Tag: Ryan Holiday

Why You Shouldn’t Slog Through Books

While our system for reading 25 pages a day has been adopted by many of our readers and members of the learning community to great success, a couple points have been misinterpreted. Let’s clear them up.

Reading opens windows into other worlds. While most of us don’t have the time to read a whole book in one sitting, we do have the time to read 25 pages a day (here are some ways you can find time to read). Reading the right books, even if it’s a few pages a day, is one of the best ways to ensure that you go to bed a little smarter than you woke up.

Twenty-five pages a day adds up over time. Let’s say that two days out of each month, you probably won’t have time to read. Plus Christmas. That gives you 340 days a year of solid reading time. If you read 25 pages a day for 340 days, that’s 8,500 pages. 8,500. What I have also found is that when I commit to a minimum of 25 pages, I almost always read more. So let’s call the 8,500 pages 10,000. (I only need to extend the daily 25 pages into 30 to get there.)

With 10,000 pages a year, at a general pace of 25/day, what can we get done?

Well, The Power Broker is 1,100 pages. The four LBJ books written by Robert Caro are collectively 3,552 pages. Tolstoy’s two masterpieces — War and Peace, and Anna Karenina — come in at a combined 2,160. Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is six volumes and runs to about 3,660 pages. That’s 10,472 pages.

That means, in about one year, at a modest pace of 25 pages a day, you’d have knocked out 13 masterful works and learned an enormous amount about the history of the world. In one year!

That leaves the following year to read Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (1,280), Carl Sandburg’s Six Volumes on Lincoln (2,000?), Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations unabridged (1,200), and Boswell’s Johnson (1,300), with plenty of pages left to read something else.

This is how the great works get read: day by day, 25 pages at a time. No excuses.

We hold to this advice today. But there are two areas that have been misinterpreted over the past year, so let’s clarify them and make sure everyone is set on the right course.

Twenty-Five Pages a Day: Minimum, Not Maximum!

Our friend Ryan Holiday had an interesting retort1 to our piece, saying that while he agreed with it, he found it impractical in his own life.

Farnam Street had a post recently talking about how the way to get through big books is 25 pages a day. I don’t totally disagree with that, I’ve just found that style is nice in theory but less effective in practice. Really, it’s about whether you can go through large blocks of time at this thing, concerted but sustained blocks of effort—almost like a fartlek workout. Because broken up into too many pieces, you’ll miss the whole point of the book, like the proverbial blind man touching an elephant. Those who conquer long books know that it’s not a matter of reading some pages before you fall asleep but rather, canceling your plans for the night and staying in to read instead.

I suspect that our disagreement is one of degree and perhaps misinterpretation. We totally agree on the point of reading in long, sustained blocks. That’s exactly how we read ourselves!

Create healthy reading habits. The point of assigning yourself a certain amount of reading every day is to create a deeply held habit. The 25-pages-a-day thing is a habit-former! For those of us who already have a strong reading habit, it’s not altogether necessary. I love reading, so I no longer need to force myself to read. But many people dream of it rather than doing it, and they especially dream of a day when they will read for hours at a time with great frequency, as Ryan does and as we do.

Easy does not equate to good. The problem is, when they start tasting the broccoli, they realize how tough that commitment can be. They think, “If I can’t read for hours on end, why bother starting?” So instead of doing their daily 25 pages, they don’t read anything! The books sit on the shelves, collecting dust. We know a lot of people like this.

Those folks need to commit to a daily routine — to understand what a small commitment compounds to over time. And, like us, most of these people will naturally read far more than 25 pages. They will achieve the dream and plow through a book they really love in a few sittings rather than with a leisurely 25 pages per day. But creating the habit is where it starts.

Eventually, you’ll love it so much that you’ll force yourself to read less at times so you can get other things done.

