If Mr. Dooley Met Mark Zuckerberg…

By Conor Brady

8th November 2021

Traditional news-media’s values have been eroded by a combination of click-chasing and social media’s immunity from liability.

If Mr. Dooley Met Mark Zuckerberg…

Little is heard nowadays of the fictitious “Mr. Dooley”, arguably one of the most influential figures of 19th and 20th century American news media, or indeed his creator, journalist and satirist, Finley Peter Dunne, born to Irish immigrants in Chicago in 1867.

The irascible Martin Dooley, supposedly a middle-aged, Roscommon-born, bartender on the city’s south side, featured first in the pages of the Chicago Evening Post in 1892. When his reputation grew as a pithy commentator on politics and public affairs, the column came to be syndicated across the country. His acerbic, skeptical declamations went to the heart of American politics and values and were reputedly obligatory reading at President Theodore Roosevelt’s White House cabinet meetings.

Probably Mr. Dooley’s most memorable aphorism was that it is the job of the newspaper “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” But while this aphorism is frequently quoted in arguments about the role of the news media, its context is rarely considered. Mr. Dooley was not complimenting the press. Rather was he castigating it for its self-serving alliances with the political establishment and big business. If Mr. Dooley were still around today, one wonders what he would have to say about the behemoth that is Facebook, with its immense, world-wide influence, its unimaginable wealth and its lack of any real accountability at either national or international level.

The supposedly powerful news media, whose influence exercised Mr. Dooley more than a century ago, were minnows compared to Mark Zuckerberg’s Leviathan and the other tech-monsters that gorge on the revenues which once sustained print and broadcast media around the world. The American press of Mr. Dooley’s time may have been able to influence city hall, the police department and even the legislature. Today’s tech-giants can effectively sabotage democratic processes, fix the course of nations and determine the buying and consuming habits across the greater part of the planet.

One feels for journalists and content-creators who believe they try to bring traditional values in news media platforms that struggle to compete with the tech-giants. It is a huge challenge to adhere to values of fairness, balance, accuracy and decency in a working environment where decisions are increasingly based on the numbers of ‘clicks’ and ‘likes’ that a particular item may generate.

A new book, All The News that’s Fit To Click: How Metrics are Transforming the Work of Journalists, by Caitlin Petre, Associate Professor at Princeton University, calls this out. She has also authored The Traffic Factories in which she posed the question, in very neutral terms, whether the application of these metrics to journalists’ work is, on balance, a good or a bad thing.

Petre describes the “intensified commercial pressures” driven by “newsroom metrics” that measure reader engagement with digital news content. These, she argues, drive journalists to “optimise their content for clicks ultimately in ways that deteriorate their own working conditions.” She discusses the example of Chartbeat. Developed more than a decade ago, Chartbeat and similar technologies such as Google Analytics are a common feature of most newsrooms. Most have some sort of capacity to enable journalists to monitor traffic to their output and reader engagement with what they have created, in real time.

Watching some of these in operation reminds one of the frantic scenes from The Wolf of Wall Street, in which screaming traders watch the rising and falling of stock prices that determine how many millions of dollars they can make over a given period of time.

But as Caitlin Petre argues, data in itself, is morally neutral. It is neither good nor bad. These value judgments don’t arise until the data is applied to decision-making, and the reality is that it is increasingly being used to inform decisions on what news will be covered, what prominence is to be accorded to it and how long will it be allowed to run for. Advertising will be sold and sponsorship will be secured around the content that gets the most clicks.

Banks, airlines, entertainment companies, manufacturers of advanced technology, real-estate agents, chain stores, purveyors of food and drink products don’t want their advertising planted where they know the reader or the viewer isn’t visiting. They want to be up there where the ‘likes’ and the ‘clicks’ can be measured in their millions.

Increasingly, the pressure is on journalism and on journalists to provide the content that can drive consumers to where they will be exposed to advertising or content that emanates from commercial sponsors. And conversely, the pressure is there not to produce content that may disrupt the commercial messaging - that may get between the consumer and his or her decision to buy.

Of course, the picture is far from uniform. Many fine news media organisations continue to operate on principles that divide advertising from editorial content, that prioritise values of truthfulness, honesty, accuracy and public service. Many news media that had operated for generations in print or broadcast have successfully adapted to the online sphere, bringing their traditional values and principles with them.

But not all news media have been as well-resourced or have not had reserves that have enabled them to spend their way through the transition from the old, simple business model to the much more complex and unpredictable business models that operate in the digital space.

And even these, for the most part, have been obliged to shrink the scale of their editorial operations, hacking back, for example, on overseas news, on specialised reporting and on quality control in the form of editing and fact-checking.

I suspect, if Mr Dooley were to come back to see it all, he would be appalled at the extent to which traditional news-media values have been eroded to make space for the commercial juggernauts of 21st century high-tech. He might, for once, be lost for words.

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