First, thank you for visiting our publication. If you’re reading this letter, then I assume you have some interest in who we are and what we do. If you get the opportunity, read through our values to get an idea of our ambitions. In this letter, I’d like to add a personal touch to those goals.
Declining Trust In The Media
Over the last 20 years, public confidence in mass media has steadily declined to the point where the majority of readers do not consider the media to be a source of reliable information. It is difficult to prove any direct correlation, but that decline coincides with the emergence and growth of the Internet as a publishing medium.
More and more people consume media on the Internet due to its convenience, rich formats, and interactivity. All these features have provided the public with expanded access to information and social channels, along with the convenience of consuming that content on multiple devices. But along with all these benefits have come some side effects.
- Proliferation. There are now millions of publications online, which can make it difficult to determine who to trust. Some of the content is even written by artificial intelligence, billed as “content automation tools.” Some content is optimized to maximize placement on search engines and content recommendation engines, in order to bring traffic and attention to the site. Factual accuracy and the best interests of the reader are rarely considered when using these techniques.
- Accountability. There is significantly less accountability online compared to print journalism. Because of this, some online publishers rush to publish data without verifying sources, and face very little repercussions from using inaccurate or misleading information.
- Economics. Print media relied primarily on subscription revenue and secondarily on advertising revenue. During the emergence of online media, advertising revenue was the primary, if not only, source of revenue. This caused some publishers to operate on a model that prioritizes page views and ad placements instead of prioritizing readers. As a result, their content became optimized to generate as much traffic as possible (and thus as much advertising revenue as possible), resulting in the emergence of sensationalist sites sought to grab as much attention as possible. These are sometimes colloquially known as “shock journalism” or “clickbait.”
- Partisanship. Traditional journalists pride themselves on their ability to be unbiased, provide a diversity of sources, and avoid using phrasing that is intended to mislead readers to a particular conclusion. With the proliferation of online media, now there are publications that cater to almost anyone’s opinion, specifically tailored to feed their follower’s appetite for content that reinforces their viewpoint. Loyal readers voraciously consume content that already aligns with their personal views, and that results in more page views, which results in more advertising revenue. Do you see where this is going?
- Social. Before social media, an individual’s sphere of influence was limited to their circle of acquaintances, unless they were a public figure or associated with mass media. With the advent of social media, an individual could now engage with others that they otherwise would not be able to access. For the most part, this is a good thing. Like-minded individuals could gather and communicate, and debate with others that have opposing views in ways that could never be done before. But it also made online media more polarized, with some publishers becoming more than happy to produce content that feeds willing readers factually questionable content aligned with their opinions, because those readers could then arm themselves with an “authoritative source” that backs up their side of a social argument.
So as a result, online media is filled with exaggerated headlines, conspiracy theories billed as truth, unreliable sources misrepresented as facts, and misleading information taken out of context, all custom tailored to feed their audience more “junk food media” that provides some level of immediate gratification, but over time causes an erosion of trust. Meanwhile, publishers seeking to cash in on the frenzy throw in more fuel to the fire to get as many clicks as possible. It’s not wonder public confidence in the media has declined.
Online publishers face different challenges than their print predecessors. One of the most difficult is dealing with the realities of operating a for-profit business without compromising standards and values. Publishers are constantly faced with pressure to perform financially for its investors, and they employ direct ad sales teams to bring in more revenue for the business. The publisher must receive enough traffic in order to satisfy these obligations and collect the money (this is called “inventory”) in the industry. Faced with the pressure to deliver, the temptation is to publish quantity over quality, with some organizations that optimize for profit maximization pushing for faster and faster publishing cycles to generate as much inventory as possible. The truth is that when a massive direct sponsorship deal is on the table, the publisher is going to organize its priorities all around collecting the money from that deal. The temptation to compromise standards can be overwhelming.
This is not meant to paint a bleak picture of online media. There are plenty of great online publications that maintain a high level of standards, some of which are affiliates of ours. It is meant to highlight that a publisher that uses financial performance as its primary measure of success will almost always optimize itself against those measures.
Using Principles To Measure Success
Every business needs a mission as a guiding light to define its goals and its aspirations. Along with that mission, it needs a set of values that shape its strategy to achieve that mission. Once these are defined, then everyone can measure their success against these values and help to balance the pressures that face us on a daily basis. With that being said, I’ll quote our mission statement:
It is our mission to produce content that supports the advancement of the human condition through education, information, economic development, sustainability, technology, and self-improvement.The Franklin Digest
If we measure ourselves against these goals, then when we publish content, it should be consistent with our mission statement:
- Education. Does it inform and educate the public with facts, data, history, and context? An informed public is a stronger public.
- Information. Are all the relevant facts presented to the reader? Can they be verified?
- Economic Development. Will a certain point of view put additional financial resources at the disposal of individuals (as opposed to corporations or governments) that will benefit from it?
- Sustainability. Will this be sustainable? Does it consume, destroy, or contaminate natural, economic, or other resources faster than they can be replenished? If so, is there research or a path to improve or replace it with a more sustainable alternative?
- Technology. Technology provides tools, which can be applied positively or negatively. Is there a positive application of these tools to the situation?
- Self-improvement. Does this help people help themselves? Does it give them tools and resources that they can use to improve their own situation?
These are the questions I ask myself, and that I have all our writers ask before submitting their work for consideration. If you find anything that you believe is inconsistent with our values, I encourage you to notify us.
What’s In A Name?
Richard Franklin is a pseudonym, a combination of the first name of Richard Saunders (from Poor Richard’s Almanac) and Benjamin Franklin (a noted American writer and inventor). Privacy is one reason for using an alias, but another is an admiration for portions of Franklin’s legacy.
- Benjamin Franklin had a lifelong dedication to dedicating himself to values (which he called “virtues”) and teaching those values. While our values are different than his, we also dedicate ourselves to measuring our success against our values.
- Franklin created multiple technology inventions (including discovering electricity, which powers the Internet) and shared that technology with others, with the goal of allowing others to enjoy the advantages of that technology. We aspire to advance and leverage technology to improve the lives of people everywhere.
- Franklin may have invented the decision balance sheet, a way of organizing data into categories that argue for or against a decision. We aspire to leverage the tools of online media to organize as much evidence as possible to educate our readers and enable them to form informed opinions.
- Franklin enjoyed composing and performing music, and was an avid player of chess. We support the power of culture and entertainment to engage the mind in multiple ways.
Franklin’s record was not perfect and he certainly had his faults, but we chose to adopt some of his guiding principles and adapt them for our own. I hope you enjoy our publication, as always, feel free to reach out if you have any concerns.
All the Best,