Media Entrepreneurship in a Time of Polarization
Today’s article was submitted by Rob Snyder and Laura Carpenter.
People at HBS have always tended to be politically and socially active. Many students speak about a desire to work in the public sector after a successful business career. Others hope to promote change from a position of corporate influence.
However, during the 2016 election cycle, the social and political problems in our country began to feel more urgent. Before, these problems were interests to be pursued on the side or in ten to twenty years. Now, they’re something more.
Two students spoke to the Harbus about how certain trends in news production and consumption have exacerbated political divisions, and what, in their opinions, must change.
Rob Snyder looks at the media from the lens of incentives: What actions do the current business models in news media incentivize?
For television and online ad-based news, the game is to grab and hold your attention. Get clicks. Keep you watching through that next commercial. Sure, this can be done with thoughtful, nuanced reporting … but why do that when it’s easier, cheaper, and more effective to shout sensational and divisive sound-bites? Business booms when outrage reigns. And in the race to raise our collective blood pressure, the losers are our sanity and our democracy’s functioning.
On the other hand, how do you get paying subscribers when so much content is free? Again, thoughtful and nuanced reporting helps. But so does having the most detailed scoop on White House palace drama, complete with opinion pieces that rally the troops. It pays to build a movement, an ideologically pure tribe.
Rob’s fear is that partisan shout-pieces work. In his first 100 days, Trump accounted for 41% of national television’s news stories, three times what’s normal. At the same time, TV news viewership has skyrocketed. Of course, the President is an important story. But he’s not the only story.
The question Rob’s been wrestling with, then, is how to build a media company that’s not pulled into the vortex of never-ending shout-a-thons about the White House … especially when that’s what sells?
Like Rob, Laura Carpenter is frustrated by the state of media today. However, she is focused on a different issue: echo chambers.
According to a Pew Research Center report:
- 72% of US adults think that news organizations tend to favor one side when presenting political and social issues.
- 71% of online readers say that they read news sites that agree with their own views.
- And most importantly, 50% of Americans say that talking about politics with people they disagree with is stressful and frustrating.
Laura believes that due to our news consumption habits, we’ve forgotten how to empathize with those who don’t share our political opinions. Instead, we make nasty caricatures of those who disagree with us. It’s no surprise that we feel more divided than ever.
Thus, Laura decided to build a different type of news company—one that was intentionally designed from the ground-up to appeal to both parties. One that would make it fun and easy for readers to engage with opinions from across the political spectrum.
Laura has a hypothesis: she thinks that if Americans engage with opposing opinions, they will be less likely to judge and more likely to empathize. They will begin to understand how somebody—who is just as smart as they are—may form different opinions. She thinks that this empathetic approach will lead to healthier, solution-oriented debate.
So like Rob, Laura is wrestling with a major question as she builds her company: In this age of political polarization, how can she develop and market content that appeals equally to liberals and conservatives?
Rob and Laura both spent their summers in Boston with summer fellowship grants from the HBS Rock Center for Entrepreneurship.
Laura’s company, Abridge News, creates informed and empathetic political discourse among Americans who have opposing points of view. Each day, their website highlights a trending news story and curates different opinion articles that each represent a unique, defensible point of view.
Rob Snyder (HBS ‘18) is originally from Cleveland, OH and went to the University of Pittsburgh. Prior to HBS, Rob was a consultant and entrepreneur.
Laura Carpenter (HBS ‘18) is originally from Charlotte, NC and went to Georgia Tech. Prior to HBS, Laura was a consultant with Deloitte.