “sees” or an audio recorder “hears.”

          2. I select data from what I observe – Here is where the filtering begins. I create assumptions about which parts of the observed event are important. This assumption about importance is based on how the things that have been observed affect me, or fit into my cultural experience.

          3. I add meaning to what I have selected – At this point, I imply meaning using the norms of my culture, or experience. Heinlein notwithstanding, no fact is self-explaining. It only “makes sense” within a context.

          4. I make assumptions based on the meaning I have added – This process begins to fill in gaps in knowledge. Where I don’t know something about the event, I naturally assume that the motivations, behaviors, wants, desires, likes and dislikes should match my own. These assumptions take the guesswork out of understanding the situation.

          5. I draw conclusions, which prompt feelings – Now that I understand the situation, and have filled in the gaps with assumptions, I can draw conclusions about why the person is behaving that way. And, of course, I immediately begin to have feelings about these conclusions.

          6. I adopt beliefs about the world – Based on my conclusions, I can now see that there are things within the world that are out of alignment (or in the case of a positive conclusion, in alignment). I am having either negative or positive feelings about the situation. And, at this point, I believe some form of action, whether it is a physical act, spoken words, or other behavior on my part, is necessary.

          7. I take action based on my beliefs and feelings – I now fully understand (or believe I understand) the entire situation and take the necessary action. This is often an emotional, rather than a rational response.

          Now, there is a feedback loop from #6 to #2. My beliefs about the world influence what data I think is important. So asking for “just the facts, ma’am,” already includes the reporter’s bias about what facts are deemed important.

          So, tl;dr, the facts we infer depend on our a priori assumptions. This is why two people can look at the same evidence and come to vastly different conclusions. It also explains 99.999% of disagreements on the internet. And it explains why everyone thinks the “other guys” are ignorant and/or evil.

      • ACman says:

        Want some hipsters doing incongurously good, hard investigative journalism: Go to Vice…..

        Wait a minute…. When did Vice stop being a forum for snarky takedowns of the stupider shit hipsters wore? What do you mean they have correspondants in Gaza/Ukraine/Syria?

      • Peter H. Coffin says:

        Concur. AJ-America is pretty much my go-to for news these days.

        I think my issue is BBC is willing to go to ridiculous lengths to provide “balance”, even for things of a mostly factual nature. A straight piece about (for example) some scientist refining the rate at which the Earth spinning is slowing down with get “balanced” by someone saying that the Earth will speed up again when the universe starts contracting, and someone else saying that the world will end soon anyway because we’ve exhausted the Mayan calendar.

    • The background information problem could be solved with a kind of hyperlinking system (perhaps when TV and computers become even more integrated, we’ll have that), but the question for articles and TV spots is, as always, “How deep do you go?” Pick any conflict area in the world, especially the Middle East, and you’ll find someone who says a given article doesn’t go back far enough into the history of what’s happening for people to truly understand what’s going on.

      For a nerd-translation: If you’re doing an article about the release of D&D 5e, how many previous versions should be included in your background reporting, and what details about each should be there? Now defend that position on a forum somewhere. :)

      The other problem is this “bias” thing so many people are quick to jump on. The Hostile Media Effect is just one factor, but it seems to be one that crops up a lot.

      Another factor I see a lot is one I can’t recall the name for, but it boils down to “the more you know and/or care about a topic, the more you’re likely to perceive bias.” This happens a LOT in various internet topics, from politics to video games. How many times have we seen someone criticize a game “we” liked and not mention (or intentionally omit because they’re shills!) details that any NON-biased observer would have included to explain, if not lessen, the importance of their negative opinion?

      What? You didn’t like the Wreav the Krogan in Mass Effect 3? Well, if you’d bothered to PLAY ME2, you wouldn’t have let Wrex DIE, would you?! Or you would have, just so you could dump on the best game ever, wouldn’t you?!

      …or something like that. It’s like how criticism of an OS, voicing dislike for an established franchise, or favoring a picante sauce made in New York City is often greeted with hostility by those who have made such topics their chosen passions.

    • Primogenitor says:

      BBC Sport is even better. In the background, everything is driven by RDF data source. That end result is that when a story about a sporting event comes up (say, a recent football match, or the Commonwealth Games) the website automatically links to previous results, top players, last match, world records, etc. The stories go into the right categories, even when they cross boundaries. Summary stat pages are created and updated automatically. And all this without anyone having to write any words.

    • Zekiel says:

      This is why I *don’t* read BBC News anymore – because they do exactly what Shamus rightly bemoans here. I read the news once every few days. At which point most of the stories are developments of previous stories (which probably don’t add much to the original but hey, we have to update the site regularly so in they go). And inevitably its a bitch trying to find the original story. They are better than they could be – they do have a selection of links at the bottom of the article – but it still too hard to find a neat summary of what is going on.

      This is not the case with TV news – if you only have one major news programme per day (on your channel) then you presumably make sure that all the news stories are relatively self contained and don’t rely on you having watched the same programme the day before last to have a clue what they are talking about.

  3. Joe Informatico says:

    Whenever a meme predicated on “people today are more/less X than they used to be” goes around, my first inclination is wonder exactly how true that is. So, is the news-reading/watching public actually less interested in policy and international affairs than they used to be? Or is it that Western news media used to have a handful of available channels delivered by a caste of professionals who steered the news in particular directions, and nowaways people have all sorts of alternatives open to them?

    I mean, the news media have covered professional sports with far more intensity and breadth for decades, and pro sports are no more “hard news” than celebrity gossip or internet top 10 lists. But it’s only recently that the latter has become visible and successful that there’s a backlash against “soft news”.

    I should note I have nothing against professional sports. I’m indifferent to most of them (though I have been caught up in World Cup fever), but it doesn’t bother me that huge segments of our society are invested in it and derive entertainment from it. It’s just a part of the larger culture I’m mostly uninterested in. But it irritates me at how other diversions like celebrity gossip, romance novels, geek culture, and so on still get stigmatized by the larger mainstream culture while pro sports, which is just as much a fluffy entertaining distraction as the rest of them, gets a pass.

    • Sports and the things you mention can be easily sponsored, and sponsors are eager to put their money behind those segments because they’re (1) heavily watched and (2) not full of negative associations (even if your sports team loses, sports is still something you like. Wars? Not so much).

    • Deoxy says:

      There is at least some level of “hard” news with sports – there are hard rules, which lead to actual hard outcomes (facts) which can be reported on.

      Yes, there certainly seems to be WAY too much “celebrity” style reporting (which sports star is daring which cheerleader or model, or whatever), but that’s true of just about everything involving people these days.

      Note that I’m not a sports fan AT ALL, but I can still see a definite difference. Think box office returns for Hollywood – if those kinds of facts were a larger part of what was being reported about Hollywood stuff, then I think fewer people would complain about that stuff.

  4. Spluckor says:

    I must thank you for introducing me to this Vox site. I’m now gonna get lost down a deep dark hole in this site. Just like with Team Coco on youtube and TvTropes.

  5. hborrgg says:

    Whenever I look at news I tend to go straight to the editorials.

  6. Josef says:

    All this talk of ISIS and not a single Archer reference?

    • Shamus says:

      I know! The first time I saw a headline about ISIS fighting I did a double-take. It’s like having a senator actually named Palpatine.

      • Alan says:

        I’ve been thinking what to name our child and what sort of career aspirations to encourage…

      • Steve C says:

        I hope the next season of Archer acknowledges it then lampshades it making some trademark infringement plot points. Hunting terrorists for stealing their name and throw in killing people over some bootleg Cherlene CDs and that’s good times.

    • swenson says:

      It was really, really confusing for me, when I walked by the TV playing at work and heard them mentioning ISIS attacking this or that in Iraq… it was a very disorienting moment!

    • el_b says:

      still waiting for them to accidentally put the archer Isis logo in the background while doing a story on it like when they were doing a story on Seal team six and used a Star Trek one.

    • The Rocketeer says:

      To me, ISIS sounds like a faction from Ace Combat’s Strangereal. As if any week now, we’re going to hear about ISIS’ rail cannon turning the tide of conflict and only ONE SQUADRON has a chance of stopping it, probably by flying through a tunnel.

  7. Mersadeon says:

    I think traditional newspapers will never adjust. The traditional papers will die, and the generation after that will finally get internet journalism right.

    Because right now, if you go into a typical [insert city] Herald or a [insert another city] Times, you will see the old media struggling – not to survive, but to stay the same. Old men making decisions based on tradition and a supposed “dignity”, delegating the younger journalists to do it the old way. There is way too much pride in those halls, and I think it will bleed them out eventually.

  8. Duoae says:

    Wow… You know, this is a great diagnosis. The thoughts have simmered under my consciousness for a while but you brought it into crystal clear clarity for me. I agree. News sites should be like Wikipedia.

    Why they’re not? Well, having worked for a regional news paper I can tell you that it’s probably because even though “print is dying” online content is treated as a golden goose being squeezed by the banker. There’s no real thought into crafting a user experience… nor, to be honest, is there the expertise, pay scale, staffing or editorialising required to do it.

    I can’t say this is true for every formerly print-focused publication but the one I worked for, whilst not a “which 10 cats look like hitler” outlet, did not understand the online world or the psychology of the readership. They wanted the views and they focused, like everyone else it seems, on the psychology of the rubber-necker; the drive to witness an accident.

    • Alan says:

      I worry many news sources are unknowingly cutting their own throats. They cut reporting and focus on fluffy, easy to produce stuff that generates hits. But that’s the exact sort of work that it’s easy to compete in and hard to differentiate. So eventually they’ll lose out to companies willing to accept increasingly small profits by outsourcing work, leaving the news sources with nothing.

      Personally, I’m not optimistic. I suspect more state-sponsored news sources may be the only solution. Sadly I’m not sure US politics would support a BBC or Al Jazeera like independent entity; what we have now (NPR/PBS) is already vilified by about half of the country.

