Clues about news: a cheat sheet for the informed reader

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Greetings friends. Sorry you’re reading this on a screen and not a printed page. But there’s a reason for that. It’s free and easy and it took me only about 25 minutes to write and post this. That’s the point.

You and I know there’s a crap-ton of phony “journalism” out there, representing every conceivable political persuasion or point of view (mine included). The fact that you and I got played by the Russians during the 2016 election is now known. (If you haven’t read this, here’s a chilling look at just how good they are.)

Here are Stewart’s 4 Very General Guidelines for discerning what’s a genuine attempt at real journalism and what’s made-up Internet nonsense.

Rule №1: Does the publisher appear to have made a real investment in journalism? I look for these attributes: lots of different bylines (or author credits) indicating that there are lots of people getting paychecks to do real, original journalism. Yes, you can fake this by making up names and bylines, but generally we’re smart people and often we can dope it out with a little common sense. When you see the same name — or no name at all — as an author credit you may want to be skeptical that anybody’s doing real reporting work, which is actually sorta hard: poring over public documents, calling sources, calling sources again, calling sources a third time, texting to double-check quotes, showing up live at events, hanging around school board meetings, working the press box at the baseball game, etc. You and I are smart, right? So we can do some quick math: a full-time salary for a journalist is probably around $60k on the lower end. If you hire 10 of them, you’re in for close to $1 million including benefits and expenses. If you hire 100, you’re talking $10 million in annual expense. If you’re the New York Times or FOX News, your expense for a reporting staff is high nine figures. That’s real money, which translates into real effort and output. If you’re one guy in a closet with a keyboard and yesterday’s T-shirt who’s simply re-reading OPAs (Other People’s Articles) and hyperlinking to stories, you don’t have to pay anybody anything. And we (the readers) get exactly what we pay for. If I could impress one point on the world before I expire from this earth, it’s that tons of online “publications” exist to do one thing: get you to click on a page. When you do that, they get paid. Because of this, they’ll do anything for your click. They’ll lie, invent, provoke, and dare you to drop on by. They don’t give a crap. A sad-but-true reality of online publishing: It’s not unusual for the same “publisher” to maintain two or more websites devoted to completely opposing political points of view. Lock her up! He’s a Russian stooge! Either play works. The truth is these publishers don’t believe anything at all. They’re just scamming you for the click.

Rule №2: Same idea, different indicator: Does the publisher take the time and spend the money to create a physical/print edition of their product, or a network TV extension, or a radio broadcast or a podcast series with a new edition out every Wednesday? It’s not a tell-all, but it can be what separates the men/women from the boys/girls of the trade. Especially the print thing. It costs real money to run a printing press and deliver physical copies. It also costs money to staff and maintain a 24x7 TV news network, or to send a reporter to Syria when the shit hits the fan. The Economist does it. FOX News does it. Mother Jones does it. Newsweek does it. The Financial Times of London does it. Breitbart News does it (probably lost some of you right there). You don’t do it unless you are seriously committed to original reporting and journalism. Generally — and this is a big generalization — news publications you can access ONLY over an electronic screen should be subjected to a high degree of skepticism. There are a few good ones, but these generally adhere to Rule №1: lots of researchers, writers, fact-checkers, staffers, people who can spell. And the welcome absence of all-caps screaming headlines like the ones your aunt used to sent you.

Rule №3: My personal favorite. Do you have to pay to subscribe? If the answer is “yes,” then your publisher of choice immediately moves a step or two up the ladder. Subscriptions are often a valid determinant of editorial value, regardless of policy viewpoint. (My personal list is down to just two: Wall St. Journal and NY Times, but damn, The Economist is really good and if anybody’s thinking of Xmas gifts the New Yorker is a thought.) On the flipside, advertising on the Internet is basically a sham economic system, with fake readers, bots and fudged traffic allowing amateurs to get rich. Subscriptions are one way to distinguish the real from the poseurs.

Rule №4: Social Media is really bad when it comes to “news.” See Rules 1 and 2 and 3. Anybody with a keyboard and Adobe Photoshop can reasonably replicate the look and feel of “real news.” This is the great unintended consequence of Facebook, in particular: EVERYTHING LOOKS EXACTLY THE SAME. They’ve produced the perfect platform for making phony crap look like real stuff which looks the same as phony crap which appears basically identical to anything else. So what’s a citizen of the world to do? Here’s one thought. If you’re reading it ONLY on Facebook, or on a website Facebook has steered you to, be skeptical. The Russians absolutely played us in this regard by racking up huge shares for phony stories designed to gin up hatred, discontent and suspicion of the other guy. They used Facebook with great intelligence and skill. “Divide and conquer” works. They’re good at it. Facebook is great for knowing what your friends are up to and what’s for dinner. It’s a lousy news medium.

Okay then class, let’s review: From now on we’re going to be more demanding. Demand that the publisher shows some willingness to risk capital and sink some serious investment into the endeavor. Be skeptical of on-the-cheap, screen-only “news.” Look for lots of bylines suggesting lots of live human beings are at work. Admire publications that make you pay to subscribe, regardless of their viewpoint. Keep those pictures of your yummy roasted chicken or your fabulous view-from-the-deck sunsets coming on Facebook, but disregard stories that proclaim somebody just “absolutely destroyed” someone else in an argument. It’s probably just some fuckjerk who signed up for Google Adsense and wants to buy a new boat.

Writer, editor, media industry analyst. Fan of electric guitars. Believes in Santa Claus and baseball. Some light dusting.