Bad News Travels Fast
From Murder to Meta
Although we might feel nostalgic for the days when Walter Cronkite ruled the airwaves and Edward R Murrow set journalistic standards, news has not always achieved that level of gravitas. In fact, at least since the days of Shakespeare, news was spread with a fair dollop of ribald entertainment by performers on street corners.
American murder ballads were rooted in this Northern European tradition. Terrible events such as accidents, disasters, and murders were lightened up with familiar music and spellbinding storytelling. There was often a moral to these stories, and the murderers seldom got away with murder. Retribution was sometimes supernatural, while in most cases in the American tradition, the men hang, and the women burn.
Olive Burt, a folklore historian, studied the murder ballad tradition of the American Old West and discovered that performance of these songs was supplemented by traditional broadsides-single sheet newspapers- which helped to preserve an oral tradition that otherwise might have been lost:
Western settlers found murder and bloodshed fascinating, and composed local ballads. But with printing facilities scarce, many of these items were not published at all while others saw fame only briefly in the columns of the local newspapers.
My grandmother played the organ in church, but as a native of Missouri, the land of Jesse James and Cole Younger, she also knew Stephen Foster’s catalogue of American songs, and folk songs like Tom Dooley you might be familiar with as well:
I met her on the mountain
There I took her life
Met her on the mountain
Stabbed her with my knife
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and cry (poor boy)
Hang down your head, Tom Dooley
Poor boy, you're bound to die
Somehow in these songs there seems to be equal sympathy for the victim and the perpetrator, who is often immortalized. One of my favorites is Lead Belly’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night. It was also the final song recorded by Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, a performance of pure pain (click left to view the documentary by Filip Cain). It evolved from a ballad called The Longest Train, later In the Pines, about a girl who somehow collided with a train and was beheaded- “her head was found in the driver’s seat”.
Technology & Sensationalism
This folk tradition was a way for street performers to spread and profit from sensational local events. As I read thru my Twitter/X feed every day, I see that not much has changed. Something in human nature draws us to the drama and tragedy of violence-from a safe distance. Now that people are not reading newspapers as much, the street performers of the Internet have taken over the news. The 280-character limit has created a kind of musical structure for writers, albeit with less art than their predecessors. Murder ballads provided a narrative, a framework to understand violence, not factual accounts.
Lurid reporting goes beyond murder of course. Technology has opened new doors to sharing private information that is in no way news, but influences political outcomes.
It is not often that a state legislative campaign in an off-season election seizes the national spotlight. But that is what happened in September, when the Washington Post revealed that a promising Virginia Democrat, Susanna Gibson, had previously been captured in a recorded video performing sex acts online with her husband. Politico December 9, 2023
In the end, Gibson lost the election by 1000 votes, and says beyond her personal anguish, she discovered through polling that young people simply didn’t care. They are fully committed to a digital life and damn the consequences. What a departure from the days when reporters shielded FDR’s wheelchair from public view and never reported on JFK’s extracurricular adventures. Perhaps that particular era of journalism was really the outlier, and we are experiencing a generational change back to the norm, a shattering of the previous model and its institutions.
The Creator Economy
Mainstream, legacy, or corporate media, whatever it is now called, is in decline, and is being eclipsed by user-generated content. This is from Stripe, the online payments processor for Substack and other platforms, in September:
Two years ago we wrote about a phenomenon called the creator economy. At the time, there was reason to think it might be peaking…Stripe data paints a different picture: of a creator economy that has evolved but is still thriving. We’ve seen this evolution up close, as many of the largest creator platforms use Stripe Connect to onboard creators and pay out funds around the world.
In 2021, we aggregated data from 50 popular creator platforms on Stripe and found they had onboarded 668,000 creators who’d received $10 billion in payouts. We refreshed that data in 2023 and found something surprising: the creator economy is still growing about as fast as it was in 2021. Today, those same 50 creator platforms have onboarded over 1 million creators and have paid out over $25 billion in earnings.
The Future of Alternative Media
Ted Gioia, who writes about culture on Substack, highlighted the Stripe data above and has a set of conclusions about what he calls the new, highly fragmented microculture:
The microculture is the source of all the growth in media.
