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Nothing Is Free

Mar 2, 2023

We are immersed in a sea of immediate, inexpensive content. We’re so accustomed to this reality that encountering a paywall or a wait time elicits a groan, if not an immediate rerouting.

But this behavior betrays an unavoidable truth: Anything of quality requires time and/or money. (And to be clear, when we say ‘quality’, we’re defining it on two levels- what goes into creating something, as well as the value we get from it.)

So why do we think our media consumption is any different? And what do we think happens when we prioritize the fast and the free?

Food, as an analogy, once again provides insight into what is required to produce items of quality, and what is sacrificed in favor of instant, inexpensive gratification.

Before we start, it’s extremely important to point out here that quality consumption is a privilege.  Having the means to afford and access to high quality, nourishing items is something we too often take for granted. Strapped for expendable time and/or income, many people are doing the best they can with what’s available, so this certainly isn’t a judgment on people’s choices. It’s a call to action for makers to prioritize the wellbeing of our communities over unconscionable profit margins.

We’re going to walk you through exactly what goes into making low vs high quality food or content, and what happens when we’re on the receiving end of either.

Low Quality Food

 

Low Quality Food

 

Let’s start with lower quality foods- your so-called “fast” and “junk” foods.

Sourcing:

Timing and costs are cut from the very beginning, starting with the ingredients.

To cheat or accelerate nature, produce is grown with harmful chemicals and livestock are raised in horrifying conditions. Crop and animal diversity is abandoned to make way for mono-farming, that’s easier to systematize and automate. Farmers are exploited, as they bend over backwards to compete with machinery designed to replace them.

Processing + distributing:

Corporations then look for shortcuts to make processing and distribution as efficient as possible.

Ingredients are manipulated into specific, mass production standards to make preparing, shipping, and selling them faster, easier, and cheaper, all over the world.

They’re packed with fillers, preservatives, and additives to taste better and last longer, with little to no regard for nutrient integrity or natural flavor.

These products are sold in vending machines and other super convenient locations, to ensure they’re the first option available, nearly everywhere you turn.

Experience:

Consider how you tend to consume these lower quality items, your chips, sodas, fast food burgers. Many times it’s quickly or mindlessly, when you find yourself bored or in need of quick fuel. It’s an experience so often devoid of appreciation and hardly worth sharing.

We may even feel guilty for partaking too much or for getting caught out unprepared. Our relationship with these foods tends to be just as unhealthy as the products themselves.

Impact:

The most unsettling aspect of this undercutting cycle of consumption is how easily we grow accustomed to it. After decades of market saturation, consumers develop a taste for artificiality and bottom basement prices. This makes it increasingly difficult for higher value products to compete.

Our personal and planetary wellbeing pay the ultimate price. Pervasive chronic diseases, declining life spans, depleted soil quality, disappearing forests are all evidence of this. In a time when we have all the knowledge and technology imaginable to enhance our quality of life, companies allow convenience, cravings and cut costs to outweigh all else.

Low Quality Media

 

Low Quality Media

 

So what can mass-produced and hyper processed food teach us about media manipulation? Whether you’re talking about sources of news, the volumes of video and streaming content available, gaming, etc.- it turns out quite a bit.

News Sourcing:

Lower quality news often begins with unresearched, unverified, or just plain manipulated facts. They may not even start with facts at all, just someone’s opinion dressed up to look like an objective truth.

Much like the harmful pesticides and fertilizers contaminating cheap ingredients, political or financial agendas and bias contaminate cheap information sources.

News Processing + Distribution

Free, breaking news articles are typically generated in content farms. Just like an overcrowded chicken farm producing questionable meat, ‘journalists’ (and now more regularly bots and AI trained with ‘natural language programs’) churn out splashy “news” articles with questionable information. There’s no time to offer context or analysis, so they provide no value in helping you make informed decisions or form any sort of cohesive world view. Their sole goal is boosting advertising value to meet corporate bottom lines.

Unreliable and extremely biased, hyper-processed news shows, like Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow in the US, offer opinions and stories engineered to persuade and entertain you. The bright colors, flashing words, and heated tones are all meant to hold your attention for advertisers.  (Read more about these shows and networks specifically, based on Newsguard and Ad Fontes news rating systems.)

These anchored opinion-based cable broadcasts cost a fraction of the price of the highly technical, multi-perspective field reporting that once defined news programming. Now it’s just one voice, with one view, filtering it all

These mass-produced formats are, by virtue, designed to appeal to as many people as possible. Meaning the most buzzworthy, jaw-dropping stories rise to the top, not necessarily the most relevant, useful, or even the most factual.

Like the sugar and sodium packed junk lining our grocery stores, hyper processed news media is designed to sell, above all else.

Entertainment Sourcing:

Then there are more obvious forms of entertainment- like TV, games, or films. Take Netflix for example. There are the exceptional breakout shows- your Bridgertons, Stranger Things and Squid Games- but it’s only a handful in a sea of unoriginal concepts, bulging with stereotypical, two-dimensional characters.

