Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

How to Fix the News

Newspaper circulation continues to decline. The top-selling paper in the country, USA Today, distributes only 2 million copies a day (half, no doubt, placed outside hotel room doors). Around the same number, with an average age of 71, watch The O’Reilly Factor nightly, with the number decreasing as the audience dies off. Everyone quietly concedes the news industry is dying. It’s the Internet’s fault, they all assure us.

But what if it wasn’t? The other day I heard a news program that was so good that I wanted to listen to it again. And I’m not alone — all my friends have been talking about it as well. And while I don’t have exact numbers, it seems as popular as any one of those other news outlets. That show? The This American Life episode on The Global Pool of Money — a comprehensive explanation of the housing mess.

There were three things about the show that made it stand out from the rest of the news pack:

  1. It believed in the intelligence of its audience. It didn’t try to pander with sex or disasters or quick cuts. It took a serious news story and investigated it thoroughly for a full hour, with only one break. And it didn’t try and dumb any of it down — it explained the whole thing, from top to bottom.

  2. It didn’t assume you already knew the subject. Most news stories on important topics are incomprehensible to the average person who doesn’t know much about their topic. Here’s a quote from a random news story about the housing crisis: “They said financial institutions have been unwilling to expose themselves to the mortgage market, and lenders are hesitant to lend to risky borrowers in a declining house price market after the subprime meltdown.” Unless you’ve been following the story (like the reporter, presumably) do you really know what that means? TAL instead assumed you knew nothing and explained every component and term so that you actually had a picture of what was going on.

  3. It was done in an entertaining and conversational tone. It didn’t treat the news as some important series of facts that had to be seriously conveyed to you. It treated it as something interesting they wanted to tell you about, a story that involved real people’s lives (who you got to hear from at length) and was full of genuinely interesting pieces. Look at that news quote above one more time. Can you really imagine someone sitting down and saying that with a straight face?

At first these things may seem contradictory — how can you believe in the intelligence of your audience while assuming they don’t know anything? how can you be entertaining and yet still explain a subject? — but the more you think about them you see how well they fit together. Being intelligent doesn’t mean you’re knowledgeable; it means you’re curious. Which means you want to hear the whole story from beginning to end and which means you might actually find it entertaining. And being conversational prevents you from assuming the mask that lets you talk down to your audience while pretending they only need to hear the handful of new facts that you’re providing.

In every other field, that kind of formality has been dropped. Even banks run advertisements these days about how their associates will be your friend. And yet the news chugs along with its arrogant formality, watching its audience get older and older, and wondering why its circulation is declining.

Together, these three points seem like the recipe for a genuine news show: intelligent, comprehensive, and entertaining. And yet, I can’t think of a single thing that follows them. Surely in an era of desperation and experimentation, the wacky idea of actually respecting your audience has to be worth a try by someone. Anyone want to give it a shot?

You should follow me on twitter here.

May 12, 2008


I too enjoyed the NPR/This American Life “The Global Pool of Money” programme. But, there has been plenty of good coverage in the press if you chose to look. See e.g. http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2008/apr/08/creditcrunch.banking .

And I’m not so sure that the news is broken. The decline in sales is probably indicative of some other wider (societal) issue.

posted by Benjamin on May 12, 2008 #

That article conveys far less information and is a lot less readable than the TAL piece. It’s a pretty standard long newspaper feature and I can’t imagine the average person understanding the situation from it or even getting thru it. (Compare Susan Faludi’s introduction to her book Backlash to her newspaper article on LBOs and you’ll see how impossible it is to do good work in that format.)

posted by Aaron Swartz on May 12, 2008 #

If you really want an alternative, here’s a much better piece of journalism on the subject:


posted by Aaron Swartz on May 12, 2008 #

I agree that the TAL piece was excellent, but I wouldn’t say that the Guardian pieces conveys ‘far less’ information. Perhaps the Guardian didn’t touch on the relaxation of regulations for US mortgage applications prior to the ‘crunch’, but the general story and main issues (viz. nature of CDOs and rating agency mistakes) are still there.

Unfortunately many (most?) things are inherently complex and require more than a 2 minute segment in a news programme to allow viewers/readers to gain a thorough understanding. My view is that the news media merely point out a subset of stories — usually relevant to only them and or their publishers/owners — and leave it to us to find out more.

I don’t think there is enough time in the day to allow one hour programmes examining each and every pressing issue arising in the world.

posted by Benjamin on May 12, 2008 #

I don’t think there is enough time in the day to allow one hour programmes examining each and every pressing issue arising in the world.

Luckily the pressing issues don’t change every day; a daily one hour program could cover each of them in turn and convey much more understanding than traditional news.

posted by Aaron Swartz on May 12, 2008 #

Absolutely agree with you, Aaron. That program is a gem, as are many other programs on NPR. Wish a greater portion of the folks who appreciate these programs would pony up even a modest amount of financial support for public radio; maybe then I wouldn’t have to deal with the aggravating and all-too-frequent pledge drives :(

posted by Adam on May 12, 2008 #

Citation for the average age of O’Reilly Factor viewers? Or was that a joke?

posted by John on May 12, 2008 #

From the few eps I’ve heard online (including this one), This American Life does a fantastic job at telling stories in a compelling way. It’s funny to hear the reporters continually remind you of the individual personalities involved in a story—even one as big as the credit crisis…you can tell they really try to personalize a story to give it life.