      • Mark says:

        “I worry many news sources are unknowingly cutting their own throats. They cut reporting and focus on fluffy, easy to produce stuff that generates hits. But that’s the exact sort of work that it’s easy to compete in and hard to differentiate. So eventually they’ll lose out to companies willing to accept increasingly small profits by outsourcing work, leaving the news sources with nothing.”

        Well put. That’s exactly what we see happening, as news outlets race to the bottom with clickbait, political screeds, and repackaged press releases. What they don’t realize is that clickbait can be produced by interns for pennies and fanatics already churn out political screeds for free. The only area existing news outlets can compete is in actual reporting, and they’ve basically abandoned that.

        “Personally, I’m not optimistic. I suspect more state-sponsored news sources may be the only solution. Sadly I’m not sure US politics would support a BBC or Al Jazeera like independent entity; what we have now (NPR/PBS) is already vilified by about half of the country.”

        I’m not sure how you can claim that BBC, Al Jazeera, or NPR play it straight down the middle either; they have their own institutional biases which, by an amazing coincidence, line up perfectly with those of their respective countries’ political classes. Having a particular partisan viewpoint subsidized by the government to the exclusion of others is guaranteed to rile up a lot of people, and rightly so — in a democracy the government should not be putting its thumb on the scale like that.

        It would be great if it was possible to subsidize the excellent in-depth reporting that NPR frequently does without it having an ingrained political bias from its government sponsors, but I just don’t see how that’s possible.

        • Brandon says:

          Actually, NPR is an independent non-profit and is not run by or affiliated with the US government. A not-insignificant chunk of NPR’s funding(not nearly as much as most people think: see here for more details) comes from the government, but most comes from private sources. Any bias inherent in NPR, or PBS for that matter, news coverage is not due to government influence.

          And they have had some really fantastic pieces on the ISIS conflict in Iraq that actually covers what ISIS is and what on earth is going on IN CONTEXT OMG!

          • Mark says:

            “Actually, NPR is an independent non-profit and is not run by or affiliated with the US government.”

            If the US government is funding it, then it is beholden to the US government — or, to be more accurate, the United States’s political class — precisely like any other government-subsidized corporation, and is going to cooperate with those who hold the purse strings, precisely like any other government-subsidized corporation.

            • Ciennas says:

              … Wouldn’t that be the rules that bind EVERY corporation? Continue to make money, and try not to pee on your investors in the process of gathering that money.

              Besides, the government should have a chance to fund the news orgs. they’re a valid data point, when they aren’t being creepy controlling PR-spinning jerks like the rest. If you have enough people supporting the neutral option, then it could balance out.

              I dunno, for every dollar the US government puts in… I dunno… some group is the inverse if the US government could also put in a dollar.

            • It’s a problem. But it’s not a problem unique to the public sector. It’s worse in the private sector–those outfits aren’t “beholden to”, they actually are corporations, and there is definitely a political/economic world view that goes with being a corporation. Higher corporate taxes, for instance, are unlikely to be a priority. Or regulation (financial, safety, environmental, whatever). Or trade barriers. Or trade unions. Or labor rights more generally. Or . . . you get the idea.
              Are the biases of a political class more or less pernicious than those of a corporate elite class (leaving aside that in the US, the two are largely the same)?

  9. wumpus says:

    Agreed, this is very perceptive and potentially useful analysis that should be in front of Someone Who Matters’ eyes.

    I’ve thought similar things – I particularly wish that they’d put maps into these articles – but have never written it up. Thanks for saving me the effort, Shamus.

  10. Dragomok says:

    I found a typo: in the first sentence “Back in July” should be replaced with “Back in June”.

  11. StashAugustine says:

    Are we allowed to bring up the map of ISIS’s territorial demands that they mocked up in Victoria II? That’s video game related, right? :)

  12. Dragomok says:

    When a saw the link to TVTropes, I immediately started to hope it would lead to “TV Tropes Will Ruin Your Life”.
    I was not disappointed.

  13. The Snide Sniper says:

    There’s also a problem with how the information is presented. In those 2000-word articles, the most important information is often at the bottom of the article, presented as a minor detail.

    “African-american man kills caucasian woman”? The article will be 2000 words about race before it briefly mentions that she jumped off an overpass and landed immediately in front of his car.

    It’s gotten to the point that reading comments from random people on the internet is more effective than reading the article itself. They also have a better tendency to post relevant links.

    • Deoxy says:

      And if that story was exactly reversed, you’d get “2000 words about race before it briefly mentions…”, but the difference would be in the tone (your story would be how we all need to understand each other, blah blah blah, while this story would be about all the institutional racism white people inflict on black people).

      You can tell what actually happened by the tone long before they tell you the actual facts.

      • The Snide Sniper says:

        What happened in the example was “person commits suicide”.

        My point was that many news articles place emphasis on speculation, while facts are hidden or de-emphasized if they’re there at all.

        I can see why they do it. It’s covering events that many would consider “hard news”, but doing it with an easily-digestible fluff piece.

  14. Chamomile says:

    You know what website has Wikipedia-style links to articles on topics you might not familiar with? Wikipedia. Seriously, that’s my news-flow. I wait until a news story gathers enough critical mass to be popular on my twitter feed or the off-topic sections of forums I frequent or whatever, and then I look things up on Wikipedia. It’s kept pretty up-to-date and links are usually abundant, plus each article will usually start with an overview of the entire event in the opening paragraphs and then have an event-by-event breakdown of everything that’s happened since the situation began, sometimes stretching back years.

    • swenson says:

      Yeah, if I hear snippets here and there about a story and am having difficulty pulling it all together, I go straight to Wikipedia. Sure, especially for highly-political recent events, there’s going to be wild editing and lots of bias, but that’s why you also give the talk page a skim for what the most controversial bits are.

      • Chamomile says:

        This is actually another advantage Wikipedia has over news sites. In both cases there’s bias, but in Wikipedia you can step inside the news room and hear all the reporters and editors bicker over things, which gives you a clear idea of what the bias is.

    • Peter H. Coffin says:

      For that matter, the main page has that nice “In the news” sidebar. Don’t even have to wait for Facebook to get your fix…

    • Corpital says:

      Yes, yes, YES. The website of a local newspaper in my region is quite well maintained, but there are usually at best two links to previous articles on the subject and that’s it. No sources, nothing. Well at best something akin to “Source: Reuters”. It’s ridiculous compared to the dozen(s) links on Wikipedia with everything that was relevant to the writing of the article one click away.

  15. Grey Cap says:

    I read a swedish newspaper’s site daily (it’s DN.se for swedish-speaking reference) which has the article without any links, but a sidebar contains the titles of all their recent coverage of the issue at hand. Which I guess is about halfway to your ideal news format. That can be quite handy when I need to catch up on a story.

    I also sometimes open a new tab and look something up on wikipedia, though. Which seems entirely convenient to me?

  16. This is very tangential, but McDonalds salads are actually not much healthier than the burgers. They’re still bad for you.

    • Jamas Enright says:

      Yeah, I’ve had McD salads… and they are rather sad affairs. Wilted lettuce that has probably been there for days and other vegetables that are only healthier because they have a better shelf life…

      KFC is the same.

  17. Dev Null says:

    One. Sentence. Paragraphs. Must. Die.

    That CNN story you link is a classic example. It’s as if they’ve completely forgotten how to link two connected ideas together, so every story becomes a bullet-list of semi-related factoids. Drives me up the wall.

    • rayen says:

      As a journalist (sorta) this annoys the hell out of me. It’s actually because For some goddawful reason instead of going from printed media -> internet media, TV broadcasters will go Print -> TV -> Internet so everything get boiled down for what their anchors are going to say. It’s very annoying and must stop. That snippet should be two paragraphs. Three at most.

  18. I must take some issue with the idea that “A big part of the problem is that our news organizations are stuck in 1950.” It’d be great if they were, or at least, if their practices and funding were.

    Back then, news was seen more as a public service and something that made your TV/Radio network awesome. It was prestigious to have a crack newsroom with (gasp!) international bureaus, and it was seen as a must-have for any broadcasting company. There was a really good reason for this: The networks actually feared they’d lose their hold on the public airwaves for airing “trash” like sitcoms, game shows, and other things we now think of as classic TV. They kept the news reporting bar pretty high so if there ever was a groundswell of angry petitioners who wanted their licenses revoked, they could point to their news broadcasts as a public good outweighed by “scandalous” comedy shows or other light entertainment.

    Another factor is sponsorship. A friend of our family used to work in Washington DC TV News (I believe he won an Emmy for his work), and he described how news is funded these days: Sponsors give their ad dollars to the various segments of the local nightly news. It shouldn’t take too much figuring out to guess that the weather, sports, and fluff pieces will be the most heavily sponsored parts of the news. Nobody wants their product to be associated with things that are boring, bloody, rancorous, or in any way negative, which hard news often is. Seeing this, it’s no wonder that the happier side of Channel Whatever’s Action News is gets more commercial support.

    This also leads to cutbacks on how many people are reporting/investigating the news, and we get things like press releases disguised as news reports being dropped in because they save time and might even net some cash from the outfit releasing it. It’s all a bit of a death spiral for non-cable TV news, where the best they can hope for is capturing a viral clip of something happening that drives traffic to their site.

    • Jonathan says:

      Another problem is the breadth of topics covered, mixed with a lack of adequate staff sizes (compared to 50 years ago), and lack of real education on the part of the reporters.

      Relevant, recent link:

      Edit: Swordsage’d by the thread just below this comment. Federalist link.

    • Peter H. Coffin says:

      Much of that is wrapped up in the concept that at least for broadcast media, the media organizations were being allowed to use a public resource (the broadcast spectrum segment) that they were using and didn’t own. And if they weren’t sufficiently correct, complete, and timely, the permission to use that public resource could be (and occasionally was) taken away. If you’re a television network and you don’t have stations anymore, you’re done. These days, with the near infinite-seeming capacity of cable/sat/fiber/whatever video broadcast and the much-closer-to-infinite capacity of web-based “news” outlets, the only possible cause of demise is charging more for content than the market will bear.