Don’t Slog Through Books You Don’t Like

The other misconception comes from the meaty books we referred to: long ones like The Power Broker, War and Peace, and Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. Some readers took that to mean that they should attempt these huge tomes out of pure masochism and use the 25-page daily mark to plow through boredom.

Nothing could be further from the truth! (Our bad.)

Too many English lit professors have promoted the idea that “the classics” contain some sort of unique unobtanium of wisdom. Sorry, but that’s bullshit.

If you’ve gone through our course on the Art of Reading, you’ll realize that there are many better strategies than plowing ahead. You must pursue your curiosities! This is by far the most important principle of good reading.

The truth is that when you’re super bored, your interest and understanding come to a screeching halt. There are many, many topics that I find interesting now which I found dull at some point in my life. Five years ago, there was no possible way I would have made it through The Power Broker, even if I tried to force myself. And it would have been a mistake to try.

Here’s another unspoken truth: Any central lesson you can take away from War and Peace can also be learned in other ways if that book doesn’t really interest you. The same goes for 99% of the wisdom out there — it’s available in many places. Unfortunately, too many English lit professors have promoted the idea that “the classics” contain some sort of unique unobtanium of wisdom. Sorry, but that’s bullshit.

The better idea is to read what seems awesome and interesting to you now and to let your curiosities grow organically. A lifelong interest in truth, reality, and knowledge will lead you down so many paths, you should never need to force yourself to read anything unless there is a very, very specific reason. (Perhaps to learn a specific skill for a job.)

Not only is this approach way more fun, but it works really, really well. It keeps you reading. It keeps you interested. And in the words of Nassim Taleb, “Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction; magnified by attempts to satisfy it.”

Thus, paradoxically, as you read more books, your pile of unread books will get larger, not smaller. That’s because your curiosity will grow with every great read.

This is the path of the lifelong learner. This is how you get the world to do most of the heavy lifting for you.

Footnotes
  • 1

    Thought Catalog: https://thoughtcatalog.com/ryan-holiday/2016/01/did-you-actually-read-that-the-joy-of-reading-really-really-long-books/

Ego is the Enemy: The Legend of Genghis Khan

In his book, Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday tells the story of Genghis Khan and how his openness to learning was the foundation of his success.

The legend of Genghis Khan has echoed through history: A barbarian conqueror, fueled by bloodlust, terrorizing the civilized world. We have him and his Mongol horde traveling across Asia and Europe, insatiable, stopping at nothing to plunder, rape, and kill not just the people who stood in their way, but the cultures they had built. Then, not unlike his nomadic band of warriors, this terrible cloud simply disappeared from history, because the Mongols built nothing that could last. Like all reactionary, emotional assessments, this could not be more wrong. For not only was Genghis Khan one of the greatest military minds who ever lived, he was a perpetual student, whose stunning victories were often the result of his ability to absorb the best technologies, practices, and innovations of each new culture his empire touched. In fact, if there is one theme in his reign and in the several centuries of dynastic rule that followed, it’s this: appropriation.

Under Genghis Khan’s direction, the Mongols were as ruthless about stealing and absorbing the best of each culture they encountered as they were about conquest itself. Though there were essentially no technological inventions, no beautiful buildings or even great Mongol art, with each battle and enemy, their culture learned and absorbed something new. Genghis Khan was not born a genius. Instead, as one biographer put it, his was “a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, and constant revision driven by his uniquely disciplined and focused will.”

He was the greatest conqueror the world ever knew because he was more open to learning than any other conqueror has ever been.

Khan’s first powerful victories came from the reorganization of his military units, splitting his soldiers into groups of ten. This he stole from neighboring Turkic tribes, and unknowingly converted the Mongols to the decimal system. Soon enough, their expanding empire brought them into contact with another “technology” they’d never experienced before: walled cities. In the Tangut raids, Khan first learned the ins and outs of war against fortified cities and the strategies critical to laying siege, and quickly became an expert. Later, with help from Chinese engineers, he taught his soldiers how to build siege machines that could knock down city walls. In his campaigns against the Jurched, Khan learned the importance of winning hearts and minds. By working with the scholars and royal family of the lands he conquered, Khan was able to hold on to and manage these territories in ways that most empires could not. Afterward, in every country or city he held, Khan would call for the smartest astrologers, scribes, doctors, thinkers, and advisers—anyone who could aid his troops and their efforts. His troops traveled with interrogators and translators for precisely this purpose.

