The Sausage Factory: Thoughts on the New Media and the Old

2 August 2009 · 11 comments

I’ve been working a little with a PR rep lately, and it’s given me a glimpse into a new world — a world I don’t particularly like.

From my experience, sound personal finance tips are timeless. We may get tired of hearing them, but that doesn’t change the fact that they work. The reason they’re repeated so often is because they’re effective.

As a result, when I write about various aspects of personal finance at Get Rich Slowly, I tend to cover the same themes repeatedly. That’s just the nature of the beast. I try to explore topics from new angles or give added color, but there are only so many ways you can write about “buy low, sell high” or “spend less than you earn”.

In Search of the New…

The PR rep I’m working with feeds me potential interviews with reporters for major media outlets. I’m happy to provide help when I can. But some of the requests from the reporters drive me nuts. There’s a certain group that is after new! tips. I get that they want to have original content and share new ideas. That’s great. But a lot of this seems forced.

Here’s an example of one request I saw recently:

I am writing an article about money-saving travel trends for the Los Angeles Times.

These must be new, very different, a little over-the-top/fun, perhaps (not necessarily) green must haves an in this down economy angle travel-related ideas/services/products of interest to readers who may no longer have as much (or any) disposable income.

They can be related to hotels/restaurants/transportation, you name it, I’ll look at it if it fits my protocol above.

Please note: a little over-the-top, new, different are key requirements. For example, I dont want to hear about hotels that are offering a third night free type thing. Ideas that are creative, that might wow readers, are what I’m looking for.

I don’t mean to pick on this writer — which is why I’m not naming names — because this is indicative of the way many reporters approach stories.

The Forest for the Trees

I think this approach misses the point, and in a big way. When you emphasize novel saving ideas, when you go for over-the-top, you’re ignoring the methods that have been proven to work. Again, just because we’ve heard the same tips 20 times before doesn’t mean we shouldn’t hear them for a 21st.

I’m also bothered by how the financial media manufacturers its stories. (It’s not just the financial media — I’m just using that as an example because I’ve seen it first-hand.) Some outlets — especially television — go into a story with the end in mind: “Let’s write about somebody who bought a house and was duped into a subprime mortgage and now is facing bankruptcy!”

Again, maybe that makes for a compelling story, but it’s also sensationalistic. And it’s not telling the truth — not in the larger sense. That is, the media is telling the truth about that individual, but by focusing on him, they’re ignoring the 98% of the population who are in different circumstances. They highlight the extreme in an effort to shock us.

On the Money

I saw this first-hand a couple of months ago when I made a short appearance on a major business television network. They asked me to write my story for them. It had to be something I could read aloud in under sixty seconds.

After I submitted my copy, one of the show’s editors worked with me for a couple of hours to refine the script. “Can we say this?” she’d ask, as she altered sentences. What she wanted me to say was true, but it was emphasizing all the wrong things.

When we were finished with the revisions, there was nothing in the piece about Get Rich Slowly, which is the single most important factor in my financial turnaround. It was like telling the story of Little Red Riding Hood without mentioning the wolf while emphasizing the fabric of the hood.

The Sausage Factory

Earlier this year at the old Foldedspace, I wrote about this experience:

These stories are manufactured, just like a cardboard box. They’re not reported. The “journalists” create the story they think their audience wants, and when they contact me, I’m just an ingredient

Bill, one of the fellows working with me, listened to my complaints, and then he said, “J.D., you can’t look at it like that. You can’t expect it to be straight reporting because it’s not. You have to think of it like sausage. What they’re producing is sausage. The media is a giant sausage factory. You don’t want to know what goes into the sausage or how it’s made. You just have to trust that what comes out at the other end tastes good.”

The more time I spend interacting with the traditional news media, the less I trust it. I don’t trust the liberal media, I don’t trust the conservative media — I don’t trust any of it. I don’t believe I’m being told the Truth.