  19. Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

    Years ago I worked for a city government. We had a new beat reporter from the local paper. I applaud the existence of a beat reporter. Within the first 15 minutes, we discovered that this beat reporter knew nothing about how government works in general, let alone local government, let alone our particular local government.

    The reporter was curious and asked a lot of questions, but didn’t even know enough to know what questions to ask. For any individual question, the city manager and Public Information Officer would have to spend 20 minutes explaining the background. In theory, the reporter would eventually have learned enough to keep up. In practice, the beat rotated about every 6 months and we were back to doing it again. City Manager’s explicit policy was that you should always explain what the city is doing to someone who asks a question, because the odds are good they don’t know anything.

    Over the years, I have encountered maybe a dozen additional reporters. They have largely been like the first one. Many have had the sense to ask background questions, or at least listen to the background. A disturbingly large number don’t.

    You ask why the reporters don’t mention the Six Day War. I’d give decent odds it’s because they don’t know it happened, or if they have “Six Day War” filed in their mind, they don’t have its significance. Yasser Arafat has been dead for a decade -anyone who began reporting in the last 6 years hasn’t heard of him. The Partition Plan was in 1947. Everyone always thinks the “Two State Solution” is some new and obvious solution that no one has ever tried -though some of the old hands may believe it dated to the mid-90s Oslo Accords. Assuming anyone remembers those.

    TVTropes has a page on this, and many of their examples ought to be marked as self-demonstrating, as the commenters don’t know what they’re talking about, either.

    And at the risk of injecting politics into the discussion -Vox won’t help much, and may make it worse, because Exhibit A in the “Journalists who don’t know what they’re talking about” category is none other than Matt Yglesias. My personal favorite is Kevin Drum pointing out that Yglesias knows nothing about the early Mac v. PC computer wars of the 1980s and 1990s. What makes it classic is that Yglesias came back for more.

    Our journalism is bad because our journalists don’t know anything -which I personally blame on the existence of journalism schools. Journalism is one of the few disciplines where a liberal arts degree is indisputably helpful. Turning it into a professional program was a mistake. Without that broad backing, intended to help people make sense of the world as a whole, journalists are dependent on their memories, which don’t go back that far, or institutional memory -which is hard do to because of the ease with which journalists move (any professional today), and the over-reliance on the Internet for research.

    • Kathryn says:

      Yep, I was going to link that Federalist article myself. I actually love the concept of Vox, but their success is going to be very limited by the personalities involved. (My personal favorite is that Yglesias didn’t understand why Rome and the Vatican have separate embassies. OMG)

      Michael Crichton, as I’m sure you’re all aware, wrote about the Gell-Mann amnesia effect – read an article in the paper on a topic with which you’re familiar and be astounded by how astonishingly ignorant the article is, to the point of reversing cause and effect. (In my case, I have read news articles written about hardware I worked on that got the basic facts so wrong that we spent an afternoon debating whether they were actually writing about our project. [They were.]) Then you turn the page and read an article on a topic you’re not as familiar with and…you believe it? Guess what, it’s just as wrong.

      I don’t know how to fix this problem, but one big step forward would be for news organizations to preferentially hire reporters who have relevant work experience and/or education (preferably the former) in the field they are covering.

      • Peter H. Coffin says:

        Ignorant articles about subjects one is familiar with is something Wikipedia struggles with daily. The essential problem there is that subject matter experts are all but prohibited from contributing to articles in their fields due to lack of citation. If a field has an obvious question, the people that are researching the answer to the question CANNOT answer it until their work is published in a citable form in a public form and even once that’s done, it’s difficult to get anyone to trust a summary that the expert has written.

        Wikipedia is absolutely insane sometimes.

        • Neil W says:

          A large part of the insanity of Wikipedia is the general insanity of encyclopedias. An encyclopedia is a tertiary source of information, giving an overview of a field of knowledge based on the secondary sources (books and articles about a topic). You get someone to write an article on, say, newspapers. They’re heavy on the theory (perhaps a journalism professor). Then you get it reviewed by someone who has been in the industry for 25 years, who makes changes. They disagree, and the editor (not a newspaper person) has to adjudicate. How? Based on the evidence, cited work.

          The cited work is going to be (at least) a couple of years out of date. By the time the encyclopedia gets published we’re at least three or four years, and it’s going to be ten years before anyone reviews the article.

          Wikipedia like all encyclopedias is less about the truth, and more about the informed concensus on a topic. New evidence is just new evidence until people (in the field) have had time to think about it, write about it, discuss it and come to an agreement of what it means. This is of course crazy, but if you ignore the published work, then you’re no longer an encyclopedia.

        • Deoxy says:

          I came to this conclusion on my own years ago, though I never was able to put it into words so well as some certain famous people. It’s why I never read newspapers.

    • Victor says:

      I have to say that was a particularly interesting and eye-opening post, particularly for me, as I was not aware that this is a problem (or a problem to this extent). Having seen some examples, it becomes much less of a surprise that news reporting may “have some problems”.

  20. Daemian Lucifer says:

    ” Everyone claims to dislike trash culture like reality TV, Michael Bay movies, and toothless vapid pop music, but that’s what the public consumes.”

    This sentence is what I had the problem with in the article you link in the beginning.Its simply not true,neither here,nor in that article.Everyone doesnt claim to dislike trash culture,only the few do that,and those few probably actually do.The two (the minority that hates it and the majority that likes it) rarely intersect.This is especially glaring in that article where it mentions thousands around the world that care for “good news”,and millions in the USA alone that click on the “trash news”.Nowhere in there does it mention why they think those in the first group are part of the second group(which they probably arent).

    • Eathanu says:

      This. I fucking hate it when people say “x group says they hate y, but look how many of them only do y!” Except that it’s not x group doing y, it’s z group, and x group has nothing but contempt for z group.

    • Shamus says:

      Think of it from the point of view of the people running the news sites. The complaints they get are about how “trashy” their coverage is, but that’s what the audience reads. It’s not like the people who want trashy fluff complain about having too much real news news to wade through.

      So you could edit it to say: ” Everyone [who expresses a preference] says they hate trash but [nearly] everyone reads trash.”

      So yes, they’re being overly reductive, but I find it kind of understandable. (Especially since I made the same sort of generalizations myself sometimes.)

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        “So you could edit it to say: ” Everyone [who expresses a preference] says they hate trash but [nearly] everyone reads trash.””

        Or,use the well known thought of “you cant please everyone”.So you can have stuff that appeals to the majority with short attention span and no interest in “good stuff”,or stuff that appeals to the majority that wants to know about “good stuff”.Its just simple math then to see who will make you more money.Which is a reason for government sponsored news organizations(you can eliminate making money from the equation then).

        Your proposal would only somewhat negate the problem,but majority will still go for the fluff as long as they have the option to choose(and why wouldnt they have the option).

        Other ways of improving the issue include humorous writing(Ill be the first to admit that the daily show has peaked my interest for american politics way more than anything else)and charismatic reporters.But again,these can be used just as effectively to address fluff,which still would appeal to the majority.

        • Thearpox says:

          I have to completely second this. Any trick to improve one’s interest in “real” news can just as well be used for anything else, with proportional results.

          The only way to truly make many people read news, it to make it important. Floods, wars, overpopulation; choose your poison.

          • Pigmess says:

            Sorry, but I have to disagree. I think Shamus is on to something here.

            Just imagine how many more of us would be better informed about worldwide current events if news sites had TV-tropes-level power to engross us.

            Does it matter how it’s done (whether we use a trick) if more of us are further educating ourselves on current events?

            EDIT: On first read, I seem to have missed your point. You weren’t saying “it won’t work”, you were saying “it won’t work for most people”. I think this is something we can’t assume without trying it out, but you might be right.

            I still think there are a lot of us who would be more likely to read more “non-fluff” if it were more accessible in this way. You might think that the work a news site would have to put in for this (possibly) relatively small increase wouldn’t be worth it, but it could potentially be used to increase readership across the board – trash included.

          • I’m not sure this is strictly true. The thing about many “fluff” pieces is that there just isn’t much to link to–there really is little depth behind the story itself.

        • Peter H. Coffin says:

          OTOH, the people willing to invest the time and attention to read a substantive, enlightening article are a subset of the people willing to read a trashy (insubstantial, possibly factually wrong as a result of improper simplification, etc) article, so there’s precisely zero incentive to do better. It won’t get more readers, it won’t increase ad views, so why bother doing the work?

          • You’ve also hit the nail on the head for most Cable News opinion shows where a host and/or a panel of one or more guests yell at each other or yell about something. There’s little to no need for research or to even expect to fill the entire hour or half-hour with actual facts or information so long as the argument and passion are something the audience likes.

            It’s the difference between an article about the roots of gang violence and watching two gang members thrash each other.

    • Tizzy says:

      The original article rubbed me the wrong way (unlike Shamus’s post which is full of insights and interesting suggestions, though the natural inertia of news orgs mean that these natural changes may still take a while.)

      One thing that really ticked me off was the cheap dig at Al Jazeera and he size of its American audience. I had to pay extra and get a much bigger cable bundle just so that I could get AJ. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News are part of the most basic of cable plans, and have been part of the cable landscape for ever. How is the comparison even remotely fair?

      Sigh…

      • Felblood says:

        I believe he is referring to the relative ease of getting access to AJ or the BBC in the same country where they are subsidized, and the potential for their viewpoints to dominate in those countries.

        • Tizzy says:

          You may have missed my point. When I say “original article”, I refer to the Atlantic article. Here is the incriminated passage: it is purely US-centric, only concerned about AJAM, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News. Except it’s comparing apples and oranges.


