Thoughts About Media And The Role Of Small Voices

  
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Back in January, I decided to take my writing up a notch. I used to just “blog” which was this nice relaxed pace, writing only when I felt like I had something interesting to say. While that provided almost no stress, it also didn’t provide much content. It wasn’t that I felt I had nothing to say, I just felt like someone had already said it. I had no incentive to write about the things I like because a million other people were already writing about those topics. At around the same time, I started to become actively aware of the decline of quality in the mainstream media.

Google has almost singlehandedly destroyed the news market by creating Goggle News which essentially denies the ability of any news outlet to make money on their product. The news media responded in the same way that every other industry that has been butchered by a Google or an Amazon can, and either shut down or started producing the only content it could afford - poorly researched and hastily written articles. Eventually, I came to realize that I hadn’t read a “mainstream” newspaper or watched a “newscast” in months, perhaps years, preferring to get my information from individuals and smaller niche sites that didn’t need Google to get by and were able to survive, if not exactly thrive.

Yesterday’s “fringe” content dominates today’s conversations.

I came to realize that these two things naturally came together. Of course there were a million people all saying the same thing! The vacuum left by Google’s outright attack on the fourth estate sucked these voices in from the fringes and they became prominent. It was at that point that I decided to write more. Write stuff I knew about. Write it in my own voice instead of conforming to the dull, lifeless drone that media companies had spent decades honing to perfection. Write the stuff I want to write without second-guessing myself about tone; without trying to write “evergreen” content for the clicks.

I (perhaps naively) believe that I create useful content that people like.

To kick this off, I joined Medium and for several weeks I wrote articles there. It did not take very long for me to realize that although my idea was good, my solution was not. Medium is a very broken idea, but you need to really muckle on to it and live it hard for a little while to discover that. My final article on Medium was about how it had unwittingly built a system that rewarded writers that published poor quality articles while it was attempting to do the exact opposite.

I am a technologist at heart. I build things every day. Some are simple. Some are mind-blowingly complex. Some are embarrassingly stupid and will never see the light of a Github repo, and some are the pride and joy of my career. Because of my long experience building things, I know that the first version of anything never works. It is always a learning tool and will always be thrown out, so I looked for other solutions.

"Plan to throw one away; you will, anyhow."     
- Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month

I reflected on the fact that I missed mainstream media so little that I did not initially realize that I stopped consuming it. It was only after being absent from it for months, perhaps years, that I said “heeey…I wonder if the Globe & Mail newspaper still has door delivery to my little town”. (Spoiler; it no longer does and the digital edition is now the same price as the paper edition that used to be delivered to my door.)

I wondered: if I am no longer consuming traditional media, am I ill-informed? Do I not know what is happening in the world anymore because I stopped reading newspapers and dropped my subscriptions to news outlets like CBC? I was careful to eliminate bias confirmation as I explored this idea. I purposely reviewed the media outlets that I had let slide into oblivion to see what they had been reporting on and whether I knew about it already. And, if not, why not?

My investigation ended with the confirmation that I was, indeed, informed. And while I certainly encountered stories I had not heard of, they were not stories that would have interested me had I known. Things like changes in hunting seasons and local stuff in other provinces that have no effect on me are some examples. I came to understand that I did not check out of reality, I just subconsciously made choices about outlets that I considered to have quality information. It’s no surprise that the suffering media outlets I grew up with did not top my list of purveyors of quality news.

Aggregated news is a product, not a legitimate attempt to inform.

Instead, I realized that I now get my info from specific sources, and frequently collaborated more complex issues with other resources. Instead of paying the Globe & Mail for its Ontario edition - which is the closest edition to my east-coast home, but still several provinces of relevance away - I pay for a monthly subscription to All Nova Scotia.

In lieu of hoping that the doddering CBC or CTV or will get even basic information security news correct, I read people like Brian Krebbs and follow sites like Threat Post and Dark Reading.

Rather than relying on a third party to curate information that is in its best interests to feed me, I started going to the source. I check-in with my town website to know what is important hyper-locally. I watch the daily COVID-19 briefing from our provincial Premier and Chief Medical Officer of Health to see what the health orders and epidemiology says about my near future. I reach out to my Mayor or councillor directly when I have questions about things that fall within their domain. And when I need more than a three-bullet PowerPoint slide to understand complex legal issues in the digital landscape in my country, I go to Micheal Geist.

Opinions aren’t news

I now eschew opinion pieces in a long-in-coming epiphany that opinions aren’t news. There is no value other than a temporary fanciful distraction in knowing what doctors think about legal matters. There is no value in paying attention to what economists think about epidemiology. And there is no value in news outlets that have lapsed into hapless opinion mills because that is the only unique content they are able to muster anymore.

It is with the sincerest of hopes that I can contribute meaningful content and commentary to the discourse that I now decide to reel in all my writing activities and concentrate on one single project: my Death By Tech newsletter/blog that you’re reading or listening to now. I will no longer be continuing the One Time Pad security newsletter and I will be removing all my content from my main site at jonwatson.ca and focus solely on writing content here.

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