As the Internet plays a larger role in the way that people consume media, media outlets are being dragged along for the ride, forced to adapt to the new rules or fade into obsoleteness.
Note: These opinions are my own, and do not reflect those of The New York Times.
In a never-ending cycle of new technologies changing the way that things are done, news media is also finding itself transitioning to online formats, subject to the economies and distribution of digital media. For a while, news outlets still had control over the way their stories were shared, often driven by dedicated readers who visited their websites.
But today we find that people increasingly get their news media from social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Reddit. This trend represents a shift of power away from the media outlets and into the hands of automated black-box curation algorithms engineered by private companies. While social media, blogs, etc may promote the idea of “democratic” or “citizen” journalism, it creates many new challenges for traditional media outlets to address.
Even relatively recently founded, digital-first outlets like VICE, BuzzFeed, and Vox struggle to create models that are sustainable in the face of the changes that are happening.
Media in the lens of Danco Layers
To paint a picture of how things are changing in media, consider the evolution of journalism through Alex Danco’s Emergent Layers. Traditionally, writers could either write books or publish pieces in newspapers and magazines, or both. Books were longer processes in which writers wrote manuscripts that editors and publishers worked to market and distribute, whereas articles were shorter pieces written for a newspaper or magazine. Either way, good writing was a craft that gave individuals clout and celebrity.
In this system, quality writing was the greatest point of friction of the process, meaning that the economics worked out in favor of the writers, giving writers the power to write high quality, thoughtful pieces.
But as newspapers began to focus their attention to selling more papers, they realized that papers with engaging headlines sold better on street corners, turning the act of writing engaging headlines into a strategy that impacted the sales of a newspaper. This shift caused power to slowly to accumulate in the news organization itself, giving news organizations themselves more substantial power over the smaller ones. The point of friction shifted away from the individual writers and into the hands of the outlet, meaning that authors and journalists had to go through publishers and outlets in order to effectively monetize their writing, and giving outlets and publishers the power to manage writers.
Today, we see yet another shift of power as social media becomes the place where stories are curated and shared. People look to what their friends and family are sharing on social networks to determine what they should read.
First, this means that people no longer have to go through publishers and media outlets to build their platforms. This act of “democratizing” media effectively lowers the barrier of entry to becoming a writer. But since writing is low friction, it becomes increasingly difficult to make a living as a writer.
Second, this means that people no longer visit the home page of news website to consume media, taking the power away from media outlet and putting it into the hands of social curation platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. As news media becomes more controlled by social media sites, traditional news outlets lose the leverage they once have. Thus, the trend shows that fewer outlets become creators of news and more services become curators of news.
However, the hollowing out of the number of news organizations has yet another side effect: as fewer organizations generate news, the few organizations that are left standing have a disproportionately larger influence on the what is reported. As local newspapers go out of business, we’re left with only large news organizations like the New York Times and the Washington Post ruling much of the news stories that get reported, because smaller organizations simply do not have the ability to operate at scale.
The Digital Commercialization of News
As profit margins for news media continues to decrease in a digital world that expects everything for free, the main strategy for news organizations has been to further commercialize and innovate on subscription and advertising models. One example of this is seen in the way that sponsored content have begun to masquerade as real stories, etc. While these business models support the creation of content, many of these incentives are fundamentally at odds with the production of quality investigative journalism that has made the free press as a force of political and commercial accountability.
The “separation between church and state”, a fundamental idea in journalism that newsrooms and business interests of a news organization should be kept separate to maintain the integrity of reporting, was set up in order for the public to know that stories are free of commercial agendas. However, in today’s news organizations, this separation has become a much more ambiguous line.
Today, many news organizations conflate maintaining a journalistic distinction between church and state as an excuse for editors and journalists not to understand the economics of news publishing. The separation of church and state is not to say that editors should avoid learning or caring about the profitability of their news organizations, but to say that journalists and editors should still pursue stories of immense public value even if certain stories may not be the most economically profitable. This distinction is one that needs to continue into the future, even if the boundaries need to be redefined to fit profitability in the digital era.
The advertising model presents many challenges to the integrity of news organizations. First, it means an increased emphasis on pageviews and ad impressions, leading to articles known as clickbait or listicles that are written to maximize revenue generated from ad vendors. And because advertising models depend on specific articles written, revenue becomes more sporadic and volatile, and depends heavily on the amount of traffic that stories are able to generate.
This leads us to the second problem, which is that as a result of profits being made from article to article, which weakens the incentive to report on things that are truly newsworthy if no one is paying attention to it. History shows us that news organizations already miss crucial stories such as the first flight at Kitty Hawk or the Holocaust for a variety of reasons, and that we should be looking into the future for ways to not make the same mistakes instead of stacking the incentives of journalism as obstacles to news reporting.
Unfortunately, some of the modern digital first news organizations have had trouble navigating the fine divide between newsroom and advertising. VICE, a modern news organization that has drawn the attention of many millennials for it’s raw reporting, has found itself in water for articles that have been skewed by commercial interests.
From the perspective of creating a more informed public, a more sustainable business model, and a stronger customer relationship, focusing on digital subscriptions seems to offer all of those solutions. Digital subscriptions foster a long term relationship with readers, a freedom to pursue deeper investigative pieces, and a more predictable and consistent revenue that allows journalists to be more flexible.
The Future of Democratized Content
Of course, as good as the subscription model seems, there are very clear distinctions that separate it from historical print subscriptions. The biggest point is that subscription content cannot compete with free content. Newspapers have always had a cost to print and distribute, meaning that printed newspaper subscriptions would always compete with other paid subscriptions.
