How the Washington Post became Cable News

How the Washington Post became Cable News
Posted by Patrick Miller

In the days before social media, people loved to complain about cable news. The critiques were all valid: cable news was partisan and incendiary. They kept viewers watching by previewing the next segment with outrageous—and often misleading—sound bites and headlines. Their entire business model was simple: craft your content to appeal to a narrow band of the population and keep them watching.

They knew that advertisers interested in reaching those people would pay a premium.

Mainstream national news broadcasts like CBS, ABC, and NBC all tended to lean left, but because their goal was to appeal broadly, they avoided overly partisan hot takes that alienated their audience. Again, the business model was straightforward: get the most eyes by appealing to the most people so you can sell big ads to advertisers.

In other words, there was news you could trust.

But then the social internet happened. Media outlets were all struggling. It cost next to nothing to start an online outlet, giving advertisers a panoply of options and driving down ad revenue.

If newsrooms were going to make it, they needed a new business model. Or, to be more precise, a new version of an old model. All of America’s news was about to become cable news.

How the Washington Post Became Cable News

In 2013, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post for a bargain-basement price of $250 million. The paper wasn’t doing well, but Bezos believed that a new strategy based on an understanding of customer engagement funnels, social media algorithms, and targeted advertising to elite, wealthy readers would turn the paper around quickly.

At the time, his strategy was revolutionary, but today it is the standard playbook for every online news agency. Let’s look at each component.

  1. Customer engagement funnels. The internet is oversaturated with content. We click fewer links than we see. So newsrooms had to figure out how to get their content in front of viewers. The first step was breaking into people’s email inboxes with newsletters, for the simple reason that you’re more likely to open an email than click a link. From there, they track user behavior, trying to drive the user to click a link in the email and land on their website. Once on the website, the goal is to keep the user’s sense of urgency up by giving them algorithmically generated headlines.

    In 2014, this CNN headline disgusted people: “14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you.” Today, it sounds relatively commonplace. And that means it worked. The incendiary, misleading headlines of cable news have become clickbait and they all help people engage.

  2. Social media algorithms and outrage. Bezos understood that the best way to generate traffic isn’t paid ads. It’s users sharing your content on their own social media. Of course, getting people to share is challenging. It requires moving their hearts, and the easiest way to move people is outrage. Us versus them is great for business because people love to hate their enemies.

    This explains why Donald Trump was so good for The New York Times and CNN. During his presidency, The New York Times grew from 3 million subscribers to 7.5. For the first time, CNN outperformed Fox in the key 25–54 viewing demographic. Just one month after Trump’s presidency ended, the NYT’s website views dropped by 17 percent, and CNN lost its lead over Fox.
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  3. Targeted advertising. Social ad platforms allow newsrooms to target specific demographics, including elite, educated, wealthy Americans. The more this audience engages with them, the more effective their ads to that audience become. Once they lock in this audience, the news organization can sell ads to advertisers who want to tap their thick pocketbooks.

    The question is: How do you reach these Americans? Bezos took a play out of the cable news playbook—tell them exactly what they want to hear. Thankfully, given that most journalists are coastal elites who are highly educated and well-compensated, this wasn’t hard. The journalists just had to say what they always wanted to say.

    No longer did editors need to tamp down their one-sided takes. Sticking with their audience’s sense of the narrative was all that mattered. For elite newsrooms, this meant smugly mocking the values, lives, and choices of the working class by piling epithets on top of them. For newsrooms reaching the working class (they, too, have plenty of money the advertisers want!), this means cynically demeaning the highly educated class.

Perhaps the reason why 91 percent of people who identify The New York Times as their main source of news are Democrats, and 93 percent of people who identify Fox News as their main source of news identify as Republican is that these platforms have mastered the art of customer engagement and niche advertising. Newsrooms that make it in this environment aren’t the ones that value truth, nuance, or objectivity.

Itchy Ears and Scratchy Newsrooms

Paul warned Timothy that a day would come “when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions” (2 Tim 4:3). Of course, he was talking about the church, not humanity in general.

So we should all sober up. You live in a moment where teachers (the news really is teaching, after all) can target personalized advertising to you. The algorithm knows what you like. The algorithm knows what you click. And the algorithm will sell your attention to any newsroom selling you what want. This might sound like a win-win, but it’s not.

Christians on the left and right are being sucked into echo chambers designed by powerful artificial intelligence tools to “suit their passions.” Now, more than ever, we need to seek the truth that offends our sensibilities and avoid sources that stoke our basest emotions.

While there are many ways to resist, I believe the first one is simple: admit you have a problem, and seek to understand how the world feeds it. If a story confirms your biases, be cautious and self-critical.

From there, pray for Jesus to give you a deep desire for truth, not falsehood. Seek out sources that try to nuance the news and offer balanced takes. Don’t trust the algorithm. Don’t click every enticing headline. Don’t let yourself be caught up in your side’s narrative of reality.

Wondering if you’ve let today’s polarized media sway you too far to the left or the right? Has the news contributed to you becoming tribalized? Only one way to find out…

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Posted by Patrick Miller

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