Turning to Blogs

If I want the Truth, I turn to blogs. I know that I may not be getting truth from them (meaning they may be disguising bits of info, like names and dates, in order to protect friends and family), but I’m getting the Truth (meaning they’re not lying to me about the Big Picture). To me, this is more important.

Traditional media often gets on its high-horse when talking about blogs because “bloggers don’t have to meet rigorous fact-checking standards”. I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. What does it matter if you get the facts straight, but you’re totally distorting what they mean? Plus, I’ve had enough reporters screw up the facts I give them to know that they’re no more reliable than bloggers.

Old media is dying. I, for one, will not mourn its passing.

Update: Via Nicole: The corporations that own our largest media outlets are controlling and censoring the content of their news organizations based on the unrelated interests of the parent corporation. It’s not exactly what I wrote about above, but it’s pretty damn close. It’s another type of processed meat.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ryan 2 August 2009 at 09:14

I’ll play devil’s advocate.

Paul Carr made a very good point on TechCrunch yesterday about blogs vs. traditional media. Blogs are good at giving you the first five minutes of something when it happens, but they have yet to become very good at talking about “why.” Despite their sensationalism, newspapers are still very good at investigative journalism, and looking at the next five weeks, not five minutes, largely because they have the resources to do it.

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2 Tyler Karaszewski 2 August 2009 at 11:20

I’ve long since given up on traditional news media. Like you say, the emphasis on sensationalism is off-putting, but even worse than that is that the vast majority of it makes no difference to me.

You think that it should, because everyone puts such a social premium on being current-events-savvy, but once you move away from that, you realize that you barely even notice that you’re missing it. Occasionally at work someone will bring up some new congressional act that you hadn’t heard about, and you realize when you buy groceries that you have no idea who the celebrities are that supermarket tabloids write about, but otherwise, the news hardly makes a difference.

Take “swine flu” as an example — this has been a big enough deal that I have heard it mentioned a few places, but if I hadn’t? It wouldn’t have made a difference. I didn’t get it, no one in my family got it. Had we never heard the news articles about it, it would have been business as usual and made no difference in our lives at all.

The news industry is *exactly* like the advertising industry — it’s built around convincing you that the thing it’s selling (itself) is important and will make you a better person for having bought it. In reality, news is no more important than other piece of junk being advertised on TV and sold at Walmart. Like the junk at Walmart, certain items are useful to certain people, but filling your life with more of it isn’t inherently better.

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3 Mrs. Micah 3 August 2009 at 11:38

My mom was interviewed a couple years ago by a local news station. The topic was her participation in a special Delaware education program which lets seniors go to the UD for free. Mom has been taking Latin classes to brush up her skills.

This is how it sounded in the interview: Mrs. K stayed home and raised her two daughters, now they’ve gone to college and she has too.

How it actually is: Mrs. K has a Ph.d in Linguistics and had a career as a professor before having children at the age of 40. Now that the younger is in college, she’s decided to brush up on her skills so she can give more advanced private lessons than the beginner Latin lessons she’d been giving before.

The way it was played it was “isn’t it fantastic for this woman to be able to get the education she’d given up by staying home with her kids?” Mom was quite annoyed with that. She said they should have ditched her interview if it hadn’t played to their story–there were other women using the program who would fit it fine.

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4 Anca 3 August 2009 at 12:38

And on top of all that, too many news articles are poorly written and don’t communicate enough information…it’s fine if you don’t know certain details — but tell us that instead of leaving readers wondering.

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5 jtimberman 4 August 2009 at 01:37

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this JD. I could write quite the diatribe about what I think is wrong with mainstream media, and why I don’t pay much attention to any of it, but you covered a number of points. Here’s some resources though:

http://gipscorp.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/media-moguls-1200X849.jpg
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concentration_of_media_ownership

It was eye-opening stuff when I researched back during the election season.

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6 V 4 August 2009 at 13:13

I’ve had similar experiences to yours with “manufactured stories”, where I felt more like an ingredient than a person. In those cases, I think that the problem is often that journalists are told to write on a particular topic, and have to go out and ‘find’ the story. So in addition to the natural human bias of listening to what they want to hear, they’re additionally filtering information based on what they want to write.

