News ⊂ Advertising

For-profit news out­lets are fi­nan­cial in­cen­tivized to write about things that are easy to write about. The eas­iest ar­ti­cles to write are the sub­si­dized ones. Public re­la­tions firms sub­si­dize news by writ­ing press re­leases. Then news out­lets re­pub­lish the press re­leases as news. That’s why so much news is cor­po­rate and poli­ti­cal ad­ver­tis­ing.

Here are the top sto­ries on Ars Tech­nica at the time of writ­ing[1].

  1. “NordVPN users’ pass­words ex­posed in mass cre­den­tial-stuffing at­tacks”

  2. “AT&T’s priciest “un­limited” plan now al­lows 100GB+ of un-throt­tled data”

  3. “Re­searchers un­earth malware that si­phoned SMS texts out of telco’s net­work”

  4. “The count of man­aged ser­vice providers get­ting hit with ran­somware mounts”

  5. “Face­book deletes the ac­counts of NSO Group work­ers”

Hav­ing only skimmed the ar­ti­cles, I sus­pect they were put there by the fol­low­ing com­pa­nies.

  1. Have I Been Pwned (breach no­tifi­ca­tion ser­vice)

  2. AT&T

  3. FireEye (se­cu­rity firm)

  4. Ar­mor (global cloud se­cu­rity provider)

  5. Facebook

The first ar­ti­cle lets slip who wrote it in the fol­low­ing line.

Read­ers who are NordVPN users should visit Have I Been Pwned[2] and check to see if their email ad­dress is con­tained in any of the lists.

Can you spot how this sen­tence at­tempts to in­fluence reader be­hav­ior?

Differ­ent or­ga­ni­za­tions write ar­ti­cles for differ­ent news out­lets. Ars Tech­nica is un­usual in its dis­pro­por­tionate pub­lish­ing of ar­ti­cles writ­ten by cy­ber­se­cu­rity firms and its rel­a­tively low den­sity of poli­ti­cal pro­pa­ganda com­pared to more tra­di­tional news out­lets like The Economist. The Art of Man­li­ness Pod­cast in­ter­vie­wees usu­ally dis­cuss the books they’re sel­l­ing.[3]

News is ad­ver­tis­ing. Ad-sup­ported news is ad-sup­ported ad­ver­tis­ing. Sub­scrip­tion-sup­ported news is sub­scrip­tion-sup­ported ad­ver­tis­ing. Ad­ver­tis­ing can’t di­rectly con­trol what you be­lieve. Ad­ver­tisers can con­trol what you think about. The more ad­ver­tis­ing I ex­pose my­self to, the more I think about the things ad­ver­tisers want me to.

Here is what ad­ver­tisers want me to think about.

  • Prod­ucts I haven’t bought

  • Na­tional poli­tics[4]

  • More ad-sup­ported me­dia, such as celebri­ties and free-to-play videogames

Here is what I want to think about.

  • Things I can make and do myself

  • My lo­cal community

  • My friends, my fam­ily and me

My per­sonal hap­piness is in­versely re­lated to how much news I ex­pose my­self to. It’s not just a sub­jec­tive feel­ing. I be­have more healthily. I’m even more in­ter­est­ing to talk to.

Ama­teur blogs make me think about what the au­thor thinks is im­por­tant. That’s a step in the right di­rec­tion be­cause am­a­teur blog­gers’ in­ter­ests al­ign bet­ter with mine than do the cor­po­rate and poli­ti­cal ma­chines be­hind news out­let press re­leases. But they’re still not me. And some of them are mo­ti­vated by van­ity.

I solve all of these is­sues by writ­ing a blog my­self. That way the au­thor’s in­ter­ests al­ign perfectly with my own.

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Edit: jbal­loch points out that Have I Been Pwned is a non­com­mer­cial dona­tion-sup­ported ser­vice.

  1. Novem­ber 3, 2019 at 1:43 am ↩︎

  2. The hy­per­link is in the origi­nal ar­ti­cle. It’s the ar­ti­cle’s sec­ond link to Have I been Pwned. ↩︎

  3. I pick these spe­cific news out­lets be­cause I visit them the most. Ag­gre­ga­tors like Face­book and Red­dit are differ­ent beasts de­serv­ing of a sep­a­rate post. ↩︎

  4. I don’t deny that na­tional poli­tics is im­por­tant. I mean that the pro­por­tion of at­ten­tion it gets on the news is greater than the pro­por­tion of my at­ten­tion I wish to pas­sively de­vote to it. ↩︎