At the end of the day, fried chicken doesn’t jump out of buckets on its own to choke our arteries. That is why, as resolutions go, this is as good a time as any to make one—that in our long-term interests, we will consume information deliberately, much like we choose to consume healthy food.

To do that though, let’s begin at the beginning and admit that the problem doesn’t lie with information arbitrators like journalists. It lies with you. But if popular public discourse on social media is anything to go by, media houses are brothels where journalists barter self-interest at the altar of public interest. That is why everybody now turns to pulpits from which the truth apparently emerges—like next generation digital media outfits that include Google, Facebook and Twitter.

But fact is, our minds have become corpulent, obese and lazy. Sifting facts from coloured opinion has become difficult. If you think this a sour journalistic rant, consider some numbers from www.payscale.com—a website that compiles global statistics on salaries and current jobs on offer.

•The median annual salary of an Indian journalist working in the news genre is a little below 3 lakh. To earn this money, the bloke has to pound the streets, shamelessly tap all of his sources, and convince the editor why his story ought to be carried in the newspaper or magazine he works for.

•As against this, his counterpart who has spent a similar number of years in the public relations (PR) business earns an annual median salary of 20 lakh. His job is to convince the journalist why the views of a client he represents are pertinent ones. To do that, he earns a multiple of six times the average journalist. Clearly, his incentives are higher and the resources at his disposal superior.

•Incidentally, an editor, the journalist’s boss, with at least 20 years of experience behind him, earns an annual median salary of 10 lakh—half that of a PR professional with considerably fewer years of experience behind him.

The disparity can be understood when viewed at from a publisher’s perspective. To fill the pages of a daily newspaper or magazine, they have to deploy a few hundred, if not thousands of people across various levels. Because the economics of publishing in India is a perverted one, publishers have to price their titles below what it costs to produce them. To make up the deficit, they are almost entirely dependent on fickle advertising revenues. This translates into a reluctance to pay journalists competitive salaries. In the face of such disparities, it doesn’t take rocket science to figure who has the upper hand.

Now, much has been written about how the economics of the news business is changing dramatically with the emergence of the Internet. So much so, the arguments sound clichéd—that news is now easier to distribute, paper is being eliminated, and traditional printing presses are giving way to cheap server farms with unlimited capacities. As theories go, when the cost of overheads are reduced, profits will be higher and everybody stands to benefit. And eventually, quality content will emerge. But theories are just
that—theories. The truth lies someplace else.

Infatuated by promises of untold wealth, publishers of all kinds swarmed the online content landscape and hoped to write the epitaph for traditional publishers. They haven’t. At least, not yet. But what they have managed to do is to create churnalism, the bastard child of journalism. This term was first used by BBC journalist Waseem Zakir to describe what journalists do when they copy and paste what is dished out to them by PR practitioners, and at best modify it mildly to cover their tracks.

All evidence suggests churnalism is rampant. For instance, at the time of writing this article, the Press Information Bureau (PIB) had put out a release on 29 December 2014, around the Prime Minister approving amendments to the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act. A Google search revealed 244 news outlets, both mainstream and digital, had used it ad verbatim.

If more mundane evidence is needed, consider this. On 25 September, a press release distribution firm called NewsVoir put out a quote by Rana Kapoor, chairman of Yes Bank Ltd, about what he thought of the Prime Minister’s Make in India campaign. Hungry journalists and aggregators latched on to it and 56 news outlets reproduced it faithfully—without having spoken to or authenticated its veracity with Kapoor.

Churnalism doesn’t require journalists or news outlets with feet on the street. What it depends on are content farms of the kind originally pioneered by AOL.com,Clay Johnson writes in his book The Information Diet of a leaked document called The AOL Way. It contains instructions on how the entire content arm of AOL should operate.

“According to this plan," writes Johnson, “each editor should use four factors to decide what to cover: traffic potential, revenue potential, turn-around time, and at the bottom of the list, editorial quality. All editorial content staff are expected to write 5 to 10 stories per day, each with an average cost of $84, and a gross margin from advertising of 50 percent."

Content farms of these kinds need people with different skill sets. Because editorial quality is not at a premium, they make do with content writers. Payscale.com data shows Indian content farms pay their writers an annual median of 2 lakh—even lower down the pecking order than journalists.

