Let’s change the conversation

I genuinely believe that each and every one of us can change the current course of the UK media. And I believe we need to.

Over the past few months, and in the last week alone, there has been an increased focus on what is, and isn’t ‘in the public interest’ and therefore suitable to report. Hand on heart, I think we all know perfectly well what is, and isn’t, essential information and in our interests.

Freedom of speech

However, we don’t need Government legislation to crack down on what the UK media can and can’t report, in fact you won’t meet a bigger advocate for freedom of speech in the media than me. Instead we need to change our behaviour as consumers of news. We absolutely have the power to click – or not click – on a story. We can choose whether to consume a news item, or whether to move on to another story, or switch off entirely. But as a nation we’re hooked, and the media is feeding our appetite for more as it knows what we want to see and read.

But, reflecting over the weekend on an industry I’ve worked in for over 20 years now, it’s hard to believe that this huge shift in consumption, this tidal wave of noise that gets us hooked and on screen for more and more hours per week (according to my weekly usage report), only began in 2007 with the release of a certain touchscreen phone.

Since the dawn of the iPhone, the UK’s media has been on a path of exponential evolution. It may have been ready for a change, but it was only with the introduction of the iPhone that it finally had the platform from which to explode – and explode it has. The pace at which we’ve been presented with news, and grown accustomed to digesting an increasing volume of it day, by day, by day, is difficult to grasp.

We ran a survey on Twitter this week asking for people to tell us the first social media platform they ever signed up to. Mine was Facebook, in 2007. That’s just 13 years ago. Looking back, I’m absolutely delighted that the previous 29 years of my life aren’t saved on a social media platform for the world to see. Back then I assume I filled my commuter time with reading a book. Maybe. It’s just so hard to remember back to a time without the volume of communication channels – and therefore news – that’s in our faces each minute of the day.

So why is there such a volume of ‘non-essential’ news gracing our screens?

For anyone not as close to the media (and for those of you who are, please bear with me), here’s a very brief (and definitely not comprehensive) answer to this question.

With new tech came a change in the way we demand – and consume – news. Circulations of printed papers declined, and with it came a decrease in advertising revenue – and therefore profits. To remain in business, news moved online. But to be able to charge advertisers for space online, to balance the books once more, a huge competition began to get eyes on websites. And not just eyes, the time spent on the site is also a critical factor in attracting the cash.

Often journalists themselves won’t have full control over what they write and publish. Instead, they are instructed to draft content, which could be based on what Google Trends has been showing is the most searched for content over the past hour, or what Google Analytics says was their most read content of the previous 24 hours. Occasionally it may also be based on content provided by a PR person.

So in summary, as a consumer of news, every time you click on a story it encourages that site to provide more of the same content.

Changing the agenda

So, this is great when it’s a focus on something that will actually affect our lives (and it doesn’t always need to be about serious issues like climate change – I love life hack tips!). But not so great when it involves the hounding of a celeb. And it’s shockingly simple: if a site features a celeb looking downcast and it attracts more clicks than anything else that day, it will incentivise photographers to get more pics of said celeb looking glum the following day. The site knows we’ll click, and the advertisers will come, and the profits will be made.

More worryingly on a personal level, thirteen years ago I didn’t have any need for this in my life, but now it seems I do. And it almost seems non-negotiable. Almost.

A new dawn, a new day

It may not be the new year, in fact it’s 19th February, but today I make a new start. I’m not going to try to pretend I’ll put my phone down and go outside more, but I am going to seriously think before I click. My click, and the time I spend on those news articles of celebs, influences what the news the sites report. If I click more on stories that matter - stories that ARE in the public’s interest, stories with serious investigative reporting behind them - and less on the quick-fire celeb gossip stories that haven’t even been edited effectively (and if everyone else does the same just a little bit more/less), as consumers we’ll change the media agenda ourselves.

I really believe we can. Who’s with me?

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