          Audiences are liars, and the media organizations who listen to them without measuring them are dupes. At the Aspen Ideas Festival last year, Ehab Al Shihabi, executive director of international operations for Al Jazeera America, shared survey data suggesting that 40 to 50 million people were desperate for in-depth and original TV journalism. Nine months later, it averaged 10,000 viewers per hour—1.08 percent of Fox News’ audience and 3.7 percent of CNN. AJAM, built for an audience of vegetarians, is stuck with a broccoli stand in a candy shop.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      That pretty much nails it.
      All critics are (justifiedly) dumping on Michael Bay, but the guy just goes on drawing the crowds. Not the same people, but those who don’t really have an opinion or read movie criticism before deciding what to watch. Those who don’t pay too much attention because they don’t go to the cinema for enlightenment, but to give their brain a rest from whatever it is they’re doing the rest of the day.

      In the same way, I do indeed find it hard to listen or read news that I don’t like, or political commentaries that I don’t agree with. I do a certain amount of that per week, but after a while I become so pessimistic I just need something lighter. Not celebrity gossip, though. I don’t know those people and it makes me even more depressed. Maybe a Vi Hart video on how to squeeeze toothpaste correctly :)

      • Felblood says:

        I actually have to disagree on the Michael Bay thing.

        There are a lot of groups of people who hate Bay, for a variety of reasons, and some of them are less justified than others.

        People who hate his “overuse” of color-correction, are generally hardcore film enthusiasts who are immune to the effect he using. Specifically, when you over-saturate and over-contrast your color palette, it gives the entire film a pervasive sense of cartoonish unreality, which it makes it easier for the brain to accept (relatively) low-budget CGI characters in the same shot as live-action actors. It’s basically a backdoor on the whole uncanny valley effect.

        People who hate him for using his box-office clout to get away with acting like a modern D. W. Griffith, are a bit more justified. Seriously, I think the entire Bay Transformers series is partly a sick joke on his part. The punchline is that he can put the most insane, offensive nonsense on the screen he can think of, and so long as he bookends it with scenes featuring explosions, Hollywood will not only fund him, but will throw enough hype money at it to ensure the majority of moviegoers turn up on opening weekend, to see whatever racist characture or dog sex-scene he has decided to insert into the latest installment. The part I’m unsure of is whether he is laughing at us for buying into the Hollywood hype machine, or Hollywood for buying into it’s own hype machine.

        • Zak McKracken says:

          The main reason I hate his stuff is that I learned who Michael Bay is by not contradicting firends who wanted to go see Transformers 2, without having seen the first one. “oh yeah, might be fun”.

          The movie is an insult to everyone who tries to think while watching it. Interestingly, most of my friends agreed we should have turned it into a drinking game, and knowing these people, that is a very strong statement.

          To think I paid money for this!

          If it makes you feel better, substitute “all critics” in my post above with “people who have even the faintest expectation of a movie making sense”.
          The blue-orange thing is actually done by many, and it may be annoying, but if that’s the only thing to you can find wrong with Michael Bay movies, you missed something, and the sick allusions in his movies … honsetly, I stopped paying attention after a very short time. Matter of self-protection. So I wouldn’t know about that.

          • Felblood says:

            Maybe that’s the secret!

            People don’t notice that the plots of these films don’t fit together into a meaningful whole, because their brains have already been switched-off/stunned by the horribly offensive nonsense that pads out the first act.

            This man is an evil, evil genius.

  21. Thearpox says:

    Hyperlinks have been scientifically proven to reduce the audience and its attention spans as people click on the hyperlink and forget about the main article. (My source is for this is the book: The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains.) My position on the issue is that if you can present the information without sending your audience away, it results in a better flow and structure. Links are beneficial when something can’t be summarized (like a Youtube video,) or when the give an avenue for further research, but generally, the less links the better.

    Especially when you, Shamus, give the hyperlink without any intro, and I have to hover over it before I even get a glimpse of how it fits into the conversation. And especially when the link is an url mess, and I have to click on it to see that it links to an article or a video that I have already read or watched.

    So please, leave the hyperlinks out of my news.

    PS: Also, what Daemian said in a post above.

    • Tizzy says:

      I’m not super-impressed with that book or its author.

      But o be fair, my own anecdotal experience does suggest a certain overload at the end of a particularly long wiki walk, where one can end up wondering afterwards what let from point A to point Z.

      Does that mean that nothing of substance is retained, though? Just because the quest for information was ess intentional, does that make it less valuable?

      • Thearpox says:

        Not everything needs to be turned into a time sink. And frankly, a lot less things need to be time sinks.

        The thing about time sinks is that they can actually lead to an opposite reaction, whereas the subject in question begin to actively avoiding the said time sink for fear of being fired for wasting time.

        I’ll give you that it can lead to more knowledge. But the thing is, I’ve written the above post from the perspective of somebody who already knows what the article is talking about. And then it’s just distracting.

        And I still stand by my point that a well written article can explain the issue well enough without resorting to links. It really, really does flow better.

        • Yes and no. Assuming a homogeneous audience, yes. Otherwise, well, no. I don’t see how you can give a concise account that equally informs people with widely varying amounts of pre-existing knowledge of the subject. You have to assume some information. In a news piece about geopolitical events, you have to assume a lot of information. Links can bring the less-informed up to where they will understand an account that other people will be able to read without them.
          The trick is making people aware of what a link is for before they follow it, so if it’s something they don’t need they won’t waste their time. Maybe if you had links that simultaneously functioned like Shamus’ footnotes, so you could see a little “This is what clicking on this will get you” before you actually did.

          • Thearpox says:

            I guess I don’t have a problem with that. It’s just that this part rubbed me the wrong way (Links omitted for lazyness purposes):

            “No wonder people just want to read self-contained, easy-to-digest fluff pieces. Everything else is a research project and a scavenger hunt.

            Note how “sticky” Wikipedia is. Same goes for TvTropes. They do for prose what Google Earth does for maps. You can stand way back and look at the big picture, or you can zoom way in and examine a minute detail. The strength of the net is the ability to make small articles that branch out into larger ones, giving the reader freedom to adjust their reading.

            You wonder what something is? Click on it! And while you’re reading about that you’ll probably run into something else you didn’t know, or had forgotten. Pretty soon you’ve got a half dozen tabs open, you know a bunch of new stuff, and you forget where the whole adventure began.”

            If you do it well, like how The Economist does: “Read this article on page 56 if you want to know more about this issue.,” Then I don’t have a problem with it. (Yes, I read The Economist in paper, it wouldn’t be pages online.)

            • I do agree that I don’t want everything to be a time sink. TVTropes is a very interesting website, but I enter with caution; I can spend a lot of time there gathering information that I will never ever think about again.

              • Felblood says:

                Shamus’ system will make them easier to use, but discipline and critical thinking skills still have to come from inside.

                The thing is, these types of pothole behaviors are generally only problems for people without a lot of experience using wiki type databases. It takes a little bit of training, but most people will master the art pretty quickly if you give them a chance.

                I’ve reached a level of wiki-literacy where I can go into just about any well-maintained wiki, do a quick search for something, grab three articles that sound promising, and reach a new level of competency in whatever I was going in to learn about, in a very short amount of time. Once you know what you’re doing you can usually read the first paragraph of a page and know if you can just close this tab and move on.

                If you feel like this isn’t something you can do, I can recommend the following training regimen:

                Start out reading for pleasure. Just because it’s fun doesn’t mean you haven’t accomplished anything useful. I count the afternoons I whiled away on TV Tropes as being beneficial to my ongoing education–as much if not more than the childhood afternoons spent reading Mark Twain and Shakespeare.

                Once you have a rough mental map of a couple of wikis, start challenging yourself. Pick two articles on a wiki, and try to trace a line between them, entirely via links. Kevin Bacon and My Little Pony are good places for beginners to start, but you’ll quickly develop a suite of skills and strategies that you can use for any article on any wiki.

                Primarily, you are skimming for relevant content or links to the same, and then reading those parts in greater detail. However, you’ll develop a lot of tactics for making snap value judgements to guide your skimming, clicking and reading. Whenever you are reading, you’ll be thinking critically about the time you are investing in the page, and if it ever stops bearing fruit, close the tab immediately.

                These same skills will help you spend less time reading second-rate game reviews, celebrity gossip, cat pictures, sports news, and news stories that are basically just the editors venting about the statistical distribution of people looking at cat pictures.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      Haven’t read that book but did hear some critics, social scientists and journalists discuss it: The opposite viewpoint (The web trains your brain very much, only in a different way. We’re distracted looking up answers to questions that we would otherwise just assume according to prejudice or first impressions.

      Also: Link Alt-Texts for the win!

      • Tizzy says:

        I saw him talk for about an hour on his book, and similar objections kept coming to mind. I didn’t read the book, and it’s been a while so I can’t remember all the details, but there was definitely a feeling that he was overly focusing on very narrow aspects of cognition and losing sight of the Big Picture.

        To be blunt, it made him sound like an old fart, which always makes me sad for people like him who are actually young. “Young people are not like they used to be. Get off my lawn… “

    • Trix2000 says:

      EDIT: I apparently derped and cannot read. Disregard what I had before here.

  22. Thearpox says:

    The reason the people don’t know about the events that have happened is not because they are inaccessible to an average reader. That is just a symptom of a larger problem, and citing it as a real threat is laughably naive. (I apologize if that sounds insulting. I really do.)

    Let’s put this in perspective. International news are not the only hard to get in thing in this world. Pretty much every human activity is like this. From groceries to sports to video games to music. Every medium assumes you are already familiar with it. (If I ask some person to evaluate a movie to me, the comparison is always littered with dozens of other movies the person watched.) And you often are already familiar with it. Why? Because you find it important. I repeat, important. The reason why people aren’t aware of the larger news is because they don’t find it to be important.

    And the reason why people are okay with that is security. The last big war was before most people alive today were born. Security and awareness stand directly opposite each other, and alternate in beat with the great wheel of time.

    If your hard drive has been serving you loyally for generations, I don’t care how accessible you make the backup documents. The vast majority are not going to be interested.

    The only thing that this accessibility thing can accomplish is to water down the content even more in a vain attempt to interest more people. (Is that even possible?) You can’t make international news as appealing as celebrity gossip because it is not celebrity gossip. You can adjust the presentation without changing the substance, and we already have that, they are called tabloids. And they already follow all this advice.

