‘News’ by algorithm: What you’re missing


An editor friend, forced to watch close-up the death throes of our hometown newspaper, offered a fresh perspective on the threadbare issue of journalism’s demise. She thinks it has to do with confusing compliments with subscriptions.

We ran out of publishers able to provide an adult presence, she might argue. That’s when the yuppie editors began flooding the paper with soft feature stories and cute takes on vaguely topical issues, all of which were hits with the in-crowd. What wasn’t understood, though, was that compliments come cheap, subscriptions are hard-won.

The friend, who once solved a murder on the phone from her desk, spent her career arguing with superiors about the importance of content. Readers may tell publishers they want ‘good’ news, she found, but when they renew their subscription it’s because the newspaper proved itself a trustworthy source of serious information. When boring property taxes go up, subscribers want to know the boring details.

Market researcher backs our friend up. Readers are notorious for lying as to why they dropped their subscription. "They give answers that make them sound discerning, even sophisticated,” one researcher told me, “something like ‘the commentary was off the mark’ or ‘the articles were too heavy,’ or ‘it didn’t reflect my lifestyle.’”

But you get a different response when you ask the question, “Why did you subscribe to the newspaper in the first place?” The answers then reflect an expectation of hard news reporting, an accurate and full picture of the day’s events — an expectation unmet.

In short, the news business forgot what news was about.

Joe Bob Briggs, the syndicated columnist, recently ran an experiment along these lines.

Briggs, in an article entitled “Man Bites Dog but Nobody Cares,” listed the stories on his Internet newsfeed that the editors ranked higher than a Stanford University research project identifying the cure for the common cold. The Briggs list:

A couple dozen lame analyses of the upcoming “impeachment inquiry,” written like boxing-match copy, Pelosi versus Trump.

Aubrey O’Day complaining an American Airlines flight attendant made her change her shirt in front of her fellow passengers.

An analysis of the low fertility rate in Japan.

An investigation of subpar jalapeños in Subway sandwiches.

A Metallica tour update after James Hetfield went to rehab.

Stormy Daniels’ settlement for false arrest at a strip club in Ohio.

The salary of the new CEO at Wells Fargo ($23 million).

Robert De Niro calling Trump “a lowlife.”

Justin Bieber posting old pictures of himself.

Dog the Bounty Hunter’s medical condition.

Speculation about moon travel and the ability of the moon to support a colony.

Best time to get your flu shot.

Several articles on a heated Twitter discussion about whether Kristin Cavallari is too skinny, based on images she posted from a Mexico photo shoot.

Briggs notes Facebook, Google and Microsoft select stories by algorithm on the basis of your past reading. They are, therefore, by design, not news to you.

“The original purpose of a newspaper," Briggs writes, " to organize all the events of the world in order of importance, using fonts, type sizes, headlines, and other conventions to indicate relative importance, has been turned into its opposite: ‘We don’t know what the hell is important, so you decide.’”

Of course, the craft has always had its flaws, many of them of human origin. As callow but self-envisioned world-shakers on the overnight desk of a metro newspaper in the ’70s, we counted as the sum of our community contacts, the only “real” people we knew outside work, a half-dozen bartenders and 7-11 clerks on our route home.

The difference from today is that neither we nor the bartenders or clerks were allowed to set the front-page news budget.

Our readership, I can now be sure, was the better for that.

Craig Ladwig is editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.

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