History shows us how to deal with news echo chambers

Benjamin Day published The Sun which was the world’s first penny press newspaper that was entirely ad-supported. This gave rise to advertising as a means to support the cost of news. Warren and Brandeis defined the Right to Privacy which contributed to the decline of yellow journalism. We need a similar reconceptualisation of regulation today to address the menace of ad driven news.

This article was first published in The Mint. You can read the original at this link.

On 3 September 1833, a 23-year-old typesetter called Benjamin Day published the very first edition of the The Sun. As the first batch of 1,000 copies rolled out of his press, he had no idea that the handbill he had just produced would take the newspaper industry in a direction that would come to dominate the way news was consumed all over the world. All he cared was how he was going to make ends meet.

You see, Day had been bitten by the entrepreneurship bug and, without realizing that competition in the publishing industry in 1830s New York was cut-throat, had bought himself a printing business. Business did badly and he was soon reduced to such desperation that he had no choice but to bet his entire investment on a novel advertisement idea. He was going to showcase the excellence of his printing shop by producing a handbill that would carry the news of the day and would cost just one cent—a sixth of the price of other contemporary newspapers.

No-one was more surprised than he at how quickly the initial print run sold out. People loved this little publication that gave them the news they liked at a fraction of the price. Since The Sun could not offer subscriptions, in order to maximize sales, he built a network of newsboys, whom he paid a commission for each paper sold. He did not know it at the time, but in doing so, he had created the mid-day daily, a newspaper format that is still sold on street corners all around the world.

As his readership grew, Day augmented his income by inviting businesses to advertise in the pages of his paper. This was another huge success and advertisers flocked to his doors. In no time, The Sun became a newspaper entirely driven by advertisements.

In order to keep readership up, he ensured that he only put out content that his readers would want to read—embellishing the truth to make it more appealing to the prurient tastes of his readers. He did not think twice about how the “news" he reported would affect the personal lives or reputation of the people he was writing about—so long as more people bought his paper.

The Sun was one of the world’s very first “penny press" newspapers—but it was by no means the last. It inspired a form of journalism that did not care about the facts and, instead, looked to provide audiences with content they wanted to read, regardless of whether it had any substance. The whole genre came to be known as “yellow journalism". Newspapers which engaged in it published largely unverified stories and alleged salacious facts based on the slimmest of evidence. These stories were designed to provoke fear and outrage, tapping into primal emotions, compelling readers to come back again and again for similar content because of the limbic response they provoked.

Yellow journalism reached unprecedented heights in the 1890s when the competing ambitions of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer resulted in their respective publications putting out a series of poorly substantiated articles that eventually led to America’s entry into the Spanish-American War.

It was in almost direct response to the growth of this sort of irresponsible journalism that two young graduates from Harvard Law School—Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis—wrote an article in the Harvard Law Review entitled “The Right to Privacy". In this article, they called for the establishment of a brand new form of legal protection to guard against the encroachment of personal space by these newspapers.

The article was a turning point in the history of privacy and is referred to by jurists and judgements around the world as the font from which modern privacy jurisprudence emerged. Less well acknowledged were the changes that this article wrought in the news industry. It was singularly responsible for the death of yellow journalism and the rise of ethical news reporting.

Today, we seem to have come full circle. We are once again getting news from sources less concerned about the newsworthiness of what they are feeding us and focused instead on seeing to it that the content we get appeals to us. Unlike in the mid-1800s, today’s news sources don’t have to design their articles to appeal to a wide swathe of people. Instead, modern algorithms can be designed so that they automatically tune themselves to generate unique content that has been customized to tap into our individual likes and dislikes.

As a result, we find ourselves thrust into narrow echo chambers in which the news and viewpoints we are fed closely mirror our own. And the company we keep, for the most part, comprises others who think exactly like we do.

Young Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis found themselves face-to-face with new technologies that they did not fully appreciate—but which they instinctively understood would alter the way society was structured. We too are at a similar crossroads and we can sense that the direction in which technology is headed is instinctively disruptive to society as we know it.

We need a modern Warren-Brandeis thesis that will call out the impact that these new technologies are going to have on our way of life and steer us down a radically new path. We need to recognize that the solutions that have served us well for the last century are no longer useful and need a radical overhaul.

Or like Warren and Brandeis did before, we need someone to sit down and develop new solutions from ground up.