The news media needs an honest reckoning

The news industry is reeling after a parade of errors over two decades — and this is a disaster, because the rough draft of history cannot be produced by algorithms or the wisdom of the crowd.

Open societies and free markets need dedicated and knowledgeable journalists holding power to account and connecting the dots. Voters and investors will make terrible mistakes if information comes only from partisans, and social media — which is where Americans increasingly get their information — is a zone of hysteria, extremism, and nonsense.

Industries in meltdown don’t tend to soberly reflect. But this one is so important that we should fervently hope for an exception.

To begin with, we confront a basic paradox: If revenue doesn’t cover costs, news must be subsidized and thus cannot be truly independent, rendering its reporting and analysis suspect. But if independent of outside parties, the industry needs revenue that is also problematic: advertising colors journalism one way, and paying readers color it another in that the content must be sufficiently interesting.

That last bit — the need to be interesting — is perhaps the most acute, since advertising has mostly migrated to search and social, yielding a mad scramble to charge for content.

Giving the audience what it wants sounds democratic and non-elitist. But what if much of the public prefers nonsense and scandal?

The paradox is that many news consumers distrust the news for a variety of reasons — say, bias or clickbait — without which they also would not find it interesting enough to pay for.

When there is a clash between what audiences find interesting and what journalists find important, some of the pros think they know better, and there is a good argument in protecting the integrity of the brand for the long game.

And yet, with each decision by journalists to prefer what they deem to be important (say, a war in central Africa) to what audiences find interesting (Kardashian once more broke the internet!), publishers leave money on the table. They are less amenable to that (as we see in cutbacks at BuzzFeed News, which tried to drag a clickbait platform in a more serious direction).

Yes, highbrow media still exists — and even thrives. Investigative and explanatory publications are gaining a paying audience. They are even modernizing usefully — in some cases, by embracing submissions (a model enriching the ranks in thrifty fashion). Such publications address national and global issues rather well.

But the setup is exacerbating a toxic inequality.

The already educated and generally comfortable will read The New York Times, Die Welt, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, Haaretz and The Economist, gaining yet more information and with it more advantage.

Wealthier people will better understand geopolitics, technology and the economy, while the others enjoy reality TV and real-estate pornography. Societal gaps will become more toxic and the elites will despair of democracy, as is happening.

The challenge is expanding the paying audience beyond the highly educated — and educating more people, which is a political affair.

While this plays out, some societies may begin to consider ways to move journalism away from being a business.

Two main alternatives emerge: local news as a public trust — paid for with taxes, not unlike the BBC, which works somewhat well — and local news as a charitable trust, philanthropic at the core, and the more likely model in the state-skeptical United States.

Fixing all this is an especially tough discussion in the United States, because corporate America is more bureaucratic and risk-averse than it likes to think, and people walk on eggshells. But we have to break some eggs.

To begin with, the industry needs visionaries at the top who also have the capacity to reflect and analyze with emotional intelligence and an eye to the future. The industry that offers the major public platform for thought leaders should be led by thought leaders. Instead it has bureaucrats, mostly reactive and often also arrogant. The result is as you’d expect.

Newspapers erred disastrously in the 1990s by throwing everything online for free. That’s hard to walk back, as publishers are attempting with paywalls that amount to subscriptions.

Many sites lack content unique enough to generate that kind of commitment. Publishers hated “micropayments,” the closest equivalent of picking up a copy, first because online payment systems had yet to mature, and now for fear of cannibalizing subscriptions.

Part of the reason for 20 years of revenue-side confusion and quackery is that while the media pays what it must for good journalists, it cannot pay product and businesspeople enough to compete. So innovation and vision generally lie elsewhere.

Sure, there are a few tycoons. Rupert Murdoch has built a tremendous operation and hit a dark-side grand slam with Fox News, but he uses his genius mostly for populist politics and prefers to stay behind the curtain. Jeff Bezos seems uncharacteristically wary of appearing as an interfering interloper. For all their billions, neither developed a public persona as a positive visionary of the business. Of other things, yes; news, no.

In their desperation, news operations are suckers for fads and have eaten up precious resources by jumping on bandwagons.

