I have been a political journalist for over fifteen years. In that time, I’ve been a blogger, newspaper reporter, magazine contributor, long-form editor, opinion columnist, cable news anchor, social media personality, viral video star, podcast author, and media entrepreneur. Communication. Throw Wonkblog, the spine online about politics in the Washington Post, and I have been a co-founder and first editor-in-chief of the news explanation organization Vox, which now reaches more than fifty million people each month. When i was pitching Vox, I was often asked who our competitors were. People expected me to respond that our competitors were other news and analysis sites with a lot of political content. The Atlantic, the FiveThirtyEight by Nate Silver, the Washington Post. But the truth is that other news sites were more collaborators than competitors in the shared effort to involve people in politics. If Silver turned a sports fan into a political junkie, that person was more likely to read the political coverage of Vox. But if someone was not interested in politics or was just more interested, for example, in gardening advice or in re-watching old episodes of Friends on YouTube, so that person was out of reach.
I say all this to give some weight to my next sentence. The main truth that I have learned about the audience in each and every one of those places is that hardly anyone is forced to follow politics. There are lobbyists and government affairs professionals who need to be aware of legislative and regulatory developments to do their job. But most people who follow politics do it as a hobby; how they would follow a sport or a music group. We can’t trust people to read us out of obligation; we have to compete with everything else for their attention. Rachel Maddow is at war with reruns of The Big Bang Theory. The YouTube channel of Vox compete with Xbox games. (…) This logic extends to the very edges of our conscious life and beyond. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said its biggest competitor is sleep. This is the context in which modern political journalism is produced and consumed: an all-out war for the time of an audience that has more options than at any time in history. (…)
In the mid-2000s, the media had uploaded vast files that were linking to old information, that they had internal search engines and, more importantly, they had made all of this available to Google. If you wanted to read about something that had happened a year or ten years ago, it was there for you, even if all you knew were a few general words that pointed to the topic. It has never been remotely possible to be politically informed in this way.
In most models of democratic politics, information is the constraint. Voters don’t have the time or energy to read the thick tomes of political theory and keep up-to-date on every act of Congress, so they rely on professional politicians – elected representatives, campaign volunteers, party employees, lobbyists, experts – who have that time and energy. What follows from this model is tempting: if information ceases to be scarce, becomes free and readily available to all, the fundamental problem afflicting democratic systems would be solved.
Then the dreams of democratic theorists around the world came true. The Internet made information abound. The rise of the news online it gave Americans access to more information than they ever had. However, polls showed that they were not, on average, more politically informed. Nor were we more involved: voter turnout did not grow with the democratization of political information. Why? In the early 2000s, Princeton political scientist Markus Prior set out to unravel this apparent paradox. The way you solved the problem is, in hindsight, obvious. What the digital information revolution offered was not just more information, but more information choices. Yes, there were now more cable news channels, but they were dwarfed in number by channels that had no interest in the news: channels that offered round-the-clock cooking recipes, home repair and DIY, travel, comedy , cartoons, technology, classic movies. Yes you can read online political coverage of any newspaper or magazine in the country, but you can also read a lot more non-political stuff: the explosion of political media was more than equaled by the explosion of media covering music, television, diets, health, video games, escalation , spirituality, romantic breakups of celebrities, sports, gardening, photos of cats, genealogical records …; actually, everything.
The key factor now, Prior argued, was not access to political information, but interest in political information. He developed his argument through comparison with television. Like the Internet, television multiplied the amount of information available to people and spread like wildfire. But unlike the Internet, television, in the early years at least, offered few options. “For decades, channel programming avoided situations in which viewers had to choose between entertainment and news,” Prior wrote in his article. News vs. Entertainment-. For the most part, the news was not exposed to competition from entertainment, because it took place in the early afternoon and again before late-night shows. Today, when both entertainment and news are available all the time on numerous channels and websites, people’s content preferences determine most of what those with cable or Internet access see, read and listen to. ” .
Politics was once bundled together with everything else and even the uninterested were pushed to consume political news. You could subscribe to the newspaper to read the sports page, but that meant you had to see the political articles on the front page. He could have a TV because he refused to get lost I Love Lucybut, if he turned on the television at night, he would end up watching the news anyway. The digital revolution offered access to unimaginable amounts of information, but, just as important, it also provided unimaginable choice. And that explosion of choice widened the interested-disinterested division; a greater supply allowed addicts to learn more and disinterested ones to know less. (…) We talk a lot about left-right polarization in the political news. We don’t talk enough about the division that precedes it: the gulf that separates the interested from the disinterested.
Ezra Klein (California, 1984) is a political analyst and co-founder of the ‘Vox’ portal. This excerpt is a preview of ‘Why We Are Polarized’ by Captain Swing, which is released on September 27.
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