    Even if we accept at face value that we can implement all the advice about making news more accessible without watering it down, it would ultimately still be a wasted effort, as people would not start reading it until they found it important.

    • syal says:

      I think Alan touched on the main thing earlier; when you get into important things, people will tell you things that are fact, and people will tell you things that are extrapolated from fact but might not themselves be fact, and people will tell you things that are in no way associated with fact, and all of them have spent their lives practicing how to sound convincing.

      People like sports and gossip because you actually get something out of it; nobody’s arguing the team with the 15-1 record is worse than the team with the 10-6 record. No one’s going to argue that X celebrity hasn’t gained the weight the magazine says they have. You’ve learned and understood something, however useless it may be.

      It’s easy to see why someone would elect to pay more attention to the thing they can fully understand at a glance than they will to the thing that mainly teaches them how over their heads they are.

      • Thearpox says:

        Alan made a lot of posts. Which one are we talking about.

        Also, are you agreeing or disagreeing with me? Because it feels like you’re getting into the intricacies of WHY sports and gossip are more inherently popular than world news, which does not contradict what I said.

        I don’t know if I agree with gossip being popular because it can’t be argued with, seems a little weird. I consider the connection you already have to the celebrities, having consumed their entertainment, to be a much stronger link. I care more about Shamus because I read his site. So to me, he is in a way a celebrity.
        But then, there’s probably a grain of truth in what you said too, I dunno. I complex topic.

        • syal says:

          I was referring to the “2+2=4″ one where he was talking about media bias and bipartisanship.

          I disagree with the idea that people find sports more important than politics; I think most people find major topics important but incomprehensible, while they find sports and gossip unimportant but easy to follow.

          There’s also the point that sports news is usually more upbeat than major news, and makes better watercooler conversation.

          • Thearpox says:

            I think that just because people say something is important doesn’t mean they actually find it to be. Are they emotionally affected by it? Is any of their emotional or material well-being threatened by it?

            If the answer is “meh”, then you find it important in abstract, but not in reality. This is getting into the realm of word wars, but I consider the most important thing for one to be the thing to which one reacts the most.

            • syal says:

              Well, with that definition I guess we agree, but the ‘why’ is still important. It’s very hard to properly react to something if you can’t understand it.

              And of course part of the reason it’s hard to understand is because of the people improperly reacting to it.

              • Thearpox says:

                The reason it is hard to understand is because people don’t know about it. And they don’t know about it because they don’t find it important. I am going in circles.

                • syal says:

                  They find it hard to understand because they have to weigh a dozen opinions against each other just to get their foot in the door.

                  • Thearpox says:

                    Which people do or a regular basis when they are buying a house, buying a car, applying for a job, or selecting a school.

                    • syal says:

                      None of those things count as “a regular basis” unless you’re very unlucky or suffer from severe wanderlust. And Shamus had a whole horror story about buying a house without knowing what he was getting into. I could probably say the same about my car.

                      So if a once-a-decade event is too complicated for people to figure out ahead of time, and the news is that complicated on a daily basis, most people are going to do what they can to avoid it.

                    • Thearpox says:

                      Okay, I could bring up studying at Colleges for different majors. Or about how figuring this thing out is not really done on a regular basis, since after you learn it, you’re pretty good at seeing patterns. Or how it is not very complicated unless you are trying to make predictions.

                      But I think we’ve reached the point where arguing is pointless without actual evidence.

                      In essence, I don’t believe that a subject is hard, but only culturally hard. Cause and effect. Chicken and egg. Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, or the opposite thereof. (I am latter.) I feel like I can make a very long and eloquent argument. It would be a book. Or at least an essay.

                      Good night I guess.

                    • syal says:

                      You’re probably right that further argument won’t gain anything, though I don’t think College majors are a good example.

                      The most productive thing to do is probably just leave it to the audience to figure out why I think that.

                • Felblood says:

                  It’s a vicious cycle.

                  We’re talking about making it more convenient to break that cycle.

                  The internet age is the age of “now” and this is about making major news research formatted in a way that is compatible with “now.”

                  There’s a huge audience of people saying that they want real news, but the numbers show that they’ll accept fluffy news if they can get it “now.”

                  There’s no hard numbers on the hypothetical scenario Shamus is proposing. What if real news were to be moved closer to the “now,” eroding (but admittedly not eliminating) the competitive advantage of fluff? How much difference would be small enough that the consumer would cease to consider it a barrier to reading “real” news.

                  How indeed can we measure to emotional response to a stimulus that literally no-one has ever experienced, because it occurs in a hypothetical environment, which has never (yet) existed in the real universe?

                  Now, if such a system were under development, we could plot the use of the new “real” news against the advancement and improvement of the research aides provided, to determine if further investment was justified (i.e. is this change likely to impact the habits of a substantial number of potential customers).

                  –but as thing are, I must declare that any hypotheses constructed using the data set available today are highly premature, and certainly should not be given the level of credibility you are assigning to your favored position.

                  • Thearpox says:

                    “There’s a huge audience of people saying that they want real news, but the numbers show that they’ll accept fluffy news if they can get it “now.””

                    I am highly skeptical that a serious number of people are serious about this.

                    Ultimately, you can lower the activation energy all you want, you still need something to spark the reaction. You’re not going to get serious shifts without an actual reason for those shifts to happen.

                    I can agree that I am lacking hard data, but large scale changes not happening without a catalyst is something that I hold to be the law in human psychology.

                    (Yes, I am aware that lowering activation energy and catalyzing is the same thing. I meant catalyst in the sense of a spark.)

                    • Felblood says:

                      Leave enough unburnt fuel in a dry enough space, and it’ll make a spark if it can’t find one. The nature of our disagreement lies in the concentration of fuel in this atmosphere.

                      There are enough people who want serious news to keep The Economist and it’s competitors alive, even after so many other forms of news have abandoned the slow, clunky and expensive text format. It might be a smaller niche than fluff, but the niche exists.

                      Why haven’t these holdouts made the jump to digital news? It has yet to meet their unique needs.

                      Build it, and they will come.

          • Sports news is usually more upbeat? Clearly you don’t live in my city.

            I don’t actually buy the idea that sports aficionado-ing is easy, either. If you listen to the stuff people manage to wrap their minds around when it comes to sport, the tactics, the statistics, the business side . . . boggles my mind. To be a decent sports fan I’d have to waste huge amounts of my time and mental energy (that I need so I can waste it on roleplaying games).

            • Thearpox says:

              Thank you for saying this. (And what you said below.) I feel stupid now for not making this argument.

              I wish there was a way to PM syal, but then we don’t have accounts.

            • syal says:

              But to be a casual fan you just have to look at the scoreboard. It’s not the end point that’s simpler, it’s the entry point.

        • The problem with that is it’s circular. By that logic, presumably if people were interested in world news, then, they would know things about the leaders and the organizations and the cultures involved, and would then react to them as they do to celebrities and be interested in the next things that happened to them.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      I think theres one dimension here that you disregard.
      Of course more people could follow the news and understand it if they had more motivation, but if you made it more accessible they would not _need_ that much motivation in the first place!

      Avantgarde experimental Ballet has a pretty small audience because in order to appreciate it, you need to have watched so much regular ballet as to be fed up with it, then gone to contemporary one and so on, until something that would make a Ballet novice scratch their head just makes you cringe because it’s just so superficial.

      On that point, I think we can agree.

      But! As anyone who ever taught anything, or tried to learn something will confirm: It’s in the presentation! Any information you try to convey can be presented in more or less convoluted way. I could just drop a bunch of fomrulae and a remark about the library in front of some students and be done with it. If they’re interested, they’ll look it up and understand. Or I can spend hours preparing a lecture and material, refine my explaining technique, listen patiently to questions and provide them with some background information to allow them to make sense of stuff much quicker. They still need to use their brains, but it’s just a lot easier.

      Same goes for news outlets: Provide links to previous articles, summaries to get newcomers up to speed, overview pages that collect articles on one topic … and there you go! Not even a need to change the article itself.

      Except I still take issue with the “one sentence, one paragraph” school of writing that seems to have taken over. I hates it and it’s a pain to read.

      • Thearpox says:

        I was arguing specifically against the idea that people aren’t aware of world issues because they are presented in an antique way.

        I’m not actually against better presentation, although the way Shamus demonstrated it rubbed me the wrong way.

        I can however, comment on your example because why the hell not. I feel like you are making a false comparison between an active motivation and a passive motivation. Delivering a lecture is active inducement. The person IS listening to what you have to say, and you can much more easily imprint your desires or ideas. When you are presenting a website, you are dealing with a passive inducement. You can make it pretty and attractive, but there is no voice from heavens telling you to pay attention. It is much harder to capture people’s attention.

        I am actually all for people’s education, and I believe, (I KNOW!) that a good teacher can awaken in a pupil an appreciation for things from politics to art. A powerful personality in general takes a massive dump on all my theories of human behavior.

        It is much harder to replicate that with a website.

        • Zak McKracken says:

          Alright, so there’s not actually much of an argument here.
          The way I understand Shamus’ article ist just that: The presentation is so bad that it required a lot of motivation to go and research the background, and as with some serials, if you don’t watch every episode, you’re out.

          More precisely:

          It’s not abut making it more accessible by dumbing contents down but about explaining better in order to allow people to follow. That way it actually saves the reader time because instead of having to invest a given time every day to keep up with stuff, people who maybe just find the time once a week can read two or three annotations, maybe one summary of “what happened last time”, and they’re on board again.

  23. Alan says:

    I used to read the Wall Street Journal, daily for a year or so in the 90s, and irregularly through the early 00s. I really appreciated the two columns of summaries on the front page. Each news item would be 1-6 sentences long. Unless the item was really simple, there would be a “page B3″ at the end. In a few minutes I could get a quick grasp of what happened over the last day. I’d then follow up with a few articles.

    Sadly the modern WSJ is a different beast, and for a variety of reasons no longer fits my needs. I really miss it. I’ve not found anything that quite fills the same niche. (NPR’s hourly news summary is good, but not as convenient as text.)

