Credit: Colin Park via Geograph CC BY-SA 2.0

Irish Times: We made loads of money in the pandemic

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The Pandemic has been very bad news for some people – restaurateurs, publicans, students, anybody working part time in hospitality, and so on, but it has been absolutely superb news for some others. Mainly, of course, the media:

Profits up, subscribers up, readership up. And of course, with more readers and subscribers, you can charge more for advertising. These things are a spiral, in the media business, and it is all about winning eyeballs.

What’s notable, of course, is that the Irish media’s sudden upturn in fortunes comes after several years of steady decline. The print newspaper business has been struggling for a decade and a half, as papers go out of fashion. RTE has been steadily losing viewers and audience share for almost as long. Last year, that all reversed itself, very suddenly. There are really only two explanations for that: Either the media’s previously struggling business model suddenly became very profitable, or something in society fundamentally changed consumer behaviour. Gee, wonder which it was.

Let’s get something straight off the bat here: It is not the media’s fault that people would turn to them in a crisis, and even the most hardened lockdown sceptic would have to admit that in the first months of the pandemic, as an unknown virus seemed poised to exterminate everyone over 70 living in Italy, for example, it is normal that people would want to read everything they could about it. Media readership also went through the roof after 9/11, for example, and that wasn’t their fault either.

The problem, though, is that as we have all learned, in this business (and Gript is no exception) covid delivers clicks. More covid, more clicks. The stories that do best, you suspect, are those revealing the existence of a new variant, or a new symptom, or a new thing to be worried about. You see it, too, in coverage of vaccines: A single person having a side effect somewhere will always get more attention than ten thousand people having no side effect. That is because you are more likely to click on that story. For people on both sides of the Covid lockdown debate, Covid has been a clicks goldmine.

The problem, in Ireland, though, is that we don’t really have a media that does “both sides of the Covid lockdown debate”. What we have is a media that has discovered that their alarmist coverage is popular, and widely read. This has two impacts: First, it influences readers. Second, because readers are clicking on the bad news, it encourages media outlets to report even more bad news. Sort of “hey, Jimmy, your story about the woman in Australia who died of covid did well, so you should report the man in Bristol who died of covid too”. It is a spiral: The more you click on something, the more stories like it you will get.

The media would never admit this, of course, because most ordinary journalists don’t concern themselves with anything so vulgar as the capitalist imperatives of supply and demand. As far as they’re concerned, they’re “acting in the public interest”. But how do you measure what the public is actually interested in? Why, clicks, of course.

Ironically, it is at a time like this when a non-profit, national, independent broadcaster could really come to the fore, being as it is not driven by the need to win clicks or advertising or eyeballs – but Ireland does not have one of those. We have RTE, which is in the odd position of getting massive state support, but also relying on the clicks and the advertising. Thus we get market-driven agenda-pushing journalism, dressed up as neutral and objective news. The very worst of both worlds, because their entirely tabloid alarmist stuff is then stamped with an extra seal of authority.

It would be foolish to pretend, of course, that these considerations do not impact us here at Gript, also. Of course they do: If a story does well, then we are inclined to do more like it, because we want to grow our readership. If a story – even a well-researched, important piece of journalism on a matter of importance – does badly, we are less likely to invest resources in doing something like it again. It is easy to blame the media, but that is the marketplace at work.

The solution here is not to attack the media for delivering what their consumers want, but for more consumers to become aware of the process. The media is not, and never can be, a neutral, objective, observer. We are all salesmen – trying to compete for your attention, and your readership, and your clicks. That makes us all inherently untrustworthy, even when we mean well.


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