This is because what content farms need more of are data scientists who can trawl the web to find what is it people are looking for. Information in hand, these researchers know exactly what biases people hold, what content is needed to fortify their biases, and then feed them more of whatever it is they are craving for. Which is why, their average salaries can go as high as 18 lakh—pretty close to that of a PR professional. They have figured that apart from headlines on celebrities and bizarre stories, if content consists of opinions that tilt to the extreme political right or left wings, it gets consumed faster. This is because commentaries that emerge from both these sides are inevitably shrill and panders to perversity. Neutrality be damned.

That is why highly opinionated news anchors, who indulge in, say, Pakistan-bashing or pander to so-called Indian interests, are among the most popular. To that extent, it isn’t the outlet disseminating news that is to be blamed, but the corpulent consumer who doesn’t have the mental muscle to make an informed choice.

The most compelling global example of a corporation that understands this pattern and deploys it effectively is Fox News in the US. Viewers of this channel with decidedly right wing views refuse to believe anything put out by any other outfit. Johnson writes, “Fox News spends 72% of its budget on program expenses (expenses tied to specific programs like host salaries) and 27.8% on administrative expenses (things like newsrooms). CNN, on the other hand, spends 56% of its expenses in the administrative category, and 43.9% on program expenses. CNN has a total staff of 4,000 people working in its studios and 47 bureaus. Fox News has just 1,272 members of its staff in just 17 bureaus."

“The strategy is simple: it’s cheaper to pay one media personality a two million dollar salary than it is to pay 100 journalists and analysts $40,000 a year. What’s better, people like hearing their beliefs confirmed more than they like hearing the facts."

In the digital universe, this problem is amplified. Because data can be harvested effectively, most of us live in a filter bubble dominated by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google.

On Facebook, for instance, you have maybe a few hundred friends and subscribe to dozens of groups. But inevitably, the algorithms that power Facebook figure out whose feeds you like the most by computing the number of likes you hit. Inevitably, the numbers of people who populate these feeds stay in the double digit. This ties in neatly with social psychologist Robin Dunbar’s hypothesis—or the Dunbar Number as it is called—that the number of meaningful relationships a human being can have does not exceed 150.

Twitter does something more insidious. A pointer at its Help Centre says: “When we identify a Tweet, an account to follow, or other content that’s popular or relevant, we may add it to your timeline. This means you will sometimes see Tweets from accounts you don’t follow. We select each Tweet using a variety of signals, including how popular it is and how people in your network are interacting with it. Our goal is to make your home timeline even more relevant and interesting."

And if you take time out to notice the auto complete feature on Google, it almost feels surreal. How in the devil’s name does the search engine know what’s on your mind before you’ve even fed it in? Once again, this is a function of extraordinarily clever data scientists who have harvested enough from your search history to hazard an informed guess on what is it you’re looking for.

Between news sources that feed our biases, the likes we hit on Facebook, Twitter’s algorithms that connect us to people we may be interested in and Google’s auto complete features, there is no room for autonomous choice—unless you proactively seek diversity.

Howard Gardner, an American developmental psychologist at Harvard University, has a simple hypothesis. The world we live in is a ridiculously simple place to find people who agree with you. But there is a downside to that. Because everybody agrees with you, prejudices that exist in your mind are reinforced. It is incumbent on us, therefore, to actively seek people who think and behave differently from how we do.

On a practical note, every once a while, instead of using Google as the search engine of choice, give DuckDuckGo (www.duckduckgo.com) a try. That is because unlike Google, which populates results based on your past searches, Duckduckgo doesn’t require you to log in nor does it keep track of what you searched for. What you get, therefore, are answers most relevant to your query at any given point in time, and free from your own prejudices.

On Twitter, try following people whose views you don’t agree with. And every once a while, try hitting likes on Facebook on updates you may not agree with. Over time, you will find homogeneity giving way to diversity.

Finally, consider paying for quality content. Creating quality requires quality resources. If the content you are paying for is dependent on advertising for sustenance, inevitably, it will have to capitulate in favour of those who hold the purse strings. For that, once again, you have nobody else to blame, but you. Eventually, what you are is what you seek.

Charles Assisi was managing editor at Forbes India and is now at

work on his first venture. He maintains a personal website at

www.audaciter.net and tweets on @c_assisi

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