Like the world order it sustains, journalism needs a tune-up

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Over dinner a few years ago a major political figure earnestly inquired about his prospects for a position in the news media: “After all, everyone knows that the internet has given you a bigger audience than ever, and so you must be swimming in money.”

Despite the potential applicant’s stellar resume the assumption was so backward that I struggled to suppress an impolitic burst of laughter. After making sure that he was being serious, I explained that the internet brought not only a vast audience but also a decimation of the media’s business model so grave that its survival was at stake.

“Seek ye,” I said, “investment banking.”

By now, the predictions of doom have largely come true. The revenues of the Associated Press, where I worked for decades, has fallen from the peak by 50% in real terms. That reflects the declining revenues of its clients, which are the world’s newspapers, websites, broadcast outlets and so on.

On the other hand, there has been a felicitous moderation of the public’s self-defeating refusal to pay for content online. For some platforms — certainly for the truly high-quality ones — there is salvation and more in the rise of paywalls and adoption of subscriptions.

While the prospect of insolvency diverted us, another crisis emerged: widespread distrust of the media, especially among the less-educated. It’s fanned by populist politicians from the right, and disdaining the media slots into their war with the “elites.” Typical of populist narratives, it’s mostly rubbish with a pesky grain of truth.

The past year may have seen something of a pivot along all these tracks — and I offer here six essays from the past year about it all (click on the headline to read the full version of each). Is journalism worth so much analysis and angst? Cynics would say no. Anyone who really cares about civilization must say yes.

The news media needs an honest reckoning

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The news industry drove its own decline with half-baked business plans, faddishness, ageism and a dishonest version of objectivity.

The errors included a stampede by many serious US publications to the progressive fringe, which accounts for scarcely more than one in 20 Americans. When people see editors fired and being forced to issue pretend apologies for violations against some orthodoxy, it worsens the distrust being fanned by the populist right.

The industry also exaggerated its pivot to video, in which layoffs of text journalists were presented as progress while selective data persuaded everyone video was king. Video is good for some things like delivering pre-roll ads and riveting children to a screen, but it is also inefficient. What drove knowledge and probably always will is the word. Now more journalists can think fast — but fewer can think deep.

But the most disastrous error came when the news media in the late 1990s threw everything online for free.

You Can’t Subscribe to Everything

Photo by Dan Perry

Contrary to the conviction of a few self-appointed digital gurus, information does not want to be free: good content is scarce, and scarcity has value.

With advertising migrating to search and social over the past 20 years, another shift is underway and paywalls are becoming ubiquitous. The average price of paywalled news comes to around $200 per year. Soon most links from social media will lead to dead ends. Users trying to read a single article will be asked to subscribe to publications they have no active intention of ever visiting again.

Long-suffering publishers can be forgiven for a moment of triumphalist inflexibility: Let them all subscribe! But this cannot be a long-term solution for a future in which content online ceases to be free. Subscriptions cannot be the only door through the wall. The market will demand an answer. If none is provided, users will drift away and only a few content providers will survive.

Yes, Big Tech Should Pay More for News

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The free market is not the only thing that matters. It’s one thing for civilization to cast aside its typewriters and travel agents, and another to give up on journalism.

The newspaper industry last year brought in just under $10b from advertising while Google alone brought in over $200b in digital ad revenue. Much of it — as on social media — attaches to journalistic content. This is not because the media is run by fools — but because ads are drawn to scale. Big tech would be wise to take the initiative and propose the creation of a media fund dedicated to some level of fair distribution to media outlets whose content is featured on their platforms.

When confronted with the demand that Big Tech pay more for journalism, some adopt the laissez-faire argument that punishing successful disruptors for media’s failures is unfair. But society would be well advised to see the bigger picture.

Russia reminds us journalism is too big to fail

Photo by Dan Perry

The Russia-Ukraine tragedy offers a useful reminder of the vital importance of the much-maligned news media — which like democracy is our the least bad option (versus a landscape filled with bloggers and partisan announcements).

Despite the pain inflicted on Russians themselves by their leadership’s murderous assault on Ukraine (which aims to slightly enlarge the world’s largest country), all signs indicate that many of them support it. There are many possible reasons, including bitterness over loss of empire and the universal human inclination to be idiotically nationalist when at war. But the main reason is simpler: the propaganda produced by a pliant media, the classic tool that enables dictators to dictate.

Cut off from foreign news, most Russians are simply not exposed to an open discourse about the mostly absurd justifications, the true cost, and the failures on the ground.

Journalism Stepped Up in the Ukraine Tragedy

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We tend to agree that journalists must cover what’s important. We ignore that importance is subjective and that news is basically a business, and we hope for a reasonable outcome. The Ukraine war has tested this brittle journalistic paradigm, and the results have been… reasonable.

The news media arrived at the war in a bedraggled financial state, and exhausted from several decades of covering conflicts. While fewer than 20 journalist deaths were recorded in World War II, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that over 200 journalists and media support workers were killed in during the Iraq war from 2003–2011 and at least 78 journalists in Afghanistan.

All this risked breaking the will of journalists to take more chances — and yet thousands have flocked to Ukraine. They have not only braved difficult conditions to cover the news, but laid the foundation for the world’s discourse on what to do.

Is It Curtains For Foreign Correspondents? Not Exactly

What could be better than being a foreign correspondent?

Over some decades of it I was befriended by Jamaican Maroons, grilled by Moldovan peasants and labelled “zen” by Bono. I huddled with Yasser Arafat, offended Prince Phillip and was abandoned in mid-interview by John McCain. Between absurd such little episodes I got to add a few lines to the rough draft of history.

The population of our booze-fueled breed has been declining for years, and now some predict the demise of global reportage. But I say that’s premature.

The Ukraine war is just the latest evidence of the importance of journalism that is detached from specific national concerns. The data shows interest is high. As the world grows ever more complex and interdependent, connect-the-dots journalism can be a holy grail of sorts: both a public service people need, and a product people want.



Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.

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Dan Perry

Journalist and comms professional who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Author of Israel & the Quest for Permanence.