Much like the mono-farming of corn and cows in the US today, we are producing more franchised and formulaic plot lines every year. We’re again sacrificing diversity for standardization.

This is not to say that everyone needs to give up Netflix. To reiterate, there are definite bright spots! But we do find their huge, high speed production model worth noting

Entertainment Processing + Distribution:

Netflix is churning out massive amounts of content at an unsustainable rate. In 2018, the company created just shy of 2400 hours of original content[1]. That’s 200 hours of new content every month, for the fraction of the price of one movie ticket.

How could their production houses possibly produce quality media at this low cost and unrelenting rate? That’s why the writing, filming and editing of these productions typically feels flat and predictable.

Their full season release strategy is hugely to blame for the commoditization of their TV shows. Series that might have occupied viewers’ hearts, minds, and conversations for months are now forgotten or overshadowed in a matter of days. 

Experience:

Consuming these lower quality media products is so often similar to isolated, mindless fast-food moments-  each of us binging in our own personalized media bubble, selecting from an infinite array of on-demand options, only to simultaneously scroll through our phones the whole time.  We often come out of these experiences more dazed than informed or inspired.

Impact:

Overtime we have gotten used to faster, flashier, franchised media. Click bait headlines and red-faced commentators. New formulaic films and series available every week. In accepting these lesser quality substitutes, we’ve lost the ability to trust, to focus, or fully appreciate these formerly cherished efforts.

Our health and wellbeing pay the ultimate price yet again. Our communities are weakening and our attention spans shortening, as our levels of anxiety, overwhelm and loneliness increase. In a hyper connected world, we’re left more disconnected than ever- from each other, along with the information and experiences that bring us real value.

 

Ok, so that was admittedly bleak. But only half the story. Let’s contrast these lower quality products with higher quality ones.

High Quality Food

 

High Quality Food

 

When we say higher quality foods, we mean the minimally processed, locally made or skillfully prepared variety.

Sourcing:

Higher quality foods rely on ingredients grown with care and thoughtfulness.  Produce is usually fresher, grown more locally, or in better soil conditions. Livestock are raised in open pastures and fed their natural diets. These practices work to naturally enhance flavor and preserve nutrient density.

The farmers themselves are typically better paid for these ethical, labor-intensive standards. This empowers them to better care for their land and communities.

Processing + Distribution:

High quality food products are more mindfully processed, often in smaller batches, for longer cooking or prep times. This allows for richer flavors to develop and facilitates the breakdown of certain nutrients, making them easier for the body to digest (think fermentation, sprouting, slow-cooking, etc.).

Locally production can be a key indicator of food quality. They may not have the same flashy packaging as big brands, but don’t mistake that for lesser value. They’re typically created by passionate makers dedicated to the integrity of their craft, resulting in more nourishing and more creative products.

Since local foods don’t have to travel as far, they don’t require the same amount of processing or preservatives to prepare them for long journeys on trucks or stays in warehouses. Local production and distribution models don’t have exorbitant overheads or footprints to cover, leaving the foods and makers free to be themselves.

More mindful production and smaller-scale distribution typically means these items are more costly and harder come by. They require more intention and investment on our part.

Experience

When eating foods made with time and care, you tend to slow down or share it with others. The eating process becomes one of anticipation, appreciation, and bonding, as opposed to mindless, solitary fueling. You’re more likely to leave these experiences with a sense of gratitude in place of guilt.

Impact

High quality food is a love language. These foods not only nourish our bodies, they strengthen our relationships with the Earth and each other

Taking more time to recognize the quality of foods is a healing practice. It also has widespread systemic impact. People are slowly reawakening to the power and pleasure of real food. More and more kids are being raised today with a taste for more real, less processed flavors. The food industry has no choice but to listen.

High Quality Media

 

High Quality Media

 

So what does higher quality media look like?

In terms of news, better quality articles are sitting behind paywalls. They’re not the free sites littered with sketchy pop-up ads on all sides. They’re even-tempered news anchors, plainly stating facts, as opposed to hurling insults or fiery claims.

In entertainment, higher quality media are works of art. They’re the pieces that stick with you, shape culture, and make you think more deeply or more fondly about the world around you.

News Sourcing:

Higher quality news starts with more rigorous sourcing and verified facts. This means you’re not just receiving opinions, agenda-fueled hearsay, or flat out lies. Researching these facts takes time and extremely skilled labor to produce. Every attempt to cheat this process diminishes the informational value of the facts at hand.

News Processing + Distribution

Higher value news exhibits more neutral language and balanced coverage. Think of the Associated Press, a non-profit, or PBS, which is publicly funded. Their reporting style may come across as “bland” by comparison, because their goal isn’t to just entertain you for clicks. Advertising is still present, but these outlets don’t have nearly the same financial pressures as their corporate, ad-revenue based counterparts.

Quality news media is focused on educating you, by providing context and analysis to give you a fuller understanding of the issue at hand. This in turn helps you make better, more informed decisions.

