As the reality of a Donald Trump presidency sets in, what do the American election results say about the space media occupies in the minds of a changing electorate? Are there lessons or ramifications beyond U.S. borders, or was this just a peculiar circumstance in one country? 

As I sit in a Cape Town hotel restaurant for breakfast, the room is abuzz as the election results tilt Trump. I suddenly realise I am the only American in a room full of Africans and Europeans. Beyond the titillation of the results, there are ramifications for us all to digest. 

Media across the United States announce the unexpected election of Donald Trump. What does this say about the future of the news media industry?
Media across the United States announce the unexpected election of Donald Trump. What does this say about the future of the news media industry?

The search for truth 

Two weeks ago, I spoke to a national audience of informed U.S. citizens via conference call about what I thought would be the “future of media.” When I represent INMA, that means the underlying economics supporting news media. About 15 minutes into the presentation, I paused to take questions thus far – and the callers hijacked my talking points: 

  • What does the toxic nature of the presidential campaign mean for the future of journalism? 
  • As a media portal like the Drudge Report tips the scale for Trump and a media portal like the Huffington Post tips the scale for Clinton, where does truth reside? 
  • If the editor of the New York Times says he is willing to go to jail if the Times could publish Trump’s tax records, how can a newspaper be trusted to be fair and balanced moving forward?
  • As comically biased outlets such as Breitbart throw out any pretense of fairness and audiences coalesce around those who reflect their views (and not truth), how can a democracy function? 
  • Another caller recalled the unbiased nature of Chicago Tribune reporting 30 years ago and deplored its biased coverage today. 

In other words, the callers saw the toxic U.S. presidential race as some kind of tipping point for branded journalism. These were not right-wing or left-wing callers, though their thoughtful concerns now seem like a preview of last night’s election results. And there were, hopefully, thoughtful answers ranging from pressing an unvetted candidate (New York Times) to audience perceptions have changed more than media behaviour (Chicago Tribune). 

Out of touch media 

How out of touch was establishment media about this presidential campaign? Consider: 

  • What does it say about American media (print and digital) that 95%+ went on record as supporting what turned out to be the losing candidate in Hillary Clinton? 
  • What does it say about the research methodologies of mainstream pollsters backed by establishment media that were 95% wrong? 
  • What does it say about how dumbfounded the establishment media and their mostly educated audiences are this morning as they see half of the electorate supporting a candidacy so outside of the mainstream? 

Just as print media companies created digital departments and stared inside the cage, so has establishment media created beats that studied these quiet working-class people who have just as many votes as the well-educated do. In 1968, we called them the Silent Majority. In 1980, we called them Reagan Democrats. In 1992, they were Perot voters. In 2010, they were the Tea Party. In 2016, they were Trump supporters. 

I live in Dallas, Texas, the crossroads of the American South, the American West, and the American Midwest. I get a diversity of voices in my media diet (or so I thought before this election). When I drive 90 miles east to my childhood home of Tyler, Texas, I cross a radio threshold where National Public Radio (NPR) – committed to a journalism- and education- and fact-based telling of stories about the world – fades out and conservative loudmouth Rush Limbaugh fades in. And I think about how southerners live in this isolated, right-of-center bubble. 

Do the election results suggest an alternate bubble of media with simply different values and different definitions of truth? So instead of “mainstream” and “alternative” or “fringe,” do we just have more equal spheres of “different”? Has democracy’s great debates gone beyond the polite confines of post-World War II consensus? 

Digital opens up new platforms for like-minded communities. More and more people are drifting away from the big island in the middle that we call “mainstream” – representing, collectively, establishment views on the world – into smaller islands where people not only have their own opinions but their own facts.

As media companies struggle to wonder why audiences are shrinking, the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign reminded us that – in the aggregate – the audience for news and information is not shrinking. The audience is fragmenting across brands and platforms. Passionate audiences are rising. 

Maybe the new badge of honour is not the biggest circulation or the most traffic, but the most passion and the most engagement. 

And the ramifications for our news brands and our democracy are enormous.

What a media brand stands for 

It seems to me that media brands have two broad choices that go straight to their reason for being: 

  • They can bend toward being broader umbrellas with broader audiences that treat all facts and opinions the same (“he said, she said journalism”). In other words, they can rekindle their past. 
  • Or, they can more loudly reflect their target audiences through story selection or how stories are written and aim to bring together islands in the atomized electorate. 