    • microwaviblerabbit says:

      The Economist does something very similar, though it is a weekly summary. In its entirety it is about two pages long, with entries about a sentence or two long, so it isn’t as in depth but it serves as a good starting point for keeping informed. Akin to the Wall Street Journal, it will also have full articles covering these topics.

  24. ehlijen says:

    How much of an obstacle to getting the news out first would crosslinking it into a wiki-like info depository be?

    With encyclopaedia articles immediacy isn’t really that important, so you have time to link all terms of interest. But breaking news that you want to go out as soon as possible?

    It would be very handy for longer analytical pieces, but even then immediacy is important in the news. Anything that makes understanding the world easier is good, but a more robust search engine for news sites would probably a more feasible compromise until we can develop useful self inserting smart links.

    • Andrew_C says:

      Seeing as many websites use a system that automatically links certain terms and word to adverts, not particularly difficult. Although it might require an extra proof read, which in the insane rush to be first with the news might be too much.

      • Neil W says:

        Some of the linked articles ought to be part of the fact checking process a sub-editor or whatever should be doing. So a system where the writer writes it, and it suggests links, the useful ones ought to be of use in someone checking it over.

        Which might mean that you’re beaten to publication by a rival who just puts the article up. But for most of us 15 or 30 minutes will not be a reason to switch from our favoured news sites, and some of us might favour sites with robust editing and linking.

        • That compromise is old technology. Nothing now stops you from putting it up and then editing it.

          • Neil W says:

            If you’re willing to be first to be wrong about something.

            I overstate my case. But if you write your story, post it and then edit it, there’s a good chance that you will have posted a story which will have mistakes in it, either trivial (“7 people injured” when it’s 8), serious (leaving in the sentence saying the police had no statement just above the police statement) or catastrophic (mixing up the names of the councilman commenting on the case and the criminal). All things a good editor ought to catch. That last one might be grounds for libel and defamation; especially her in the UK where the libel laws are very stringent.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      I know at least one news site (tagesschau.de, German of course) where at least for some ongoing events, you will find links to the previous related articles which is a great help if you see a news item but aren’t aware what lead to the current situation. For some other ongoing events, they, too, fail miserably.

      Sometimes facts are implied that have never been explicitly introduced in any article that’s linked or easily discoverable. Sometimes, they will put a neat timeline of events together, which is nice.

      So … it can be done, but it’s not often done well. May have to do with the budget of internet news departments.

      • ehlijen says:

        Huh, interesting. Thanks, I’ll look into that, seeing as I speak German.

        I guess news could be split into current updates (pushed out as fast as they happen) and more indepth follow up articles that are carefully linked into the system.

        As Shamus said though, creating the required info repositories is hard work, and as news sites likely will want to avoid linking to each other, it will probably result in a lot of redundancy. Then again, that’s what the net was built for in the first place.

  25. bookwyrm says:

    This reminds me of a blog post i had read by CGPGrey about TV news. In fact, rereading his blog post further reminds me of a quote often attributed to Mark Twain, which was mentioned in the reddit of the Hello Internet podcast, ‘If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed’

  26. Steve C says:

    Back in the 80s there were variety shows like Entertainment Tonight that had the celebrity gossip. I never realized how crucial they were. It was possible to skip certain genres of news by audience. Now it’s all blended in. I have no idea why. International politics bores the masses who want to know fashion and gossip. While the same news show frustrates and infuriates someone who wants to know international politics because they have to sit through fluff. Regardless of which group I belong to I have to watch a whole hour to find 3mins of info I care about. WHY?!?

    Like you said, going without news for 3-4 days and no way to catch up. I want to get a high density weekly summary. It doesn’t exist. There’s no way to catch up on the *important* news (whatever you personally consider important.) There used to be. The news is bad at post event summaries for things that absolutely need post event summaries. For example, I went to bed early and missed who won a provincial election. 6hrs of nonstop coverage the day of the event. (100% worthless coverage that didn’t do or say anything because there was nothing to say.) The day after… NOTHING. I spent hours trying to figure out who won in my local area and I still don’t know.

    Even important news is covered like a sports event now. The key players. Guessing about what will happen followed 30sec of easy to miss results. And that’s it. It’s done. Next day it’s old news and therefore not reported on. I can’t stand it.

    I’ve started to get most my news by reddit news summary bots. Not the actual articles, just the summary of the articles. It’s that bad. Guess I’ll check out Vox.

    • Thearpox says:

      “I want to get a high density weekly summary. It doesn’t exist.”

      I’m not sure if that is what you want, but it seems you’re missing all the weekly newspapers still in existence. If you want a weekly rich summary of events, why not try something like The Economist?

      Comes out every week. Available online and paper. International. Has two pages of news summary, followed by 70 pages of in-depth articles. What’s not to like?

      • Microwaviblerabbit says:

        The Economist also has high quality blogs, for both hour by hour reporting and specialised subjects as well as a bunch of useful other stuff like in depth explanations of topics and fun graphs. It is arguably the best all round news source for world news.

        They let you read three magazine articles for free a week, and all the online only stuff is free (of which there is a lot) so it is worth checking out even without a subscription.

      • Steve C says:

        I should have clarified that I was excluding newspapers like Shamus. Mea culpa. Shamus was referring to online print media just being a stand-in for a newspaper and not being sufficiently different from that medium. I agree with him. The the newspaper style of: Intro paragraph, details, background, public reaction, byline if you are reading a newspaper (or not) that’s the only print option. TV the other. Both have big failings. (I ignore radio.)

        But what if you don’t like that newspaper style/format? =TV. What if you want something other than that medium? (Circling back to Shamus’s post.) The only thing I’ve found to be both unique and useful to the online medium are reddit bots. You can’t duplicate those on other mediums.

        As for The Economist, I’ll refrain from discussing it due to prohibited discussion topics.

        • Thearpox says:

          “The the newspaper style of: Intro paragraph, details, background, public reaction, byline”

          As in six sentence summaries of the weekly news, opinions, blogs, and special reports, in addition to those traditional articles? With well-moderated comments?

          The Economist today is much more than a traditional newspaper with a traditional format.

          You have said that it is lacking because it is in a traditional format, but you have not explained how, and I am not convinced it is different from what you want.

          “As for The Economist, I’ll refrain from discussing it due to prohibited discussion topics.”

          If we’re discussing news sources in general, there is no reason why we cannot discuss A news source. If The Economist is too liberal or something for you, that’s fine, but don’t dismiss the format because of that.

      • Even the hard left pays a certain amount of attention to The Economist and some similar publications. From a left point of view it’s slanted way to the right, but because it’s pitched for the elite it actually talks about many things that are out of bounds for more middle-of-the-road media pitched to the general public.

  27. Sean Riley says:

    “So… we have what the people are interested in, and human interest stories, which is what humans are interested in, and the public interest, which no-one is interested in.”

    “Except the public, sir,” said William, trying to keep up.

    “Which isn’t the same as people and humans?”

    “I think it’s more complicated than that, sir.”

    — Terry Pratchett, The Truth.

  28. Paul Spooner says:

    “I say this as someone who forces himself to read international news and is meticulous about avoiding celebrity gossip in all forms.”
    May I ask why?

    I gave up paying any attention to any news back when I was in college, and I’ve never regretted it. I’ll look something up if I need to know about it, but otherwise “the news” is useless cruft cluttering up my mental and emotional space which has zero impact on my life.

    Yes, I’ve heard people say that “this stuff is important” but I’ve never heard a good argument as to why it’s important. If there’s nothing I can do about it, why should I spend time and effort finding out about it? How does the news affect my life in any useful way?

    The most obvious one is the weather, but even that is basically useless. For example, there’s a typhoon that just blew through here. Big deal right? Everyone needs to know about it?
    Except I don’t watch the news, so I literally had no idea until it was right on top of us. And you know what? It didn’t matter that I didn’t know. Sure, it was windy and rainy, but so what? Nothing fell over and no one died. I still went to work in the morning and drove home at night.

    So, I treat all news as if it were useless gossip. Am I wrong about this?

    • Muspel says:

      (I’m assuming you live in the US. Correct me if I’m wrong.)

      Part of the reason that geopolitical news doesn’t affect us is because the US is an international superpower. In fact, depending on who you ask, it’s the ONLY international superpower, and it certainly has by far the best-funded military.

      The US is or has been at war with a number of countries over the past few decades, and there was basically no impact on “home life”. Contrast that with other countries that have been invaded. Somebody that lives in Iraq is going to be very affected by geopolitics in a very direct way.

      The thing to keep in mind is that this whole idea of “global geopolitics don’t affect me noticeably” is the result of the US’s current status, and that status is not immutable. If we somehow angered the rest of the world to the point that every country ganged up on us, and/or our military was gutted, we would be in a very different situation. Depending on your point of view, this may or may not be a good thing– being so safe is a good thing, but on the other hand, we’re also very insulated from the actions that we take abroad, which is arguably a problem.

      Since we elect the people that make decisions regarding what kind of actions our nation will take, I’d argue that reading up on geopolitics is pretty vital to being a well-informed voter, regardless of which side of the issues you fall on.

      In the short term, ignoring the news is probably not an issue. But in the long term, it could be.

      • Paul Spooner says:

        So, the main reason people (both you and the below commentors) cite is “informed voting”. I’ll try to address this without barging into full on political tirade, but it’s going to be difficult, so forgive me if I botch this. But here goes…

        The main political debate boils down to whether it’s better to steal from rich people, or steal from poor people. I’m a libertarian, and would much prefer that no one stole from anyone. With this in mind, I hope you can imagine how utterly useless “the news” is when it comes time for me to vote.

        I recognize it’s not that simple, but I don’t want to actually get into the reasons, because, as Shamus said above:
        “This is natural. But this is also not a great place for that sort of thing.”

        • There is no political debate on that in the US. Both parties agree that it’s better to steal from poor people. The only question is technique. Which admittedly makes the news even more irrelevant.