Two kinds of journalism can potentially be very different – the “NEWS!” (what/where/when, a superficial coverage of major issues) and the in-depth topic exploration (who/what/why is X, with varying levels of depth and potential to be biased by the reporter/editor’s lens).

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7 Wojciech 4 August 2009 at 16:38

This post really resonated with me. Mass media seems to think that they’re keeping us interested by presenting the most outrageous views, but in reality, it’s truthful advice people are after.

Watching most mass media interviews with bloggers, or reports on “blogging” makes me want to hurl. Bloggers are treated as newbie journalists and their ideas are condensed to bullet points that barely scratch the surface and usually mis-represent the true intent.

I recently wrote about why learning about personal finance from blogs is preferable to mass media for me. Some of the main points from that post:

- Learning about specific situations of specific people is much more useful than the “average” case. Even though it’s specific, it really does hit the “98%” you talk about, because most averages of mass media are really … exceptions. Curious how that works…
- Blogs provide unparalleled accessibility to the writer, and therefore accountability to write about truthful experiences.
- Blogs build community (actually, I did a plug for the GRS forums because I think it’s a fantastic example). Community results in better and more authentic learning.
- Blogs encourage the “collective answer.” Even though factual bits and pieces may be wrong, the community usually points out the errors and picks up where the blogger left off.
- Interconnectivity encourages bloggers to fill in missing information that hasn’t been written about, and to present alternative points of view.
- Authority isn’t established by the paper or mass media website you write for, but by the community respecting what you have to say.

So, like you, I say goodbye to old media, with no regrets.

P.S. For fear of coming off as spam, I won’t share the link but it’s easy enough to find on my blog’s recently popular list.

Happy to find your personal blog, J.D. Some useful and inspirational reading here.

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8 Ben 4 August 2009 at 17:46

What I like about you JD is that you call it like you see it. I’m not saying you’re always right, because who is, but you’re not afraid to share your thoughts and that’s one of the things that makes the blogosphere an attractive source of information for a lot of people.

Blogs certainly have their share of faults, but as long as readers remember to take the content with a grain of salt, blogs can be a great place for learning and discussion (and cursing damn it!)

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9 VinTek 8 August 2009 at 07:30

JD,

I respectfully disagree. You put too much trust in blogs which are more often than not, just opinions. Because blogs tend to be on a equal footing, you get things like the perpetuation of myths like Obama’s citizenship and 9/11 conspiracies. Somewhere in all the opinion, actual facts get lost. Without traditional media, you wouldn’t journalistic gems such as this:

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-lisker22may22%2C0%2C121834.story

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-kingdrewpulitzer-sg,0,1507651.storygallery

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-teachers6-2009may06,0,3038809.story

You’re just not going to get journalism like this in blogs. There’s no money for it.

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10 jdroth 8 August 2009 at 08:34

Vintek, awesome point, actually. I guess I’m talking about a specific type of writing, one that doesn’t involve timely news. You’re right that journalism isn’t something practiced by most blogs. (And when a blog does engage in journalism, it’s usually a one-time thing.) Journalism as a craft and a profession is still the province of professional journalists.

You’re also right that there are plenty of crackpots with blogs. But the idiotic “birthers” who seem obsessed with the Obama citizenship myth aren’t just being propelled by bloggers. There are plenty in the mainstream media goading them along as well: Lou Dobbs, Rush Limbaugh, etc.

What I’m writing about in this article falls somewhere in the middle. I’m writing about feature stories and about non-timely news. This is where I think traditional journalism is just manufacturing stuff, and I think it’s lame.

But breaking news? And actual journalism. I concede that you are correct! :)

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11 guy 27 August 2009 at 19:09

I used to work for government clearinghouse, we answered phones and emails all day and distributed govt stats and other info. We used to get calls from reporters all the time who already had their story written and wanted stats to back them up. They actually used to get quite mad if we couldn’t give them exactly what they wanted.

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