“News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising. The power is to set the agenda. What we print and what we don’t print matter a lot.” — Katharine Graham
“In America, the president reigns for four years, and journalism governs forever and ever.” — Oscar Wilde
Traditional news media organisations in the United States — those with “journalistic standards” as their foundation — are experiencing a slow, painful death. This is a result, in part, of those using social media — including themselves — to pursue digital ad revenue and political influence.
It should come as no surprise the credibility of news organisations is at an all-time low. The steady erosion of traditional news credibility has occurred over the past three decades, in part due to self-inflicted wounds from a focus on being first if not right, volume versus value, the pressures of the 24-hour news cycle, and the growth of fake news.
Add to this a contentious campaign for the U.S. president and a president who (in his campaign and as president-elect) continually derides the credibility of both domestic and international news organisations as well as the validity of public opinion research.
Have we arrived at a point where the value of journalism has reached an all-time low, the victim of the pursuit of increasingly fragmented audiences and ad revenue streams?
Let’s be clear that social media is a reflection of us — you and me — and what we post, share, like, and block.
Much has been written about the algorithms used to serve up social media feeds. This has resulted in opinion echo chambers that ultimately result in clustering audiences into those sharing common opinions with little, if any, room for anything that does not reinforce current beliefs.
In all fairness, the erosion of journalism in the United States started back in the 1980s with the advent of 24-hour cable news and news talk radio. We experienced a transition from reporting the news to talking about the news. With so much air time to fill, it was inevitable all that talk would lead to speculation about the truth, and that speculation would eventually become the truth to some.
As traditional media organisations began using the Internet to disseminate news, their audiences were provided the opportunity to post comments on news stories, often anonymously. Many news organisations made the decision to only allow comments from those willing to identify themselves in an effort to reduce negative and destructive comments and encourage civil discussions.
As more people adopted social media, the volume of content — news, photos, and opinions — grew exponentially.
At some point along the way, not being anonymous no longer served to promote civil behaviour, and we began posting, liking, sharing, and reacting to algorithm-driven content in socially unacceptable ways in pursuit of the release of endorphins, likes, shares, and digital advertising revenue.
The Internet and social media took freedom of speech to new levels, providing everyone with a soap box on which to stand, making everyone a reporter, photojournalist, and opinion page editor.
Perhaps just as important, the Internet business model began rewarding organisations and individuals based on pageviews and click-through totals. It mattered little whether what your audience was viewing or clicking through to was accurate, honest, or verified by objective sources. Trending became more important than truthfulness when it came to making money online.
So what’s traditional media — newspapers, in particular — to do?
While I agree with Tom Ratkovich’s recent article, “Newspapers only survival lies in revenue diversification,” the question remains as to how newspapers’ core product — journalism — can contribute to the future success of newspapers. With 29% of Americans reporting they read a newspaper yesterday, there is still a significant audience that values journalism-based news and is willing to pay for it.
Being objective and confirming information with multiple independent sources — the truth — still has value to a significant audience in the United States and around the world.
While newspapers should be pursuing revenue diversification, today, more than ever, they should be using their commitment to journalistic standards to differentiate themselves from other sources of news and information.