Facts are free, but comment is sacred: the new reality for news publishers

The other day I read yet another think piece on journalism that quoted approvingly CP Scott’s famous dictum that “Comment is free, but facts are sacred”.

This is as close as you get to holy writ in British journalism, and is equally adhered to by American newsrooms. Yet has The Guardian’s long-serving editor’s view been overtaken by events? Has the balance between facts and comment changed? I think it has. Sacrilege to say it, I know, but hear me out.

Let’s get over the big hurdle. I’m not saying that facts are unimportant. I don’t want to get into the misinformation debate, but one could convincingly argue that verified facts are more important than ever. The thing is that news-related facts are everywhere, and freely and quickly available, and this, I think, changes their value to news providers. 

Let me be clear that I am thinking about this from the point of view of a news producer, not a consumer. The latter clearly, and rightly, want the facts they are given to be sacred. And I think most journalists do, whatever the popular perception of the trade, try to get the facts right most of the time.

Scott wrote his words in an essay to mark the 100th anniversary of The Guardian in May 1921. In terms of news provision, the world was completely different. Newspapers were unchallenged as a source of news. The BBC would not launch radio in the UK until the following year; the first transmissions of its television service was still 15 years in the future. 

As Scott acknowledged, most newspapers were monopolies. Any modern MBA student would be able to tell you that their success was due to their creation of a local advertising market based on their distribution network. 

But we should be more interested in their monopoly on the provision of news, which of course has been successively eroded by new technologies, from radio and television through to the internet and its multifarious expressions. 

In Scott’s world, it was crucial that newspapers focused on facts – because they were the only providers of these facts in their local area. It stands to reason that you weren’t going to be around very long if people thought your facts were at all compromised. Then, as now, advertisers also didn’t like the idea of fake news.

These days, however, you can get these facts from numerous sources, and almost without looking for them. As a user, you get facts via push notifications whenever you pick up your mobile phone, on social media whenever you idly scroll through your feeds, from newsletters, apps, websites, papers, radio, podcasts, videos, television, and even on big screens in public squares. They are everywhere and updated constantly. 

How can we treat something that’s so ubiquitous as being sacred? 

And, from the publishers’ perspective, in such an environment how do your “facts” stand out from all the other sources? Could you tell me from which provider you heard that Queen Elizabeth II had died? And do you even care where the push notification came from?

It seems that users don’t. It recently emerged that two of the top three news apps in the UK were aggregators (Apple News and Upday). While these apps strive to preserve brand identity – to keep their content providers on board – I’ll bet you the price of an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy that people don’t notice where each story is coming from … apart from that it is coming from their smartphone of choice. 

So the fact-based side of news offerings looks increasingly commoditised, unless the news item is something truly new and unique. 

The recent obsession with live blogs on major news websites has made this worse. My reading of UK websites on the death of the Queen and the defenestration of Liz Truss, Britain’s recent short-lived prime minister, made me feel like I was getting the same news over and over again. Everyone was obsessed with getting the facts out quickly – but they were all the same facts because the news desks were getting them from the same sources and/or copying one another. Sacred, they were not.

As a news provider, where do you distinguish yourself? With apologies to Scott, the answer has to be in comment … or rather in commentary and analysis. 

All the user data I’ve ever seen has shown this type of journalism to get more page views, more subscriptions and more engagement than vanilla news, barring exceptional events like terrorism attacks, elections and similar. Research at multiple publishers has found that the “update me” type of story is the most common one in terms of volume but is also the one that has the least resonance with readers. Users see a sea of content telling them what happened, but they want to know why the events took place and what happens next. There’s a clear argument in favour of replacing breaking news with breaking views. 

An example: I know Ron DeSantis’s midterm election result put him in a good position to be the Republican presidential nominee – I got that from the headlines; I didn’t even have to read the articles beneath them – but what I really want to know is what are his chances of winning and what it means for his rivals, America and the world. In fact, I would happily skip the news story about his candidacy and go straight to the analysis and commentary.

This has been my personal experience since I moved away from frontline journalism and became a media strategy consultant. I used to read everything, every day. There wasn’t a news story I didn’t click on. But now I skim through the news section of my app of choice very quickly, gravitating towards the kind of pieces that will give me greater insight than just the mere facts. And everything I’ve seen in my career suggests that I’m not alone in this.

I don’t feel any less informed. I always know what’s been going on – someone somewhere is always going to be offering the facts of what’s happening out there. I just want to spend my time more profitably in finding out the context of those events. And as a side issue, I’m generally happy to pay for that.

While Scott said that a newspaper’s “primary office is the gathering of news”, I think that 101 years later, the main task of its successors is going to be explaining the news if they want to be sustainable for the next century.

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