What if an article knew your assumptions and adjusted based on them?

One critical role for journalism is to challenge readers’ assumptions about how the world works, as well as to expose them to new values different than their own. At least sometimes.

Other times, readers legitimately simply want to get information, but what information counts as relevant will depend on one’s assumptions. That’s the point I tried to experiment with a few weeks back when I wrote a “Choose Your Own Adventure” about when Mitt Romney left Bain Capital.

The idea was that some people seemed to care quite a bit about the timing of his departure, others not at all. And which camp you ought to fall into depended on how you answer several separate questions. How do you feel about outsourcing? About private equity’s value? About management, ownership, and responsibility.

These are tough questions, and good journalism can help readers to make up their minds. But by structuring my piece in that way I hoped to make readers at least think through the logic behind the question at hand. Lots of anti-Romney folks will simply want to find in the Bain departure date a damning controversy. They should be made aware that taking that view commits them to certain other views.

I’m grateful to Brendan Nyhan for mentioning my piece in a post at Columbia Journalism Review, and hope the idea of assumptions and values will be raised more frequently when thinking about media design.

Consider, for instance, how the information needs of a utilitiarian and a libertarian (principled not pragmatic) differ. Say we’re discussing taxes. The utilitarian cares only about outcomes; how does this change human welfare through the distribution of wealth, its impact on growth, etc. The libertarian, depending on his or her strain, has to consider arguments about property rights and possibly about the impact on personal liberty from whatever the taxes get spent on.

Yes, utilitarians should be exposed to libertarian value arguments now and again, and vice versa. But realistically not every article is a chance to rethink core moral principles, nor should it be.

So an article about taxation that contains arguments about welfare and liberty could be altered to display the most relevant information first (or only) if the medium knew the readers’ assumptions. This happens informally as writers write for their audiences, but that’s a blunt measure.

Imagine if a site simply surveyed me on my values and then altered its content to provide me the information that was most relevant for me to reach policy conclusions based on them. It might sound kind of out there, but it wouldn’t be that hard to do in a day and age where we know so much about readers through social authentication.

How Much Journalism is Worth Saving?

Back in early 2010, shortly after launching this blog, I put pen to paper on some of the core ideas guiding my views on the future of news. Here’s one of them that I still believe is crucial and often ignored:

1) When I talk about how we will finance news/journalism I’m interested in only a very small subset of all journalism which I’d refer to as that which provides core civic knowledge.  In other words, the information that we feel is vital to a functioning democracy.*  By this measure, most of what we see in the newspapers is not an issue.  Go through a newspaper sometime and look.  We’re not talking about how to fund the sports section, the travel section, the style section, that article on some writer’s quest for the perfect espresso.  That is beyond the scope of what we, as a society, need to ensure exists going forward.

You can read the full post here.

Today, for the fun of it – yes, this is what I do for fun on a Sunday – I browsed the NYT homepage starting at the top and counted 25 headlines to see how many seemed to fit (based on headline alone, for time’s sake) my definition of civic journalism. I ended up with 12 out of 24, with one not classifiable based on headline (it was a Dowd column so we can be fairly sure it could go.)

That 12 included one story not civic  per se, but a breaking news story about an earthquake that seemed worth counting based on the idea of essential national news. You can count the top stories yourself and see what you come up with, though my screenshot below doesn’t capture all 25.

My point here is that most journalism isn’t worth saving, from a democratic perspective. Now, we might want to save it for other reasons. I’m a writer, so I’d like to have a job. I work for a startup that’s betting on the reinvention of media as a business. But whether writers have jobs and investors can get a decent return off of a content business are separate from the question of protecting capital J Journalism.

As for how to preserve that core civic journalism, I don’t have the perfect answer. (I lean toward a nonprofit model like ProPublica, and am additionally hopeful that universities will shoulder a lot of the burden.) But a lot of the discussions about how to save journalism – and about what new media experiments are worthwhile and not – become much clearer once you realize you’re really only trying to preserve a subset of existing media.

One thing that bugs me, perhaps because I work for a new media business, is that new entrants are often judged for the quality of their content without much attention to that of the incumbents. Business Insider gets panned for its slideshows or HuffPo for its celebrity gossip without any mention of the fact that the majority of traditional journalism served no civic purpose, but just existed as entertaining content.

That roughly 50% of the top stories in America’s top newspaper makes this clear. Now, I love the NYT and I’d rather read their non-essential stuff more than the non-essential stuff at various other outlets. But wanting to read a J-school grad reporting on New York’s nightlife lawyer isn’t in and of itself better than reading a Gawker writer mocking this that or the other.

The next time you have a conversation about saving journalism, or about the quality of a new media entrant, remember: the segment of media worth saving for the sake of democracy is only a very small slice of what has traditionally gone under the banner of journalism.