What’s news?

This afternoon I was reading the LA Times on line, catching up on Frank McCourt’s latest flailing attempts to maintain control of the Dodgers. When I was done, I scrolled to the bottom and glanced at the links there. Sometimes I’ll make my way through the news like this, instead of returning to the homepage and going from there.

Generally, I can tell the difference between “news” and an ad. It’s not that hard; usually near the ads there’s some sort of notice identifying certain information as sponsored by some company or other. I try to avoid the sponsored links, because I know that clicking on one will not only make somebody some money off of my viewing, but that very often my computer will accept a cookie that may track my activities. I don’t know about you, but I just find it creepy to be tracked like this. Not that I do anything terribly illegal (well, mostly) when I’m on line, but I just, well, don’t like the idea of someone keeping track of the pages I peruse.

Side bar for a thought experiment! What if some store owners somehow, unbeknownst to you, tagged you electronically when you were in their store and tracked you around for a few days or weeks afterward to observe what you did and what you bought? Even if it were for your own good, you know, to help improve how the business world serves you, I bet you’d feel a bit creeped out, right? If you put it this way, I think more people would strongly support anti-tracking cookie legislation.

Anyhoo, today I noticed two columns of stories side by side under the story I had just read. One was labeled “More from the Times,” and the other “From around the Web.” At first glance (I think you’ll agree), they appear to be presented on equivalent terms. “Here are some of our stories, and here are some stories from other places.” (Apologies for the size of the image.)

I noticed that one of the stories (not pictured above) in the second column was about how the economy is going to hell and there’s some sort of attendant consumer trend catching on. Lately I’ve had a hunch that the economy is going to hell soon (I mean really, *really* going to hell, and really, *really* soon). It’s not really a hunch that’s exclusive to me, of course. Maybe you, too, have noticed that things don’t seem to be going that well, economy-wise. All the same, I sensed that this story would help me develop my hunch into a theory.

Anyway, of course the second part of the headline link, about how there’s some sort of trend, should have tipped me off that this was not just a news story link, but I guess my guard was a little down because the story was in a column just like the column to the left of it, a column of legitimate news stories. Right?

I was taken to a site with “Money News” in the URL, and the story itself was written in that way that lengthy emails that are trying to sell you something are written. It kept saying the same thing again and again, punctuated with links to some sort of product that would advise the reader on just what to do with her/his money in order not to lose it all in the coming shitstorm.

I knew that I’d been duped, but I kept reading the story anyway, half thinking to myself that maybe this was actually a slightly legitimate news site, like maybe Fox Money News. After I had thoroughly failed to convince myself that the site was anything but an attempt to part me from some of my money, I hit the back arrow and looked more closely at the second column of stories on the LA Times page.

Clicking on the little “[what’s this]” link on the lower right brought up a box with the following text. “An Outbrain customer paid to distribute this content. We do our best to ensure that all of the links recommended to you lead to interesting content. To find out more information about driving traffic to your content or to place this widget on your site, visit outbrain.com. We welcome your feedback at feedback@outbrain.com. View our privacy policy here.”

I noticed that some of the stories had more legitimate sounding goals for their readers, imparting important information like why not to ignore “GERD symptoms,” whatever they are. Others were more clearly just blatant propaganda, like the story from “ExxonMobil Perspectives” on how oil companies are stimulating the economy to the tune of $1 trillion.

It occurred to me right then that the wall between “news” and “ads” is highly permeable indeed (if not even non-existent), that the left-hand column, the “More stories from the Times” *are* more or less equivalent to the stories “From around the Web,” that this sort of advertising doesn’t raise its information to the level of news, but helps to bring the news down to the level of advertising. The LA Times, after all, wants me to click on its stories just as much as it wants me to click on those ads. It gets paid for both, right? I know this isn’t exactly a novel thought, but it’s something that I think I often forget when I look at news websites expecting simply to be informed.

4 responses to “What’s news?”

  1. ScottyGee says:

    As I’m sure you’re well aware, this type of post that gets my brain swimming in all sorts of different directions.

    First, the part about being tracked: anecdotal I know, but college students that I’ve spoken with about tracking software seem to have no problem with it at all. They tend to feel that it makes their lives easier if someone else narrows their searches for them — this includes clothing, music, and information.

    Second, one of the most disconcerting trends to me is the narrowmarketing of information — meaning that if you click a link to a Dodgers story, MLB stories will be the most prominent on your, personal front page. (The LA Times doesn’t, to my knowledge, doesn’t take part in this practice…YET.

    Third, regarding the huge question that your title poses. I highly recommend a rereading of Neil Postman’s , 1985 book, Amusing Ourselves to Death.

    Forth, OUCH, I gotta get my butt going to work…

  2. LP says:

    Re: tracking. I’ve been talking to a number of people about this type of thing for a work project. The essence of what I’m hearing is, privacy is dead, so get used to it. Google, Facebook, online advertisers, media sites et. al. are taking as much info as people will give them, and people are giving it willingly. The fact that the 30-and-under population, in general, doesn’t seem bothered by this, means there probably won’t be any significant backlash. Eventually, the only way to keep your movements / preferences private will be to not go online or use a mobile phone at all.

  3. Dave says:

    people are giving it willingly

    People are giving it without knowing they’re giving it, or if they know, because they don’t see an alternative if they want to use the web like normal people.

  4. Tim says:

    Also, under 30s practically don’t know any other world. The younger one is introduced to the idea that one is rewarded (or just not left completely out of public discourse) by giving personal information, the more comfortable one is with it. Did you see that FB is lobbying hard to make it legal for under 13s to sign up? That really skeeves me out.