How to avoid Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia

I’ve written about Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia here a couple of times. The first time was when I discovered it in The Economist. Another time was when I likened it to the Vodnoy Paradox, where people recommend deregulation in all sectors except their own.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia for a while now because I recently bought a (cheap – ?25 a week) subscription to the New York times). And they take the level of Sominism in their India coverage (no surprise since Somini Sengupta used to be their correspondent) another launch.

In fact, when I was mulling buying a subscription, I was explicitly warned about their India coverage.

And as I’ve read them for the last month and a half, this remains true. Their coverage of India is really shitty. It’s no different for many other global “liberal” newspapers such as the Guardian, or the Washington Post, or the Atlantic. The most baffling thing is that all these worthies is that they frequently employ writers of fiction as their vehicles of choice to interpret India for their readers (recently even the FT fell for this, asking the excellent-writer-but-insanely-political Arundhati Roy to write for them about India).

In any case, I’ve been wondering why this is the case. Why is it that these newspapers do such a shoddy job of covering India (or possibly any other emerging market) (I’m not saying they do a great job of covering their home markets either, since these newspapers have all become rather political, but at least there is some good coverage)?

My hypothesis about this is that they do a shitty job of covering India because they don’t care about the Indian reader, who contributes a microscopic minority of their revenues. That they can offer their zero-marginal-cost product for half of what Indian newspapers charge Indians for print subscriptions suggests that Indian readers don’t contribute significantly to their revenues.

Instead, what they have is large numbers of paying subscribers in their home markets who are (rightly) their primary audience. And because the people who are paying them and the people they are writing about are disjoint, there is no need to be authentic in their coverage. They can simply offer their readership the sort of slant and opinions they want without ever being held accountable.

It is similar in the case of Murray Gell-Mann. The science reporting can afford to be bad because scientists who really care about the research form only a tiny part of the subscriber base of the newspaper, and they possibly couldn’t care about holding the papers to account.

Now you can argue that each and every person is a “minority of one”, and so newspaper coverage ought to be uniformly shitty about all subjects. Except that some groups of readers are more similar to each other than they are to others, and such groups are likely to be “better taken care of” by the newspapers than all the other readership.

I don’t really know how this can be solved. For each newspaper, there will always be groups of core readership who might hold them to account, but there will be nobody holding them to account on vast sections of their coverage.

The only thing I can think of is the Times of India model – apart from being mass-market advertising funded, they have the habit of “putting ordinary people in the newspaper” through their tabloid supplements such as Bangalore Times (this was stated to me by someone who used  to work with the group). When you put ordinary people in the paper, these ordinary people will be more invested, and you better not write shit about them.

News

I wake up early on weekdays nowadays, so go the first two hours of the day without really knowing what is happening in the world. As you might know, I’m on a social media break, so that source of news is cut off. And it’s only around 7 am by when a copy of the Business Standard gets delivered to my door.

Until last month, a copy of the Deccan Herald would arrive at home as well, but I stopped it after I found it to be largely useless. A lot of stories in that newspaper were written as they might have been 20 or 30 years ago. There was little distinction between reporting and analysis and opinion. A lot of news couldn’t be simply consumed without the accompanying (and sometimes patronising) opinion.

The Business Standard, which I started reading in 2005, is still a very good paper. The editorials continue to be first-rate (though their quality had dipped in the 2011-14 period). The analysis pieces and columns cover a variety of topics that simply don’t make it to social media (since they aren’t really “sensational”). And the newspaper is “crisp” and quickly tells you what’s going on in India.

For two years, when I lived in London, I lived without a daily newspaper, and it was a struggle. Online newspapers have simply not been able to provide the same kind of product as offline newspapers. And the reason is that online newspapers are “flat” – all the contextualising and prioritising that a dead-tree paper can do is completely absent in the online version.

In a dead-tree newspaper, you know how important a piece of news is based on the page it appears, the size of the headline, the size of the column and so on. Based on where it appears, you know if it is news or analysis or opinion. In case it is opinion, you can easily see who has written it before you “click through” (start reading it). You can easily how big a piece is (and how much of your time it will take) before deciding to invest time in it.

All this is absent from an online newspaper. Check out, for example, the homepage of the Business Standard, that I so fulsomely praised earlier in this post.

It is impossible to know what’s the important stuff here. If I have only five minutes to read, I don’t know what to focus on. I don’t know which of this is opinion and which is news. Before I click through, I don’t know how big a piece is or who has written it or if it has been syndicated.

Unless the link has come from a qualified source (such as Twitter) I don’t know much about it, and so don’t know how to consume it. This might explain to you why a lot of online news sources are losing revenues to the likes of Google or Facebook – the latter do the important job of putting the news in context!

Finally, I’m glad I now consume news only once a day (from the physical paper). Sometimes, what is news intra-day would have ceased to be news by nightfall. So when you consume news at a reasonable interval (such as daily), what comes to you is “qualified” real stuff. A piece of news should have been important enough for a day to make it to the next day’s newspapers. And once a day is also a reasonable interval to get to know of what is happening in the world.