I argue that traditional media still have feet in both spheres, and that dilutes their impact. And the tension between these two very human emotions – being unbiased vs. putting your foot on the accelerator – were at odds throughout the Trump-Clinton presidential election. 

Watching American media during this election, I would say there are at least five buckets today:

  1. Loud and proud left-of-center media. 
  2. Establishment media that tilts left. 
  3. Centrist, bland media. 
  4. Establishment media that tilts right. 
  5. Loud and proud right-of-center media.

As easy-to-access choices proliferate, audiences are drifting further and further to the edges: loud-and-proud and beyond. 

To my national conference call audience’s point, three decades ago there was only centrist, bland media – with hidden biases barely understood by a consuming public that coalesced around facts presented to them neatly each day. Digital platforms have torn audiences away from the center and splintered them in a way that two people no longer share the same facts. 

Fleeing the dreaded middle 

If media reflects politics, the last place anyone wants to be these days is with a dispassionate, milquetoast audience. You want to be where the passion resides. You want to be on the edge, not the middle. You want to “turn out your base” every day. The precise same trend is in retailing today.

When I was young in Washington, D.C., I was interviewed for a job with a well-known special interest group. I was told the way they worked in the 1980s was that Washington was a gigantic tug-of-war, so they took the most extreme position and never compromised. They were loud and proud. They could afford to do that because that was the nature of catch-as-catch-can lobbying. It was precursor to the coarsening of American politics in the 1990s and 2000s. 

Fast-forward three decades: Media can be chaotic today because digital allows for the same kind of splintering dynamic. 

Is democracy better for it? Are we better off in a democracy where citizens can’t agree on the same facts or even the bases for those facts? Is winning the argument at all costs more important than truth and facts? 

As I hear from my friends at Google repeatedly about transformation, I say about democracy today: Victory is not assured. 

International concerns 

I am already getting questions about broader ramifications internationally. Are there analogies to the establishment media disconnect with the American electorate and Brexit in the United Kingdom? The challenge is that the nature of the British press is different than the American press. While there are not TV networks that cater to the British working class, there most assuredly are working-class and middle-class tabloid newspapers that simply don’t exist in the United States.  

I do think the lessons about establishment media and an increasingly liberated anti-establishment electorate translates. I think working-class misunderstandings of how news media work (i.e., editorial page opinions vs. newsroom reporting) translates. Having brands labeled by the public as biased or opinionated or milquetoast translates. 

Let’s let the saucer cool the tea in this presidential election before drawing too many conclusions that translate worldwide.

Conclusions 

The Trump victory was a punch in the nose to establishment views of the world: free trade, immigration, etiquette, polite international diplomacy, and the like. It went beyond ideology to body language. It was a punch in the nose to establishment media trying to be both unbiased and occasionally having their finger on the scales for establishment viewpoints. The white working class rejected the collective wisdom of mainstream media with their mainstream polls – the precise class that has dropped print newspaper subscriptions at high rates and believes the news will find them if it’s important enough.

Yet the presidential campaign was also a declaration of war on what truth is, who tells that truth, and how truth is communicated. 

There are two sides to every opinion, there may or may not be two sides to every fact, but there is only one truth. A broader truth in democracies is which truths get prioritised over other truths. 

The point of my post, minutes after Trump has declared victory and Clinton has conceded, is not to make a political statement. There are plenty of people to do that job.

What I want to convey is that the American mainstream media is no longer “mainstream.” There is no mainstream. We need to stop behaving as if something is owed to us. We are one loud voice among many. There is no big middle with some alternative voices on the side. Digital platforms are leveling the playing field and shattering barriers to entry. A passionate Facebook group with hundreds of members can have a bigger impact on democracy than a mass-market newspaper with thousands of passive subscribers.

The consuming public cannot discern between your editorial page’s opinions and your newsroom’s journalism judgments. Your brand is singular and is on one side or the other. Do you want to appeal to the broad middle, or do you want to double down and more firmly stand loud and proud for who and what you want to be in a marketplace of ideas that is only going to splinter further? And how do you reconcile the need for your brand to stand for something and the journalistic values that demand fair treatment of facts and truth? 

Truth remains the great competitive landscape for news brands and the organising principle for democracy.

Let’s ask the right questions about journalism and news brands as we enter the Trump Era. Let’s roll up our sleeves, learn, evolve, and get better.