Bias in Advertising vs Subscription Driven Media

The excellent Andrew Potter at In Due Course writes:

When I was a student journalist, it was axiomatic that advertising was the biggest threat to independent media. Putting your livelihood in the hands of capitalists meant, ipso facto, doing their bidding.

Experience is a great teacher though, and when I started working as an editor at a newspaper, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that you didn’t wake up every day to a swarm of calls from outraged advertisers threatening to pull their campaigns if we didn’t smarten up….presumably because they didn’t really care. What they wanted was our audience, not the content.

But you know who does complain a lot? Subscribers do, endlessly.

Today, the great hope for mainstream news organizations is that subscribers will start doing something they’ve never done, which is pay for news. The New York Times seems well on its way to bending that revenue curve and replacing ad dollars with subscribers at a 1:1 ratio, and there’s similar hopes for the Washington Post, the FT, and maybe the Wall Street Journal….

…My suspicion is that [this] will lead to an increasingly polarized media environment, through more or less the same mechanism that leads to group polarization in social psychology. When a news organization relies almost entirely on its readership for its revenue, it will inevitably start to cater to what the owners perceive to be the political centre of gravity of that readership. And the readership will in turn make demands on the editors to shape the coverage in certain ways, which will tend to gradually shift that centre of gravity away from the middle, and towards the political extremes.

I’d add one more factor to Potter’s analysis. Since the advertisers care about eyeballs, advertisement-funded media are incentivized to produce more eyeballs. Such incentives tends to encourage lowest-common-denominator entertainment but also more political balance. Subscription-funded media, in contrast, face a tradeoff: subscribers want content that supports their world view so moderating the content to appeal to a larger audience will likely reduce the price that any one reader is willing to pay. Revenues are therefore larger with a smaller but more political extreme audience.

Addendum: Potter and philosopher Joseph Heath write at In Due Course infrequently but are always interesting. Here, for example, is a superb long-read by Heath, nominally about Iain Bank’s culture series but actually about more and well worth reading even if you don’t know the novels.


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