Cable news is like information candy. This feels more nourishing.

posted by Kevin W. on May 12, 2008 #

This is frivolous, but I can’t stand listening to Ira Glass (or almost anyone else on NPR, for that matter). I don’t suppose there’s a transcript?

posted by Cosma on May 12, 2008 #

“And I’m not alone — all my friends have been talking about it as well.”

As the apocryphal story runs “How could Richard Nixon have won? Everyone I know voted for McGovern!”

I enjoy TAL too … but more relevantly, you might note they eke out a living on the fringes of the media world, competing with rant-radio and pop-music. Quality is a hard sell in terms of profitability.

posted by Seth Finkelstein on May 12, 2008 #

The 71 number comes from this NYT article from 2006 on Olbermann. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/11/arts/television/11keit.html

“MSNBC’s research claims that the median age for Mr. O’Reilly’s audience is 71, while Mr. Olbermann’s is 59. (Fox and CNN both report that the only figures they get for median age of shows with older audiences is “65 plus,” and that Mr. O’Reilly’s audience falls into that category.)”

So however you want to put it, it’s clearly the senior citizens.

Of course, that was in 2006. If the trend held, the number is probably getting even older.

posted by Dan Lewis on May 12, 2008 #

1.5 million viewers as well as a pay-cable television show is eking out a living? What planet are you on?

posted by Aaron Swartz on May 12, 2008 #

The only other outlets that I can think of to come close to the NPR story are ‘The Daily Show’ and ‘The Colbert Report’, which are more about humor than the news. The scary thing is they generally provide more interesting / useful coverage than the news networks (often by lampooning the networks).

posted by Jason on May 12, 2008 #


Though if that “1.5 million” number is true, it’s doing better than I’d expect.

FYI, this is funny:


posted by Seth Finkelstein on May 12, 2008 #

This American Life is not an NPR program. It is produced by PRI (Public Radio International).

posted by Phil Mocek on May 12, 2008 #

There is additional advantage to reading in comparison with watching - you are under less influence of the author. This is why you take contracts to home to read them alone - you can gather more intellectual resources for critical thinking when you free your mind from the image of the author.

posted by Zbigniew Lukasiak on May 12, 2008 #

That still doesn’t answer the question over how the 270 million people in the US will get their news. This American Life is a great program, but it appeals to a minority audience: Those that have 1 hour to listen to a news program. How do we get the public, most of whom don’t have much time, engaged once again with news? and interested in it? After visiting WV over the weekend I was surprised how many individuals I spoke to thought Obama was a muslim and had the same philosophy as Rev Wright. That doesn’t suggest the media (of which I am one) is doing a good job.

posted by Paul Guinnessy on May 13, 2008 #

Phil Mocek, very good point. I stand corrected. What I should have been encouraging was donating to one’s public radio station, not NPR specifically.

And Paul, I hate to say this, but… while I largely agree with Aaron and others that our media can and should do a better job reporting the news… I also think people need to take responsibility for their own education and enlightenment. You can put delicious and nutritious food in front of folks, but if they still insist on eating cotton candy and slurpees, well…

posted by Adam on May 13, 2008 #

Hi Aaron,

Great article on an important. I can understand your thoughts on why news seem indecipherable to so many. However, I would agree with some of the other commentators here to say that: 1) this is not a model that can be replicated enmass. 2) this is not the reason why newspaper/print media companies are performing poorly.

1) As others have stated above, everyday news is only able to provide daily developments in current issues. They are not able to reiterate the entire history everyday. When I was in highschool and first began reading the newspaper, I had a lot of difficulty since the type of information given is not conducive to the understanding by a first time reader. However, now, since I have a stronger knowledge base to reference from, I find I can last a week between newspaper reading the paper but still completely understand most current events. For the purposes of ongoing and protracted issues, daily developments can only be published piecemeal. However, I agree that a pervasive and complex event could be better explained by a ‘Special report’ that speaks to the public’s intelligence and background knowledge. (Note: If you enjoy this type of reporting, may I recommend BBC News channel- up to the date news reports punctuated by indepth analyses of specific issues)

2) Print media, like many industries, underwent a giant transformation due to the advent of the internet. But content isn’t the reason why companies suffered- Delivery was. Companies like Wall Street Journal and the one newspaper Buffet invested in (Chicago based I think) adapted to the internet quite well. It can further be said that Print Media companies had full advantage in using the internet. They were well capitalized, had the infrastructure and network, and many other barriers to entry to be first movers in this space. However, management was incapable of seizing this opportunity.

I conclude by saying that i agree with you in that our core audience’s needs have changed. However, I would not surmise to think that more exhaustive content is a solution to the print media woes of today. What are your thoughts? Is there room for agreement between our views?

posted by Edward Marcus Lam on May 13, 2008 #

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