Such was the “pivot to video,” the recent years’ mammoth azimuth shift in which tenacious reporters and brilliant writers were dismissed as relics unless they proved improbably telegenic or dexterous with a camera. Layoffs of “text journalists” were made to seem like progress as selective presentation of data persuaded everyone that video was king.

I recall a senior Washington-based media exec telling me her vision was to “let go” of text stories that lacked good video. I asked whether she would have “let go” of Watergate since Deep Throat wouldn’t go on camera. She eyed me with suspicion; groupthink was her mode, and introspection reeked of text.

Video is not preferable to text for transmitting information. It is inefficient and can’t be scanned. It either requires an investment of time or is superficial. Video is preferable as a means of … transmitting video. Good for some things, not so good for others.

Video can be married to pre-roll ads that users will tolerate if brief. It should be part of the digital offering. But we should not forget that what drove human knowledge and probably always will is the word.

The latest fad is the pivot to podcasts; my concern, beyond more waste of dwindling resources, is that news consumers will fail to hear the approaching of a bus.

In desperation to attract young people, media leaders have also made a reckless pivot to progressiveness.

Progressives account for scarcely more than one in 20 Americans, and the others mostly dislike identity politics and cancel culture. While there is a quite virulent right-wing media that exploits and shuns this political zone, most mainstream outlets have found themselves drawn into it. When the average American sees editors fired and being forced to issue pretend apologies for violations against progressive orthodoxy, this feeds distrust.

This also attaches to hiring practices. Journalism in America has for too long been a white man’s game and it’s right for newsrooms to better reflect communities they serve — not only because such newsrooms would more likely be sensitive to audience needs, but also because the community would prefer it, and so it is good business.

But we also need to put out a great product and should not ignore meritocracy. HR will deny this ever happens, but plenty of reporters are convinced that it is so. Their fear of speaking out — both on hiring practices and on how progressive politics have stifled discourse in newsrooms — reflects a culture of fear that is the opposite of the open discourse journalism needs to breathe.

Meanwhile, media is rife with the bigotry all of us would be lucky (in a way) to face: ageism.

Youth correlates with many qualities of a good journalist. The young have energy, idealism, courage and a willingness to work for peanuts. But they don’t have life experience, and are less likely to have learned moderation. They have the same intelligence, but less knowledge and rarely the wisdom that age can bestow.

Yet the media has almost no interest in hiring the experienced. The chances of journalists in their 50s finding attractive employment in the industry is tiny (so they cling to their jobs, and hence their numbers are still high). This is dumb, because theirs is increasingly the age of readers, as the Western world ages.

Even if it recovers from the above calamities, the news industry in the United States will still face a Herculean task: figuring out impartiality.

U.S. news organizations pursued a bogus version of it. Facts are facts, but there are at least two ways in which we often misrepresent objectivity. The first is in the choice of what is important. The second is in how to present whatever is selected for presentation: the choice of narratives, protagonists and quotes determines the impression left on readers and viewers.

Yet the main problem in U.S. journalism has become not too much subjectivity but a self-righteous refusal to make a call when a call is badly needed. This is the scourge of “bothsidesism.”

America’s serious media is obsessed with presenting all sides — or the mythical “both sides” — of every issue. It’s a way to seem neutral and it highlights conflict, which sells. This does not work well in a world that is flooded with misinformation, in which many leaders have no shame. It can also seem dishonest: some sides are just plain wrong.

Part of the reason there is less confusion among the European populace about human-caused global warming is because the media there — sometimes mocked for haughtily taking sides — does not give climate deniers equal time.

Despite the tendency toward groupthink, the news industry should try a rethink. Ours is an imperfect world of smoke and mirrors, where decency and morality compete with venality of every kind. Decent people — decent journalists — cannot be indifferent to massacres and scams. A feigned impartiality in the face of cruelty or theft can seem inhuman, not just dishonest.

Key players on the stage view the fact-based world — and the liberal order that underpins it — as anathema; one of them just invaded Ukraine. In that struggle, journalists also play a part — one in which they are not equally aligned with all sides. We may as well be honest about it.

(This article first appeared in Mediapost in two parts (part I; part II)



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Dan Perry

Dan Perry

Author, entrepreneur and technologist who led the Associated Press in the Middle East, Africa, Europe & Caribbean. Working on solutions to help media thrive.