Local news is also an extremely potent form of news. While we often correlate higher production quality with a higher quality product, that’s not always the case, especially when quality is determined by the value something brings you. Local news has far greater value to you than generic mass news. They’re offering you information that directly impacts your community and day to day, as opposed to shocking stories from across the world.

Local news doesn’t have to appease a mass audience, so there’s no need to pull out as many tricks. It’s more free to be itself[2], covering topics you’re naturally inclined to care about, due to sheer proximity.

Hyper-processed mass media, by contrast, is like a shiny object designed to grab your attention. The bright colors, extreme personalities, and charged language keep you transfixed on topics that you have little to no influence over or relation to.

Entertainment Sourcing:

HBO is an obvious case study when it comes to best-in-class entertainment

At the base level, the company starts with more original, more creative, literally “fresher” concepts. These storylines and characters reverberate long after the final episode airs.  The Sopranos, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Game of Thrones, Sex and the City, Insecure, White Lotus. There’s almost too many to name- it’s media that has defined culture.

Entertainment Processing + Distribution:

Compared to Netflix, HBO’s script writing and acting caliber is stronger, the filming and direction more artful. And while the pricing may not be drastically different, HBO demands more time.

HBO produces drastically less content compared to Netflix. For example, in 2018 HBO created 500 hours of original content[3] (vs Netflix’s 2400 hours.)

The less hurried production schedule allows HBO to spend more time prepping, shooting, and editing. They also resisted the full season launch strategy, pioneered by Netflix, instead sticking to the traditional weekly release approach.

The result is a more skilled and anticipated product. This helps the brand continually attract the most sought-after writers, directors and actors, perpetuating a sustainable cycle of premium outputs.

Experience:

Like finely crafted food, higher quality media experiences are more savored.

It’s the news you take the time to sit with and digest. The type that inspires personal reflection, reappraisal, or meaningful discussion with others.

They’re the movies, shows, and games that you can’t wait to be released. They’re the ones that you conduct funny little rituals to prepare for or silence your phone during. They’re the ones you rush to call your loved ones to dissect.

These experiences have your full attention in the moment and continue to fuel your growth and relationships after you finish.

Impact:

Higher quality media nourishes our personal and collective wellbeing. It helps us make more intelligent decisions and navigate life more smoothly. It broadens our perspective and empathy towards others. It inspires meaningful action and dialogues.

At its best, content is an empowering, unifying force that elevates our understanding of the world and each other.

We’ve witnessed an increasing demand for higher quality food. We’re currently instilling a deeper appreciation among young people. These efforts are slowly but surely redirecting our food system from the ground up. It’s not so far-fetched to believe we can reawaken a similar appreciation and level of discernment within our media landscape.


Food vs Media Quality

This comparison has led us back to Shalane Flanagan’s resounding summation of the food industry today: “We’re overfed and undernourished”. The same can be said of our media climate. We are binging on content devoid of value, and it’s making us sick.

We must learn how to evaluate the true cost of what we consume, to ask ourselves the honest question: “Pay now or pay later?”

Inexpensive products may feel like you’re saving time or money, but your wellbeing, worldview and relationships pay the price in the long run.

One of the most life-changing health habits you can incorporate  is to simply start asking questions about how things are made:

  • What is made of?
  • How was this made?
  • If it’s so cheap, what corners are they cutting?
  • Who is really paying the bill? Advertisers? Lobbyists? Public donations?

We find yet again that greater mindfulness always leads us to brighter, richer ways of being.

Action:

Get curious about your favorite media platforms. First isolate your favorite news or entertainment platform or account. Next, ask yourself or research the following questions:

  • Sourcing: What is their content built on? Verified facts or opinions? Fresh concepts or tired tropes? What exactly are their souring practices? How do they demonstrate care or rigor?
  • Processing and distribution: Who is paying for this to be made? How much time or effort went into creating this? Does it feel like a fast and formulaic product or is it filled with more skill and intention? Does this feel like it’s made to appeal to the lowest common denominator or is it for a smaller audience?
  • Experience: How do I engage with this media? Does it have my full attention or am I often mindlessly, multi-tasking? How often do I share or connect with others over the material?
  • Impact: Is this material bringing people together or creating division? Is it broadening my perspective and deepening my understanding of the world or just confirming my own bias?

 

[1]  Clark, Travis. “Netflix and HBO are fighting over the original TV crown, but the number of hours Netflix is putting out is overwhelming” Business Insider, 8 February 2019 businessinsider.com/netflix-versus-hbo-original-tv-shows-and-movie-hours-chart-2019-2

[2] It’s important to point out that many local news outlets are owned by large media groups, so there are often hidden corporate agendas at play here too. However, we feel that local reporting contains more inherent value than global news, that you have no ability to act on or use in your daily life. This ties back to our second principle, Fuel Action + Growth, which you can read more about here.

[3]  Clark, Travis. “Netflix and HBO are fighting over the original TV crown, but the number of hours Netflix is putting out is overwhelming” Business Insider, 8 February 2019 businessinsider.com/netflix-versus-hbo-original-tv-shows-and-movie-hours-chart-2019-2

 

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