          • Wide And Nerdy says:

            You have an interesting definition of stealing. Look at the various social programs and our tax structure. We give to the poor. If you think we don’t give enough, thats at least a valid position but we hardly ever take anything from the poor. Proportionally, we take way more from the rich (though even as a libertarian myself I wouldn’t go so far as to call it stealing, the tax structure has been worse for the rich than it is now.)

            But Paul is right. For us libertarians, its always a vote between two guys who want to mess with our lives and the lives of those overseas way more than they should. It doesn’t matter what they say on the campaign trail either. They get in office, they want to mess with our lives and we can’t stop it.

            We’re too few. The vast majority of this country is pro-messing with stuff. All listening to the news leads to is impotent rage and an unhealthy blood pressure as I listen helplessly to people arguing about entirely the wrong stuff. So I hunker down and hope for a singularity.

            • I think much of what you say there is dead wrong. But after writing multiple paragraphs I have taken a deep breath and realized that my response is so far down the political rabbit hole that I have to take a deep breath and call it quits.
              I’ll just say that contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a question of how much of a handout the poor get. The poor are actually taxed more (as a proportion of income) and subsidized less than the rich, once you start adding up the different taxes and paying attention to what’s really spent. The modern US government doesn’t just do less downward redistribution than some would prefer, it actually redistributes upward. And that’s not even getting into the regulatory environment or the Fed’s QE policies.

      • And yet international events do affect the US and do affect how the American people live. They don’t generally realize this because the news does not generally report about that stuff. If it reports on events that could have a domestic impact, it doesn’t report that aspect. And quite often those events likely to have the most domestic impact on Americans’ actual lives are not considered newsworthy.
        Getting more specific would be very very very political. I’ve been skirting the boundaries and making inroads past ‘em already–sorry Shamus!

        • Wide And Nerdy says:

          We hear about that stuff anyway because we keep track of our interests. If I’m into video games and thats going to be affected by a tsunami in Japan, I’ll hear about through multiple gaming sources. If a beer I like goes up in price, I’ll learn about the new taxes, say, Germany is assessing on exported beers (or whatever).

          And it gets back to Paul’s point. Do I need to know why it happened if there’s nothing I can do about it? I can’t stop a tsunami from hitting Japan. I can’t stop one middle eastern country from invading another and driving up gas prices. I can’t even stop my own country from being involved in middle east affairs. Obama was supposed to have us out of there. McCain didn’t even pretend like he was gonna do that.

    • Isaac says:

      Yeah. Not every typhoon or natural disaster is going to be harmless. Besides, you vote right? Wouldn’t you want to be informed about the politicians you’re voting for?

      • Wide And Nerdy says:

        That doesn’t require an ongoing following of the news. When its time to vote you can do research, find out that both guys are going to be way too involved in your life and then vote impotently for the third party guy you wish they’d give a chance.

    • Trix2000 says:

      Not necessarily, but I think it’s ignoring what useful information can be gleaned from news of any sort. News about the economy might help in juxtaposing how you manage your career and future job prospects, for example. Political news (though being very wary of bias and whatnot) gives a better picture of what directions the government is taking that may affect parts of your life (net neutrality being one that comes to mind). World news is a harder sell, but it does seem like it helps bring the world together more by better understanding what other nations (and their people) are going though.

      It’s not necessary to know everything that happens, but depending on your own situation it may help to keep an eye on which way the winds blow.

      EDIT: I have to agree on the voting thing. Damn you people post fast…

    • Zak McKracken says:

      Three reasons:
      1: You vote (or at least you’re probably allowed to). If a politician makes a statement, you either believe it or you don’t the amount of information from other sources you have will directly influence that. If you never watch the news yourself, you become just that much easier to mislead. Which has only very indirect implications for your own life, but multiply it by the population of whatever country you’re in and add the fact that any good dictatorship seizes control of the news first.
      Having a well-informed populaton of voters is one of the basic prerequisites for a democracy.

      2: Yeah, the next Typhoon may not be so nice to you. Knowing when to pack your stuff up and leave the town, or to buy some extra food and maybe move some suff out of the cellar can be quite helpful.

      3: You’re a human being. Don’t you have a basic urge to understand the world? To know what is happening oustide of your own field of view? No matter whether you have influence on it (or it on you)?

      I will add, though, that for me, too, there is an upper limit of how much news I can stomach in one day without becoming very difficult to be around. I can understand people who insulate themselves from news sometimes. I still regard it as something that’s good for me and the rest of the world.

    • syal says:

      Why would you assume there’s nothing you can do about it? Wouldn’t you have to look into the subject before deciding that?

      • Paul Spooner says:

        That’s an interesting point, but I don’t think it stands up to scrutiny. If something “makes the news” then it’s a major geopolitical event (which I have no direct control over… and believe me, I wish I did) a natural phenomena (which no one can really do anything about except avoid and clean up afterword) or a celebrity related incident (which (not being a celebrity myself) I can’t interact with in any meaningful way).

        Can you offer some examples (even hypothetical ones) of a time when being informed of “the news” could benefit someone?

        • Thearpox says:

          Example 1: You live in a coastal area. You read about Global Warming. You sell your house and move away.

          Example 2: The market is booming. The house prices are at record high. Everyone is hyping to invest. You do some research, and find some reports that this might look like a bubble. You take away your money and lay low. You do NOT buy that house. (Requires restraint?)

          Example 3: U.S. Senate is in glidlock. Again. The next presidential elections pit together two unlikable candidates. You do some research, and it seems that the situation is unsustainable. You prepare to emigrate just in case.

          Example 4: Brazil is growing fast, and desires new College applicants from US. It offers very good terms. Huh, maybe you would send your children there?

          Not all of this is international news, but it is close. A lot of it is trying not to get killed when world goes to hell, learning to see patterns, seizing rare opportunities your friends haven’t heard about. Lots of work, VERY erratic payoff. Your choice.

          • Peter H. Coffin says:

            (BTW, Brazil’s gonna lead China into tragic levels of under-performance in about three years. It won’t be as much as a recession, but they’re going to have to make a serious choice about whether they want “US style capitalism”, which will probably lead to serious social unrest shortly thereafter, or swallow some pretty bitter pills and go for a more Euro-style semi-Socialist capitalism that will mean a LOT slower growth. China’s already screwed, but it’ll take ten years to get bad, and the end result is that a lot of Western economy will come back west in about a decade. That’ll be some lean times for the US, but it’ll be weatherable because much of the US’s obligations to it’s boomer population will be starting to fade and it’ll be able to start managing its own debt internally. A couple spikes of inflation in 2020 or so will help.)

          • Wide And Nerdy says:

            Example1: Even the direst timeframes from global warming don’t affect our lifetimes in a way that would affect my purchase of real estate.

            Example2: Journalists are terrible at covering that sort of thing.

            Example3: There’s nowhere to go where it would be better. We’re still as free as it gets. And Senate gridlock would actually delay anything negative.

            Example4: As with example two, you’re better off doing your own research when it becomes relevant than following daily media coverage. And as with other situations, I’d only need to be aware at certain points in my life. Following the news now won’t help my still hypothetical children get into a good college when they’re finally born and aged to maturity decades from now.

        • syal says:

          Apart from planning for panic situations in Y2K-type cases (someone said we’re getting hit with a hurricane, so plan for traffic), or more major cases (maybe you live next to a toy factory and a similar one exploded recently, leveling its neighborhood), there’s the possibility that the format will change/has changed while you’re ignoring it. Suddenly the news is about the local homeless shelter needing a new 60″ plasma screen, and you find you can do something about it.

          Also the more people who pay attention to these things, the more people will talk to each other about them and the more people will learn about them by proximity. You might not be able to do anything, but you can make someone else aware of the problem, and maybe they can do something about it. Or maybe they just let more people know, until there’s enough people to have an impact.

          Or something more basic, like you hear we’re going to war with China so you start studying Chinese culture so you can get a better job when they inevitably win.

    • Thearpox says:

      Being informed about current events is important because we can all die.

      Global Warming is a real thing.
      China is constantly posturing, and it does have nukes.
      Overpopulation.
      U.S. fiscal problems.

      Not to mention the fact that the world is running out of oil.
      (I did not mention those things so we can have an argument over whether they are true or not.)

      Ultimately, it’s your choices whether you want to be informed about something. But let me tell you something. It is almost guaranteed that something happening in the world will severely affect the place where you live during you lifetime.

      And to most people it will come as a surprise. (Because it always does.) But if you are one of those people who is aware of what is happening, it may be possible for you to emigrate in time to a more stable place. Or invest your money. Or transfer your money to a different bank. You want to be ahead of the flow whatever happens.

      • Paul Spooner says:

        While I agree with you in principle (and it’s one of the reasons I’ll be visiting Singapore in a couple of weeks), I fail to see how “the news” as the term is being used in the context of this article will in any way help me to stay ahead of the masses. If research is required for all those scenarios, wouldn’t it be a better use of my time to do the research while ignoring the news?

        • Thearpox says:

          Micro and Macro. Both are important.

          Reading news by their lone selves is fairly useless. (Opinion.)

          But news should be an important part of your research, not something you should be ignoring.

          Do I need to elaborate?

        • syal says:

          If you knew what to research, it would be. But there’s a whole lot of things you can be researching at any given time. News serves as a focal point.

    • Peter H. Coffin says:

      I’ll give you an example of why “news is important”. The 2008 financial crisis was a surprise to people that don’t read news. It was not a surprise to people that do: there were plenty of warning signs a year before, and grounds for suspicion that all was not well as far back as about 2000. (Remember The Tech Bubble that burst in 2001? That wasn’t about tech so much as it was a leading indicator that money was too inexpensive. And people that didn’t read that well decided that the ephemeral nature of stocks and trading companies was risky and the right thing to do was get real estate, by any means necessary, because “they’re not making any more of it!” so obviously the value of that would never crash.) In 2005 I made a bet with a friend about exactly when the UD federal government would have to start bailing out banks over systemic failure of the real estate market, and I lost by guessing three months too early. All that from “reading news” and generally paying attention to things further out than whether the wind last night didn’t blow a tree onto my house.