It’s already the source of most of the revenues.
Growth at many alt media outlets is still accelerating, so the gap between macro and micro factions is going to get much, much wider.
Alt media has huge influence on the public in ways most elites can’t even begin to grasp—because they operate in an echo chamber that shuts out this reality.
Market concentration of social media is a social, political, and economic issue. The problem is that technology has its own efficiencies, and control over information risks the sinocization of public debate in the US.
Of course, not all of this content is news. Some is entertainment, but once again, it is hard to draw a distinct line between the two. One huge difference today is of course the bromide that everyone has a camera and any photo taken on that camera can be sent around the world instantaneously. This has affected war reporting, going back to the Vietnam War when battlefields could first be seen in our living rooms, and sparked dissent.
This topic is personal for me, over the course of a lifetime. My father was a newspaper editor who volunteered to serve in Vietnam as a press officer. He escorted Moshe Dayan through the rice paddy battlefields of the South, and General Dayan’s harsh appraisal convinced my idealistic father that we could never win that war. Seen here fishing, my grandfather was called up by the Navy from his job as editor at the Chicago Daily News to become a press liaison for Admiral Chester Nimitz during World War II in the Pacific. My daughter Erin Hale, part of the new generation of digital journalists, is based in Taiwan, but before that she reported on the ground in Hong Kong during the recent protests. Hopefully she will never be a war reporter in her current abode.
Now everyone in the midst of battle is a journalist, largely beyond the control of wartime government censors. As we see with the unfolding tragedy in Gaza, it is harder and harder for the average citizen to evaluate what is going on beyond the sheer horror of violence. This is compounded by the ability through AI and the like to manipulate images so skillfully that experts have trouble understanding what the truth might be. The result is fragmentation, and polarization not just between warring parties, but within their own ranks of citizens. The impact of uncertainty and disagreement over facts, on both geopolitical cohesiveness and global markets, is negative and likely adds friction to the process of peacemaking.
China, A Comparison
Chinese journalists have a tough job. The recent lack of transparency on all levels, including most categories of data and information, creates an environment that makes economic decisionmaking and foreign investment difficult. At the same time, the number of foreign journalists in China has dwindled, and routine due diligence by foreign consulting and accounting firms has sometimes resulted in imprisonment fines. While this has had a chilling effect on the dissemination of information, the advertising model for media in China remains the same, and is growing. When I first visited a Chinese newspaper in 1979, total combined revenues of all media outlets were estimated to be about $5 million dollars. Publications and broadcasters were supported by government subsidies. In 2023, annual adspend is $219 billion (compared to $394 billion in the US) and of that amount 89% is for digital ads. Today, advertising in social media far outstrips traditional media. According to media agency R3, and in spite of a sluggish economy:
Total advertising revenue growth in China is expected to reach 8.2% in 2023, with digital outpacing all other media formats, growing 15.5% year-on-year, according to R3’s 2024 China Media Inflation Trends report.
Because of China’s Great Internet Wall, there is no competition from global media. No other social media platforms such as Meta or X are allowed to operate. However, China is a country of netizens. Digital’s share of ad revenue, in China as in the US, will continue to grow. It is just so much easier to quantify digital views and clicks than how many people read a newspaper or watch a free-to-air or cable television show.
Conclusion: The Power of Storytelling + Technology
In order to understand our own media landscape, I have incorporated historical examples such as the haunting murder ballads of frontier America, and my own family’s history working in the media, to illustrate how news has evolved in recent times. It’s all about the magic and power of storytelling to inspire and mirror societal shifts.
Technology will force changes in the distribution of information, as well as the economics of media. The business model has always been subscription, donation, or advertising, and competitors have always had to battle to win audience attention. Violence fascinates, whether in individual relationships, inter-societal strife, or between nation states.
Although most news is bad news, another function of the media has been to provide entertainment and instruction. As sources of news proliferate and fragment thanks to new technologies, the ghosts of traditional journalism will fade, and audiences will face the difficult task of becoming their own content creators and editors. Given the new power of its citizenry, governments around the world will be tempted to control and sway public opinion by introducing regulation. In my view that process could pose a far greater danger than misinformation. Freedom of the press is essential to transparency and hence, economic growth.