It was a habit that would survive his death. While the Mongols themselves seemed dedicated almost solely to the art of war, they put to good use every craftsman, merchant, scholar, entertainer, cook, and skilled worker they came in contact with. The Mongol Empire was remarkable for its religious freedoms, and most of all, for its love of ideas and convergence of cultures. It brought lemons to China for the first time, and Chinese noodles to the West. It spread Persian carpets, German mining technology, French metalworking, and Islam. The cannon, which revolutionized warfare, was said to be the resulting fusion of Chinese gunpowder, Muslim flamethrowers, and European metalwork. It was Mongol openness to learning and new ideas that brought them together.

As we first succeed, we will find ourselves in new situations, facing new problems. The freshly promoted soldier must learn the art of politics. The salesman, how to manage. The founder, how to delegate. The writer, how to edit others. The comedian, how to act. The chef turned restaurateur, how to run the other side of the house.

This is not a harmless conceit. The physicist John Wheeler, who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, once observed that “as our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” In other words, each victory and advancement that made Khan smarter also bumped him against new situations he’d never encountered before. It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more. It’s remembering Socrates’ wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he knew next to nothing.

With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk—thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.

The nine-time Grammy– and Pulitzer Prize–winning jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once advised a promising young musician on the mind-set required in the lifelong study of music: “Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on. It leaves you open for truths to reveal themselves. You don’t stand in your own way. . . . Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’”

No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.

It is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one has to assume for life. Learn from everyone and everything. From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies. At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn—and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.

Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know). It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually it’s too late to change course. This is where the silent toll is taken.

Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft. Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song— which can lead to a wreck. The second we let the ego tell us  we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt. That’s why Frank Shamrock said, “Always stay a student.” As in, it never ends.

The solution is as straightforward as it is initially uncomfortable: Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged—what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your surroundings

An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.

Most military cultures—and people in general—seek to impose values and control over what they encounter. What made the Mongols different was their ability to weigh each situation objectively, and if need be, swap out previous practices for new ones. All great businesses start this way, but then something happens. Take the theory of disruption, which posits that at some point in time, every industry will be disrupted by some trend or innovation that, despite all the resources in the world, the incumbent interests will be incapable of responding to. Why is this? Why can’t businesses change and adapt?

A large part of it is because they lost the ability to learn. They stopped being students. The second this happens to you, your knowledge becomes fragile.

The great manager and business thinker Peter Drucker says that it’s not enough simply to want to learn. As people progress, they must also understand how they learn and then set up processes to facilitate this continual education. Otherwise, we are dooming ourselves to a sort of self-imposed ignorance.

Source: Ego is the Enemy and used with permission from the author.

The Surprising Books That Billionaires, Chess Prodigies, Performance Coaches, and Bestselling Authors Recommend

One question Tim Ferriss, the author of The Four Hour Workweek, asks people on his podcast is “What book have you gifted most often to others, and why?”

This is one of my favorite parts of the show.

Below are some of the answers from people like Tony Robbins that might catch your attention. Thanks to this list, I just got a lot of my Christmas shopping done.

Before we get to that though, let’s recap the books that Tim has recommended.

Ok, now it is time for Tim’s podcasts guests to take over. Here are some of the ones that caught my eye. While I’ve read a lot of these, there were some very interesting new finds. I ended up ordering several books.

