News, Subscription, Advertising, and Bias

Dibyendu Mishra and Joyojeet Pal of the University of Michigan have some very interesting research out on the political bias of Indian news publications. Rather than do complicated gymnastics such as NLP, they’ve simply looked at the share of articles from each news publication that is retweeted by BJP and non-BJP publications, to draw out a measure of their bias (see link above for methodology).

They have made a nice scatter plot (the other axis is how “popular” these news outlets are in terms of the number of articles retweeted), and looking left to right, you can see the understood (by politicians) bias of various Indian news publications. As Helmet pointed out on Twitter, the most “centrist” news outlets seem to be the Times of India and the Economic Times, both from the Bennett, Coleman and Company group, who people crib about for “being too commercial” and “having too many advertisements”.

This reminds me of another piece of analysis that was in the news a few months ago, about how subscription-driven online news has led to news outlets being politically polarising. For example, Zach Goldberg did some analysis of frequency of words/phrases in the New York Times that are associated with the extreme left.

Note the inflexion point sometime in 2012 or so, around the same time when the NY Times put up its paywall.

David Rozado has a more comprehensive picture (check out his nifty tool here).

The idea is this – when newspapers depended on advertising for most of their funding, they needed to be centrist. Taking political sides meant that large mass-market advertisers wouldn’t want to advertise in this newspaper, and the paper would thus lose revenues. Hence, for the longest time, whatever the quality of the reporting and writing was, news outlets strove to be reasonably politically unbiased – taking sides would mean a loss of money.

Once digital took off, and it became clear that digital advertising wouldn’t really sustain the papers, they started putting their content behind paywalls. And subscription revenues meant two things – news outlets weren’t as beholden to advertisers as they used to be, and it was easier to get paying subscribers if you had a strong ideology. Moreover, online you can provide targeted advertising (rather than mass-market), so you can get away with being biased. And so with the coming of paywalls, newspapers started becoming far more political as the New York Times graph above indicates.

In India, there haven’t been too many publications behind paywalls, but media is evidently getting more and more polarised over time. Papers and channels are branding themselves (implicitly) as being pro or against a particular political party, and that is driving their viewership.

While these media outlets are good for fanbois (and fangirls) of particular ideologies, the ideological bent has meant that it has become harder to get objective news.

And that’s where money, and advertising, comes in.

The positioning of ToI and ET in the middle of the Indian media ideological graph is interesting because they belong to a group that is brazen about commercialisation and revenues (from advertising). And in terms of news objectivity, that’s a good thing. Since ToI and ET are highly money minded, they want to get as much advertising as possible, and in order to attract mass marketers, they need to not be biased.

Taking a political stand means pissing off people belonging to the opposite political persuasion, and that means less readership, which means less advertising revenues. And so if you read the editorials of these newspapers (I read ET everyday), you see that they maintain a careful balance of not appearing too biased in favour or against any party. And you see them raking in the advertisers while more biased (and “ideological”) competitors are forced to request for donations, or put up paywalls restricting their readership.

Putting it another way, there is no surprise that ToI and ET are not biased in their news, and are retweeted by politicians of all persuasions. It is the classic money-driven media model, and that is the one that is capable of providing the most objective news.

The problem with private provisioning of public goods

… is that private players who are providing those goods have an incentive in blocking attempts by the public sector to provide those goods. For the purpose of analysis, let us take the example of Gurgaon, both because I’m reasonably familiar with it and because it has been in the news in the international media thanks to a recent profile of the city by the New York Times.

Now, Gurgaon has a major problem with power supply. It is said that (I don’t have first hand info for reasons you’ll soon understand) the “city” faces about four to six hours of regular power cuts every day. I don’t know the exact reasons for it (surprisingly, Haryana sells power to other states so it appears there is no power deficit per se in the state), but it could be a pricing issue, with free power for farmers and all that. Anyway, the reason for the power cuts doesn’t matter so much.

In reaction to this, apartment societies have taken it upon themselves to provide “power backup” to the residents (for a fee of course). Even in that, there are three grades. I used to live in a DLF complex that had “one hundred per cent power backup”, which meant that I was assured of 24/7 power supply. Every time there was a power cut, the generators would start in a matter of a few seconds, and with “one hundred percent backup”, I could run just about any device on the “backup” power supply. In return, I would pay the apartment association six rupees per unit (as opposed to 3 rupees I pay here for sarkari power in Bangalore).

Then, there as “eighty percent backup”, in which you could use the generator-power supply to run all appliances except air-conditioners and geysers (both extremely important in Gurgaon given the weather). Then, there was another level with fifty percent backup, though I didn’t particularly understand it. The individual houses in the city, though, had no backup, and people living there had to make do with inverters.

Now, suppose that magically Haryana were to become a power surplus state, would the state government be able to provide uninterrupted three phase power supply to Gurgaon? I would think not, for there are several “private players” in that city whose source of profits and wealth is derived from the fact that they provide backup power supply. Think of all those people who invested in DLF flats because they had “one hundred percent power backup”. Now, with power backup not being a distinguishing factor, these flats will lose in value since they cannot command the same kind of premium as they used to (rather, the supply of “apartments with assured power supply” goes up, thus reducing demand for the only ones that offered this luxury earlier). Then, there are scores of generator and inverter dealers in Gurgaon, who again depend on the power shortage for their livelihood. And so forth.

It doesn’t appear as if Haryana has power shortage any more (recently, Karnataka bought power from that state to tide over its power crisis). However, there are enough powerful lobbies in Gurgaon who depend on power cuts (!! ) for their income and wealth, and it appears they have managed to lobby the government there (officially or unofficially) to block the provision of assured power supply. The moral of this story is that once “public goods” start being provided by private players, it is hard to displace them, and this results in a lifetime of inefficiency.