      • Except it was a surprise to people who read news. At least, to people who read mainstream news relatively narrowly construed. Most of those sources kept talking about the boom long after it was clear to more specialized or contrarian sources that the crash was coming.

        Indeed, ever since I’ve seen a gradual stream of articles in more contrarian press pointing out that those pundits who were utterly dead wrong about the “great recession” are still comfortably called on at their big media outlets, while better-qualified people who had been predicting exactly what happened for years before remain persona non grata to the media. I’ve seen this on a number of issues over the years; any track record of accuracy seems to have little relevance to whether one is considered an “expert” by major news sources.

        • Paul Spooner says:

          Yep. The reason being that “The News” is entertainment first, and truth a distant second.

          These reports all come from a parallel dimension, where everything bears a striking resemblance to the reality that we know, but is also somehow more sensational in every way. And, when the facts conflict with the entertainment value, they are easily ignored. Better yet, you can always find an “expert” who holds an opinion that jives with the narrative of the news.

          It’s historical fiction in real time. Certainly entertaining if you like that sort of thing. But there’s a reason news reports are called “stories”.

  29. Zak McKracken says:

    Thanks for this article. It hits the nail on the head.
    Just one more thing to add (and if I had a blog, I’d have written a rant on this long ago):

    Why on earth is the text on modern news sites so disjointed? Every sentence has its own paragraph, and many do not relate to the ones before or after. This turns the thing into lots of single, unrelated statements and makes it that much harder to read. But Paragraphs are beginning mit “and” or “but” (which I was taught to never do).

    I’m no longer reading news stories on BBC because it’s just too hard to follow the bad bad writing. No structure, just statements.

    I think there must be a reason for this since most sites are doing it these days (though not all). Anyone know what this is about?

    • Muspel says:

      It’s actually perfectly acceptable to start sentences and/or paragraphs with conjunctions such as “and” or “but”. It’s something that they teach kids not to do in schools, though, because at the time that you start learning conjunctions, you’re probably not proficient enough with them to understand when it’s appropriate to do so.

      • Zak McKracken says:

        first story I clicked on just now. Simply try to read the part before the first sub-headline:

        http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28240683

        I’m not a native English speaker but for all I know, this is very bad style.

        I agree that there are times when a conjunction at the beginning of a sentence makes sense, which is when you want to emphasize it. But(!) that’s not what this text is doing.

        • Trix2000 says:

          Looking at it, to me it doesn’t seem all that great writing… but it strikes me as maybe being a running commentary. Like it’s the result of someone quickly typing out observations as they observe the story. Don’t know if that was the case here or not, but it’s a plausible explanation.

          • Thearpox says:

            It does its job.

            Don’t read such reports if you want to learn more about the issue. It is however useful for fishing out specific tidbits out of updates.

            If I want to know the numbers, of what a specific guy said about the incident, it is quicker.

            Basically headlines in the guise of an article.

    • syal says:

      I think the unrelated paragraphs thing is a holdover from newspaper columns. I believe the length of the piece could be changed by the Editor so it would fit with the ads and other articles, so the writer would make their point first and would push all the extra stuff they were okay cutting to the bottom of the article. It’s designed for dealing with limited space/time.

      If they’re doing it nowadays, I suspect they’re porting the stories from either newspapers or TV broadcasts.

  30. Anachronist says:

    Shamus wrote: Everyone claims to dislike trash culture like reality TV, Michael Bay movies, and toothless vapid pop music, but that’s what the public consumes.

    Um. I see claims like “that’s what the public consumes” all over the place. I’ve never seen a reality TV show (at least not for more than a few minutes) and I don’t listen to vapid pop music.

    Just me, you say? No. That isn’t just one data point. Not one single person I know in my vast network of friends consumes that stuff either.

    Maybe someone reading this does consume this stuff. If you do, raise your hand. Anyone…?

    The only people I can tell who do consume trash culture media are reviewers who write about it, as if they represent the “public”. So who exactly is this “public”? It’s nobody I know.

    • Trix2000 says:

      Do consider that your network may not be all that different from you – you are friends with them for a reason, right? Regardless, it’s still anecdotal evidence rather than an actual study.

      The evidence for the ‘public’ consuming said trash media more is financial – sites and companies catering to that are more common and more successful as a whole, which is why the perception exists in the first place. One could argue it’s self-perpetuating, but I can’t imagine that explaining everything.

      Ultimately, you’re right – a lot of people aren’t like that. But there are a lot of people in the world, which leaves a lot of room for large populations of either.

      It probably also doesn’t help that ‘trash media’ or whatever is an incredibly vague term to begin with, so for all we know we ALL partake in it without realizing it… because from our personal perspectives, it isn’t.

      • Muspel says:

        That last paragraph is an important point. I mean, a lot of non-gamers probably consider games journalism to be every bit as irrelevant as you might consider something like celebrity news coverage.

        Not to mention that there are lots of controversial political/religious topics, and some people on certain sides of those issues might consider some related articles to be trash media, as well. But the less said about that, the better.

    • Paul Spooner says:

      I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one. Hopefully the whole mess will die off eventually as people realize they have better things to do with their time.

      I suspect that the intersection between the readership of Twentysidedtale and the audience of vapid media is exceptionally slim.

    • John says:

      Nobody I know voted for Nixon either.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      Practically everyone I know who I didnt choose as a friend(coworkers from temp jobs,people I went to high school and college with,etc)watches reality shows.So this public is practically everyone outside your comfort zone.

      Its also natural to not expect to find people like this,where people with certain minority interests(story over graphics,for example)are being brought together.But if you visit a place you would never do normally(say a forum of one of the reality shows)you will find a plethora of people that disagree with you.

    • Felblood says:

      The cold fact is, advertising dollars spent on catchy pop stations will produce more customers than advertising dollars spent on artsy classical music station.

      Whether that’s because classical music fans are less susceptible to advertizing or because the pop fans are more numerous, is frankly immaterial. The market will support more stations pumping “Hey There Delilah” for six consecutive hours, than it will stations mixing in “Motzart’s 3rd Symphony.” The media consumer is not the customer, he is the product to be delivered to the advertiser.

      See also The Rural Purge where established, popular shows were dumped, in favor of shows that attracted a smaller audience of young, heavy spending consumers.

  31. “Pretty soon you’ve got a half dozen tabs open,” or in my case up to a hundred at times (i regularly crash or have to restart Firefox due to too many tabs, a webpage going black? oops I just blasted past 2GB of memory use for Firefox.

    Also that CNN article example, check the sources sometime (if they bothered), a lot of these news blurb are syndicated ones which are regurgitated all around various news sites.

    Also, serious (or “pro” sites) are few and far between, here in Norway there are more and more internet based magazines or news sites, and their spellchecking, they don’t even seem to be using the built in one (Firefox, Chrome has this etc.), and fact checking is almost non-existent, no proofreading reading either and there are typos galore, and translation hackjobs which would almost make a Google Translate look human in comparison. And obviously click bait headlines or miss-leading lead image.
    *sigh*

  32. Klay F. says:

    This is why I get all of my really hard news from Wikipedia. What you are describing (what with links to past articles and overviewsand etc.) is basically an exact replica of Wikipedia.

  33. Poobles says:

    Shamus, Would just like to point out that a lot of writers on http://www.independent.co.uk/ actually do what you are looking for!

  34. arron says:

    The BBC do tend to have “backgrounder articles” and links to other sites that are involved in a story so it does feel quite integrated.

    By far the worst types of news articles are the ones that use tweets as a basis for news as in most cases it’s probably lowest quality news element and any article written around them is at best gossip on an overheard conversation and at worst outright fabrication of the truth.

    I wish news outlets that use the internet as news would at the very least verify the information posted by people, because once it was reblogged a few dozen times and on HuffPo, it seems to gain some kind of newsworthiness to some lazy hack merely by it being talked about by several people.

  35. It is almost impossible for me to talk about this topic cogently without talking politics. The thing is, this reminds me of that line about the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation: Their fundamental design flaws are almost entirely hidden by their superficial design flaws.
    So for me, in this case Shamus has found a quite interesting and significant superficial design flaw which he throws out for discussion, but rules out talking about the fundamental design flaw which is the major reason the superficial design flaw exists. You can talk about the superficial design flaw on its own, but it’s kind of pointless.

    So in this case, IMO while the links-and-writing-style problem Shamus points to is certainly real, and there are no doubt things that could be done about it, the core reason it’s there is that the news is not there to inform us and if people started to understand what was going on from reading the news, that would be a failure from the point of view of those producing the news. It’s supposed to be superficial and context-free, and Shamus’ idea would ruin that. I could go into a long talk defending this point of view, giving reasons why it’s the case, and so on. But that would very definitely be politics and Shamus doesn’t want us to talk about that. So I won’t.

  36. Felblood says:

    To illustrate Shamus’s point. I clicked on two links on this page, and now I am listening to Youtube videos of Veggie Tales’ silly songs while sending rude tweets to Dan Shive, even as I type this comment.

    The pothole is strong with this one.

  37. Galad says:

    I’m not trying to be the tinfoil-hat conspiracy guy, but the powers in charge have interest in the large majority of the population being not well familiar with important current events and topics (myself probably included in this majority). So they would probably nudge things here and there, financially or otherwise, to keep the 90+% in the dark

    Oh, and Shamus, if you have any other post ideas in your head that are similarly sort of “this is how I see this big picture” and are not entertainment-related, please post them. We could use more of these.

  38. Thomas says:

    Shamus, you’ve been playing PC games since childhood. Under no circumstances should you ever feel like a peasant. :)

  39. Guvnorium says:

    The New York Times is acutally pretty good about putting links in their articles- they also have ‘overview’ sections on things like, say, North Korea. The ‘chronology of coverage’ bit is something I’ve always liked.
    They are also a subscription site outside of ten articles per month, so maybe they have to work harder to keep their audience engaged.

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