Kevin Kelly, the founding editor of WIRED magazine, recommends:

Tony Robbins, performance coach to Bill Clinton, Serena Williams, Paul Tudor Jones, Leonardo DiCaprio, Oprah Winfrey, and a bunch of other people you’ve heard of, recommends:

Neil Strauss has written 7 New York Times bestsellers. He offers:

Ryan Holiday is an author and the media strategist behind authors Tucker Max and Robert Greene. Ryan might be the only person I know who consistently reads more than I do. He recommends:

Ramit Sethi is a personal finance advisor and entrepreneur. Sethi is the author of the 2009 book on personal finance, I Will Teach You To Be Rich, a New York Times Bestseller. He recommends:

Not enough? See what Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, and Bill Gates recommend.

***

The book I give away most often is Peter Bevelin’s Seeking Wisdom and Robin Dreeke’s It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone.

Turning Adversity Into Advantage

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

***

Perception, action, and will are the three disciplines central to the stoic philosophy. They also form the structure for Ryan Holiday’s new book The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph.

The book is an exploration of stoic philosophy through the lens of the famous quote by Marcus Aurelius:

Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Holiday believes the secret to “an art known as turning obstacles upside down” can be found in these words.

To act with “a reverse clause,” so there is always a way out or another route to get to where you need to go. So that setbacks or problems are always expected and never permanent. Making certain that what impedes us can empower us.

Obstacles are nothing more than an opportunity to “practice some virtue: patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason justice, and creativity.”

The three disciplines build on one another.

Perception

It’s how we see and understand what occurs around us—and what we decide those events will mean. Our perceptions can be a source of strength or of great weakness. If we are emotional, subjective and short- sighted, we only add to our troubles. To prevent becoming overwhelmed by the world around us, we must, as the ancients practiced, learn how to limit our passions and their control over our lives. It takes skill and discipline to bat away the pests of bad perceptions, to separate reliable signals from deceptive ones, to filter out prejudice, expectation, and fear. But it’s worth it, for what’s left is truth. While others are excited or afraid, we will remain calm and imperturbable. We will see things simply and straightforwardly, as they truly are—neither good nor bad. This will be an incredible advantage for us in the fight against obstacles.

Action

Action is commonplace, right action is not. As a discipline, it’s not any kind of action that will do, but directed action. Everything must be done in the service of the whole. Step by step, action by action, we’ll dismantle the obstacles in front of us. With persistence and flexibility, we’ll act in the best interest of our goals. Action requires courage, not brashness—creative application and not brute force. Our movements and decisions define us: We must be sure to act with deliberation, boldness, and persistence. Those are the attributes of right and effective action. Nothing else— not thinking or evasion or aid from others. Action is the solution and the cure to our predicaments.

Will

Will is our internal power, which can never be affected by the outside world. It is our final trump card. If action is what we do when we still have some agency over our situation, the will is what we depend on when agency has all but disappeared. Placed in some situation that seems unchangeable and undeniably negative, we can turn it into a learning experience, a humbling experience, a chance to provide comfort to others. That’s will power. But that needs to be cultivated. We must prepare for adversity and turmoil, we must learn the art of acquiescence and practice cheerfulness even in dark times. Too often people think that will is how bad we want something. In actuality, the will has a lot more to do with surrender than with strength. Try “God willing” over “the will to win” or “willing it into existence,” for even those attributes can be broken. True will is quiet humility, resilience, and flexibility; the other kind of will is weakness disguised by bluster and ambition. See which lasts longer under the hardest of obstacles.

***

Holiday concludes that we have a choice, “Will we be blocked by obstacles, or will we advance through and over them?” In the end … the obstacle is the way.

We might not be emperors, but the world is still constantly testing us. It asks: Are you worthy? Can you get past the things that inevitably fall in your way? Will you stand up and show us what you’re made of?

Plenty of people have answered this question in the affirmative. And a rarer breed still has shown that they not only have what it takes, but they thrive and rally at every such challenge. That the challenge makes them better than if they’d never faced the adversity at all.

The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph is a great addition to my growing collection of philosophical reads.

