Eat Your Vegetables

One of my professors is fond of using an odd analogy when talking about news. Specifically, he refers to “hard” news, i.e. business and politics, as “vegetables”, and “soft” news, i.e. sports, weather, and entertainment, as “dessert”. Then he complains that news organizations are serving people too much of the latter, and not enough of the former.

The metaphor is obvious: If the purpose of news is to keep people informed, then surely the “vegetable” news stories are more important. However, many news organizations seem to believe that these are not the kind of stories that drive people to their sites. Really, this is just another facet of the old and broad-ranging debate about how best to balance the business side of journalism with the, well, journalistic side.

Actually, maybe the best way of assessing how that balancing is going is to compare “standard” news with that from a source that lacks the business motivation entirely. Enter The Intercept, my go-to example of non-profit journalism. How do the homepages of The Intercept and the Times differ? First of all, note that I was actually comparing the politics page of the Times, because The Intercept pretty much only does these kinds of stories.

The results? Well, first of all, a full third of the stories on both sites had the word “Trump” in their headlines. No surprise there, really. If you can get beyond that, though, you’ll notice some differences. The most startling one, as of today, is that The Intercept has nothing on what is surely today’s largest political story, the baseball shooting in Virginia. The Times, by contrast, has several. That being said, The Intercept has a whole slew of stories about topics that the Times barely mentions, such as fuller analysis of pending national legislation, (what I consider to be) better coverage of the British election, and, as is their specialty, the occasional investigative national-security-related expose. By my standards, then, it seems that The Intercept does better on the vegetable count. (FYI: in this analysis, I classify most Trump stories as dessert.) However, it should be noted that the Times has much broader coverage of both domestic and foreign political issues, which would be expected given that it is a much larger publication, with many more resources.

I think that, if anything, this comparison makes clear that a slew of niche nonprofits cannot replace the current for-profit juggernauts in the media landscape. I suppose you could try and get all your news from sites like The Intercept, but you would quickly find that large segments of your picture of the world are simply missing. The Intercept, however, does give us a small window into what more vegetable-focused, if you will, journalism might look like.

Actually, perhaps the most illuminating comparison to make is between the two above sites and the BBC, a vast publicly-funded news organization with an extremely broad focus. As would be expected, the BBC can’t really compete with the depth of coverage of either the Times or The Intercept when it comes to American news. (I actually sometimes prefer the BBC’s coverage of the U.S, however, I think because their vantage point as outsiders looking in sometimes gives them a clearer picture of the news.)

Despite this, the BBC probably has better, broader, international coverage than even the Times. As would be expected, this is certainly true for the U.K, but also for most other countries. That being said, the Times excels at more insightful “news analysis”, while the BBC tends to follow a straighter “stick to the facts” doctrine that leads to shorter, but possibly less informative articles.

I was actually surprised by the fact that the BBC has a significant amount of “dessert” articles, not to mention that I think the BBC app has as many or more advertisements even than the Times. I guess this indicates that publicly-funded journalism, at least the BBC’s version of it, does not necessarily fulfill its journalistic duties any better than the traditional U.S. media.

I’m honestly not sure what conclusion to draw from all this, apart from the fact that to be the most informed, one should read all three. Even this isn’t workable, however, as most of you, unlike me, probably don’t have the time or patience to cross-reference stories across different news sources. Apart from that, I guess that all I can say is that we’re still a long way from finding any perfect model for carrying out journalism. In that light, then, perhaps the massive restructuring that the digital revolution has caused is ultimately a good thing.

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