Obsession with Recency

News media – newspapers, news channels, news blogs, etc. – all provide the same stuff – that is, coverage of recent events. Some of them try to differentiate themselves through expert analysis, but essentially the product is the same wherever you go. The way to compete in such territory is by being the first to break the news, which is why all such outlets rush to publish every news story as fast as possible. Of course that is the innate nature of the product – it wouldn’t be “news” if it wasn’t new.

But recency itself is valueless to most consumers. Unless you do something time sensitive, like stock trading, and really need to keep up to date with a particular company or country, it won’t matter whether you read about an important event now or in a few months time. What really matters is accuracy and insights, but these things are disregarded in the obsession with being first.

News blogs are especially bad at this since there is even less reason for them to double check their information. They’re not afraid of being wrong – all that matters is being first. Indeed, some of them even brag about being the first to break a new story; even if it has mistakes, they say, it kicks off an “interesting conversation”. One popular headline formula they use is: “Did [company] just [do something]?” – you can Google any popular news site with this to see how much they use it, here’s TechCrunch for example. And that’s the product of course: distraction through entertainment and conversation; which is why nobody is ever going to pay for news, since the diversion it offers can always be found elsewhere.

But look at the reverse: writing that doesn’t lose value over time. People still read the Classics today as they did hundreds of years ago. It’s a good indicator for the value of content: is it tied to recency, or is it still going to be read many years on? How much do you really gain by consuming content the value of which disappears only a few days later? If it’s diversion you want, find it in activities that build rather than waste. Yes, reading a book requires more effort than an article, and the rewards are not immediate – another indicator of value – but in the end you will improve in some way rather than just kill time.

Published February 2012