The Stoic Reading List: Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus and More

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

— Marcus Aurelius

You know the section of the book after the last chapter? The one that everyone ignores? That’s one of the first things I read as part of a systematic skimming, which allows me to get a feel for the author’s vocabulary, a sense of what the book is about, and references and sources. It’s also a good place to find new reading material.

In the back of The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph I came across something I wish I had found a few years ago when I first started reading philosophy, a stoic reading list.

The Stoic Reading List

Stoicism is awesome because the original, primary texts are often easier to read than whatever has been put out since. This is why we’ve read the same books for thousands of years.

The Big Three.

1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

I loved this book. I had read it before but it wasn’t the Hays translation, which made a world of difference for me.

There is one translation of Marcus Aurelius to read and that is Gregory Hays’s amazing edition for the Modern Library. Everything else falls sadly short. His version is completely devoid of any “thou’s” “arts” “shalls.” It’s beautiful and haunting. I’ve recommended this book to literally thousands of people at this point. Buy it. Change your life.

2. Letters of a Stoic by Seneca (see also: On the Shortness of Life).

This is one of the 5 books I recommend everyone read before their 30th birthday.

Seneca or Marcus are the best places to start if you’re looking to explore Stoicism. Seneca seems like he would have been a fun guy to know—which is unusual for a Stoic. I suggest starting with On the Shortness of Life (a collection of short essays) and then move to his book of letters (which are really more like essays than true correspondence).

3. Discourses by Epictetus.

Of the big three, Epictetus is the most preachy and least fun to read. But he will also from time to time express something so clearly and profoundly that it will shake you to your core.

More Books

Holiday points us to some other great authors too, who are in line with some stoic thinking.

To which, you can add:

Selected Articles and online resources:

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Why Sites Like Gawker Manipulate You

“A newspaper is a business out to make money through advertising revenue.
That is predicated on its circulation and you know what the circulation depends on. …”
The Long Goodbye

***

Ryan Holiday’s book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, offers a penetrating look at the incentives of media.

Holiday, himself, is a practitioner of the dark arts of media manipulation and uses these techniques to make a living.

“Usually, it is a simple hustle,” Holiday writes. “Someone pays me, I manufacture a story for them, and we trade it up the chain — from a tiny blog to Gawker to a website of a local news network to the Huffington Post to the major newspapers to cable news and back again, until the unreal becomes real. Sometimes I start by planting a story. Sometimes I put out a press release or ask a friend to break a story on their blog. Sometimes I ‘leak’ a document. Sometimes I fabricate a document and leak that. Really, it can be anything, from vandalizing a Wikipedia page to producing an expensive viral video. However the play starts, the end is the same: The economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception — and sell product.”

For me, the most interesting part of the book was the history of the press, which begins with the Party Press, moves on to the Yellow Press and ends with the Modern Press (aka Subscription Press). Holiday gives us this history lesson to explain how news outlets sold their product over the years.

The Party Press

The earliest forms of newspapers were a function of political parties. These were media outlets for party leaders to speak to party members, to give them the information they needed and wanted. … These papers were not some early version of Fox News. They usually were one-man shops. The editor-publisher-writer-printer was the dedicated steward of a very valuable service to that party in his town. The service was the ability to communicate ideas and information about important issues. …

This first stage of journalism was limited in its scope and impact. Because of the size and nature of its audience, the party press was not in the news business. They were in the editorial business. It was a different time and style, one that would be eclipsed by changes in technology and distribution.

The Yellow Press
Newspapers changed the moment that Benjamin Day launched the New York Sun in 1833. It was not so much his paper that changed everything but his way of selling it: on the street, one copy at a time. He hired the unemployed to hawk his papers and immediately solved a major problem that had plagued the party presses: unpaid subscriptions. Day’s “cash and carry” method offered no credit. You bought and walked. The Sun, with this simple innovation in distribution, invented the news and the newspaper. A thousand imitators followed.