Additionally, putting content behind a subscription paywall also indirectly limits the very mission of journalism being a tool to inform the public. If the public can’t afford to pay for your subscriptions, they ultimately miss the stories that the subscription models enable journalists to create. This means that news organizations must have creative models that are competitive with free content as well as sustainable enough to pursue newsworthy stories.
In the age of the internet, news takes a much more social form form. The nature of the digital news means that interactions are asynchronous, location independent, and infinitely scalable. Through digital social networking platforms, people are able to gain a substantial following without going through traditional avenues of publishing, newspapers, politics, etc. Now, getting views on content requires jumping through fewer hoops and is dynamic, reactive, and interactive.
In a world where news organizations used to be the pulpit from which content flowed directly from news organizations to people’s front porches, the decentralized nature of the internet means that news is no longer a single pipe emanating out from reporters and editors, but a whole pool of commentary allowing anyone to selectively comment and share their thoughts to people whom they are connected to online.
But I’d like to suggest that even the decentralized model of the internet is not good enough: the paradigm to really understand in order to successfully sell news in 2016 is not about the content, but about the transfer of attention. Content is pointless unless there is someone paying attention on the other end. Whether it be a president addressing a whole nation or someone sending a private message to their coworker, attention is the reciprocating partner to content distribution.
In 1945, Vannevar Bush published an article in the Atlantic titled “As We May Think”. In this article, Bush talks about a memex that would change the way that we publish, find, and distribute information. 70 years later, we are using technology that both exceeds and falls short of the vision that Bush had.
Media, as it has existed for centuries, works only when it is paid attention to. The type of attention is often irrelevant from the perspective of the media outlet, even if reactions are different. The ability to draw attention is the most crucial characteristic of profitable content, not newsworthiness.
For instance, consider the current media reporting on the 2016 presidential election. What we see is that the candidate that is getting the most media coverage did so by making highly provocative comments in ways that the media could not help but report. This manipulation of the media through sensationalist comments has invoked a large amount of criticism from people all over social media, ultimately generating free press for the candidate.
This is the virality epidemic that is plaguing digital media today: that viral content only becomes more viral, and content with no attention continues to receive no attention, leaving a bias of content that only becomes newsworthy because of its virality. This is the key reason we need clear boundaries between church and state, journalism and business.
The 21st Century Journalist
Shifting economies of journalism means that the fundamental craft of journalism is also changing. Some people from the digital world assume that digital content means that robots and AI will eventually replace journalists, and this inevitability of software to disrupt the journalism process because of the combination of a lower barrier to entry and more plentiful information.
But proponents of this argument fail to understand the real implications of data and AI. Increasing the amount of data and interconnected people on the internet doesn’t diminish the role of the journalist. Quite the contrary, as it increases the need to have people who are able to explain, analyze, and curate the immensely vast sum of human data that is being generated daily.
Tech companies such as Facebook and Twitter that have been experimenting with AI to curate and edit the news have not been having much success, and the success that it does claim ultimately piggybacks off of the work done by real people in newsrooms. We’re a long way from having computers that are able to autonomously report on current events.
But what these large sums of data have enabled is something much more powerful. FiveThirtyEight is one example of modern data-driven journalism that depends heavily on digital systems to make election and sports forecasts, allowing human journalists to better make sense of the vast sums of data. It is this combination of man and machine that allows for more informed public storytelling.
Journalism today requires a much broader set of skills than before, when the majority of the work was nothing more than writing and editing. Today, journalism includes everything from data science to video production to social media and so much more.
Activism, the Press, and the Future of Democracy
In the United States, freedom of the press is a right written into the first amendment. It on these principles of assembly, civil disobedience, and free press that our country was born, and on these same principles that form the balancing of power between governments and their citizens.
In 1971, the Supreme Court ruled on “New York Times Co. vs United States” that the publication of the Pentagon Papers was protected by the first amendment. This historic ruling set the precedent for maintaining the press as a mechanism of accountability for the government, and in certain ways serves as check and balance from outside of the government.
Now imagine for a moment that classified documents were leaked by an individual on a private blog in the spirit of today’s “democratized journalism”. Unfortunately, an individual would not stand a chance under today’s regulations such as the Espionage Act. (Snowden understood this limitation and chose to leak is documents through established news organizations for this very reason.)
But even on issues unrelated to national security such as #BlackLivesMatter, the Panama Papers, Arab Spring, etc, news organizations play a very significant role in maintaining the story of individuals and providing legitimacy to their causes. Activists seek publicity in order to raise awareness on issues affecting people, hoping to prompt people into action, whether that be through civic means or otherwise.
Countries that maintain state-run news organizations leverage censorship in order to control the very things that their citizens are reading and thinking. Perhaps shielding citizens from certain things may allow a country to be run with less opposition, but fundamentally suppresses the voice of the people.
The balancing act between centralization and decentralization of the press is a difficult one to get right. The press is often stuck in between the responsibility of informing the public while keeping the political process accountable to the people. Centralized organizations can easily become a source of biased propaganda that is used to manipulate the everyday reader, while decentralized organizations struggle to get the most pertinent of issues properly paid attention to and analyzed. The only way to be journalistically effective is to avoid the ailments of groupthink without concentrating power in the hands of a few.
Ultimately, the need for strong journalism doesn’t just speak to the economics of the media industry, but who we are as a people: our social narrative, our democracies, and our collective knowledge.
Focusing our attention in the right places has never been so simultaneously hard and crucial.