Yesterday, the Sydney Morning Herald’s website scored the big three: s-x, nudity and incest. Website traffic would have gone through the roof. But an experiment conducted by economists at the London School of Economics shows how Fairfax is sacrificing their upmarket brand for short term, populist stories.

After completing a survey, the economists offered the participants a snack. “What would you like: fruit or chocolate?” they asked. The students, all human, mostly chose chocolate.

The experiment was then varied a week later. This time, the economists promised to bring them a snack for their next visit, delaying the gratification (the choice was the same). “Fruit sounds nice,” said the students. A week later the fruit turned up but those devilish economists offered the chocolate again: “Are you sure you wouldn’t like chocolate?” Of course they would. Many duly switched.

That’s an edited excerpt from a recent ABC interview with Tim Harford, author of The Undercover Economist and, most recently, The Logic of Life. The experiment shows how the choices we make in the present differ from those we make over a longer time frame. Whether its an exercise regime, a diet program or trying to quit smoking, we’ve all been torn between satisfying our immediate desires and doing what’s best for us.

Still, many people fight the desire for immediate satisfaction and find a balance between the present and future. People do exercise, they do eat fruit and, in an effort to better themselves intellectually, they choose to read Fairfax’s SMH over Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph. SMH’s high-brow reputation, built up over 177 years, is a valuable one; the readership is loyal and there are plenty of advertising dollars looking for high-brow consumers. But it is a reputation being quickly trashed.

The internet gives the paper’s editors the ability to see, instantaneously, what we read. It will come as no surprise to Tim Harford that the most popular stories are about sex, nudity and, in yesterday’s perfect example, incest – even amongst SMH’s supposedly sophisticated readers. Put chocolate in front of us and we eat it.

The executives see what’s popular and feed us more. The net result is that Bob Irwin (Steve’s father), Nicole Kidman and a hedgehog all made it onto yesterday’s SMH homepage. Robert Mugabe did not.

Not only is this disappointing, it is faulty logic. We’re all guilty of clicking on populist articles but our actions belie the reason we’re there in the first place. If I want to read trash, there are better places to get it. I go to smh.com.au for serious commentary and, if I don’t get it, I’ll go elsewhere.

Fairfax’s business is under assault from all sides. It’s most profitable source of revenue – classified ads – has been diverted to the likes of Seek and realestate.com.au. Succumbing to populism and destroying its wonderful brand names will only accelerate its decline.

Steven Johnson is managing director of The Intelligent Investor and blogs at http://onvalueinvesting.wordpress.com

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