These papers weren’t delivered to your doorstep. They had to be exciting and loud enough to fight for their sales on street corners, in barrooms, and at train stations. Because of the change in distribution methods and the increased speed of the printing press, newspapers truly became newspapers. Their sole aim was to get new information, get it to print faster, get it more exclusively than their competition. It meant the decline of the editorial. These papers relied on gossip. …

… He (James Gordon Bennett) knew that the newspaper’s role was “not to instruct but to startle.” His paper was anti-black, anti-immigrant, and anti-subtlety. These causes sold papers—to both people who loved them for it and people who hated them for it. And they bought and they bought.

… The need to sell every issue anew each day creates a challenge I call the “One-Off Problem.” Bennett’s papers solved it by getting attention however they could.

The first issue of Bennett’s Herald looked like this: First page—eye-catching but quickly digestible miscellany; Second page—the heart of the paper, editorial and news; Third page—local; Fourth page—advertising and filler. There was something for everyone. It was short, zesty. He later tried to emphasize quality editorial instead of disposable news by swapping the first two pages. The results were disastrous. He couldn’t sell papers on the street that way.

The One-Off Problem shaped more than just the design and layout of the newspaper. When news is sold on a one-off basis, publishers can’t sit back and let the news come to them. There isn’t enough of it, and what comes naturally isn’t exciting enough. So they must create the news that will sell their papers. When reporters were sent out to cover spectacles and events, they knew that their job was to cover the news when it was there and to make it up when it was not.

Speaking of the markers of “yellow journalism” (the One-Off problem), author of Yellow Journalism and media historian W.J. Campbell wrote:

As practiced more than 100 years ago, yellow journalism was a robust, enterprising genre characterized by these practices and features:

  • the frequent use of multicolumn headlines that sometimes stretched across the front page.
  • a variety of topics reported on the front page, including news of politics, war, international diplomacy, sports, and society.
  • the generous and imaginative use of illustrations, including photographs and other graphic representations such as locator maps.
  • bold and experimental layouts, including those in which one report and illustration would dominate the front page. Such layouts sometimes were enhanced by the use of color.
  • a tendency to rely on anonymous sources, particularly in dispatches of leading correspondents.
  • a penchant for self-promotion, to call attention eagerly to the paper’s accomplishments. This tendency was notably evident in crusades against monopolies and municipal corruption.

As defined above and as practiced more than a century ago, yellow journalism could not be called predictable, boring, or uninspired — complaints of the sort that are not infrequently raised about U.S. newspapers in the early twenty-first century.

Does any of that sound familiar? It should. Just take a look at Gawker and The Huffington Post. It’s the modern version of the One-Off problem. Instead of trying to sell you a copy of the newspaper by shouting on the street corner, today’s media want page views. In yellow journalism, headlines and promotions were more important than content.

So what happened after the yellow press? Holiday continues:

The Modern Stable Press

… Adolph S. Ochs, publisher of the New York Times, ushered in the next iteration of news. Ochs, like most great businessmen, understood that doing things differently was the way to great wealth. In the case of his newly acquired newspaper and the dirty, broken world of yellow journalism, he made the pronouncement that “decency meant dollars.”

He immediately set out to change the conditions that allowed the Bennett, Hearst, Pulitzer, and their imitators to flourish. He was the first publisher to solicit subscriptions via telephone. He offered contests to his salesman. He gave them quotas and goals for the number of subscribers they were expected to bring in.

He understood that people bought the yellow papers because they were cheap—and they didn’t have any other options. He felt that if they had a choice, they’d pick something better. He intended to be that option. First, he would match his competitors’ prices, and then he would deliver a paper that far surpassed the value implied by the low price.

It worked. When he dropped the price of the Times to one cent, circulation tripled in the first year. He would compete on content. He came up with the phrase “All the News That’s Fit to Print” as a mission statement for the editorial staff, two months after taking over the paper. The less known runner-up says almost as much: “All the World’s News, But Not a School for Scandal.”

Of course, the transition to the modern press wasn’t immediate. The subscription model, however, better aligned the incentives of the reader and newspaperman. Subscriptions change everything because readers who are misled unsubscribe. Content, not headlines, ruled the day.

“With Ochs’s move,” Holiday writes, “reputation began to matter more than notoriety. This was the era of the professionalization of journalism. “For the first time, it created a sense of obligation, not just to the paper and circulation, but also to the audience.”

While subscription journalism meant you didn’t have to peddle papers on the street, that didn’t make it a perfect system.

As the character Philip Marlowe observed in Raymond Chandler’s novel The Long Goodbye:

Newspapers are owned and published by rich men. Rich men all belong to the same club. Sure, there’s competition—hard tough competition for circulation, for newsbeats, for exclusive stories. Just so long as it doesn’t damage the prestige and privilege and position of the owners.

We’ve had a good run. For a long time journalism was primarily sold via subscriptions (the stable press model) but now we’re moving quickly towards online à la Carte offerings. Journalism is no longer selling a package. Now each story is like a mini paper on the side of the street corner in the 1840’s trying to be heard over all of the other stories.

Eli Pariser wrote in The Filter Bubble:

Our bodies are programmed to consume fat and sugars because they’re rare in nature. Thus, when they come around, we should grab them. In the same way, we’re biologically programmed to be attentive to things that stimulate: content that is gross, violent, or sexual and that gossip which is humiliating, embarrassing, or offensive. If we’re not careful, we’re going to develop the psychological equivalent of obesity. We’ll find ourselves consuming content that is least beneficial for ourselves or society as a whole.

… Each article ascends the most-forwarded lists or dies an ignominious death on its own…. The attention economy is ripping the binding, and the pages that get read are the pages that are frequently the most topical, scandalous, and viral.

Think about how you consume media today. You don’t read one newspaper or blog. You read an assortment of many newspapers and blogs. And you don’t pay for any of it. The trust relationship is fractured. Competition centers around who can create the most read story. That means journalism becomes about what spreads – not what’s good.

MIT Media Studies Professor Henry Jenkins gives publishers and companies the following advice: “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead.” Spreading is traffic. Traffic is money.

So what spreads?

Joseph Campbell and Katherine Milkman, of the Wharton School looked into over 7,000 articles that made it on to the New York Times Most Emailed List. They conclude:

Virality is partially driven by physiological arousal. Content that evokes high-arousal positive (awe) or negative (anger or anxiety) emotions is more viral. Content that evokes low-arousal, or deactivating, emotions (e.g., sadness) is less viral.

Basically, virality is determined by how much anger the article causes. Not all extreme emotions spread. Sadness doesn’t spread. Anger spreads. If anger spreads and financial incentives are somehow aligned to ‘page views’ more of our journalism will move towards what spreads.

Something analogous to Gresham’s Law can be found in the One-Off problem. If each story has to find its own audience (i.e., it’s no longer sold as a bundle) and compensation is derived from page views, we can expect incentives to favor a lot of low-cost articles with catchy headlines. In the end, we’re likely to get the stories we want to read — not the ones we should read. If not part of subscription, we’ll likely lose the in-depth reporting we’ve come to expect from some of the old media guards.

(side-note: I found the first part of Holiday’s book — where he explains how page view media works and how he manipulated the system — pretty good. The book is not without it’s “controversy” though. Overall it’s a great read for anyone interested in the economics of new media.)

(update: a previous version of this post (ironically) sourced a site that accused Holiday of mis-quoting a study. Holiday contacted me and it appears that he used an older version of the study, which did, in fact, contain the quote he referenced in his book. The other site was wrong and my verification process was lax. My bad.)

***

“If you’re not paying for something,
you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”

— Andrew Lewis

Still curious? If you want to know more about how the media is manipulated, read Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.

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