Printed news is near dead. There has been some talk of journalism going to the grave with it, but the truth is that journalism has been dying for years. By journalism I mean unbiased, unfettered and honest reporting. All of that died a long time ago, but it has nothing to do with the rise of click-bait Internet media. The decline started well before the Internet revolutionized news delivery and started crippling the mainstream media. In 1996, Roger Ailes joined forces with Rupert Murdoch to create an alternative to what he viewed as a monolithic and partisan liberal, Democrat news media. Today, their creation, Fox News, demolishes CNN and MSNBC in viewership on a regular basis. A lot has changed since 1996, but the idea that most mainstream media is liberally biased has not. With the rise of social media, everyone has a voice and a means to create and promote their own platforms. Eventually, the news business will once again be the diverse and competitive market it used to be.
The decline in network news ratings and the collapse of print media can be attributed to public rejection of liberal bias as much as it can be attributed to the rise of the Internet. Especially since the election of Donald Trump, the mainstream media’s death knells have been growing louder. Journalists and the mainstream commentariat blamed everyone from James Comey to Vladimir Putin for Trump’s unexpected triumph, failing to engage in any self-reflection whatsoever. They began calling everything that wasn’t mainstream news “fake news”, which only rang as ironic and hypocritical to millions who have dismissed most mainstream news as lopsided, disingenuous and fake for years. Decades of misreporting, over-reporting and selective reporting have compelled these millions to seek their news elsewhere. In many cases, they have walled themselves off from the primary sources of mainstream news. They can’t escape it entirely, though, because most reporting and fact-finding is still done by mainstream sources, which is then picked up, spun, and criticized by overtly right and left wing alternative media.
While a few alternative digital media organizations occasionally break substantial stories, most shoe-leather reporting is still done by relatively wealthy mainstream news organizations. One casualty of all this news cannibalizing and arguing over what’s accurate or bogus is the wider public trust in journalism. Unquestioning belief in news still exists out on the fringes of the left and right, but everyone else increasingly doubts what they read, see and hear. Who can blame them, when the media reports one set of “facts” about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, and the President’s spokeswoman responds with a set of “alternative facts”?
To be sure, the balkanization of news media and audiences into right and left factions is making it harder to carry on civil conversations. Absent substantial agreement about what is accurate and true, those conversations increasingly devolve into shouting matches over who’s right and who’s wrong. The declining credibility of mainstream news sources is being matched by a rise in disinformation and misinformation. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a part of a much needed revolution.
Tune out, turn off and drop the MSM
Skepticism towards mainstream media is a good thing. In Canada, especially, there has long been too much public trust in a small, centralized media establishment dominated by the CBC, a giant state- owned news gathering and distribution bureaucracy. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are diversifying and democratizing the news by giving us more choices about the information we consume. Now, perhaps more than ever before, people are relying on their own judgment to filter out disinformation. This is good, up to a point, although choosing to totally block certain pathways of information is as dumb as choosing to believe everything you hear.
There is no real way to slap sense, good judgment or critical thinking into everyone. However, there is one way to achieve relevance, trust and success in this polarized world of disinformation and political opportunism. There is also a way for small, alternative media enterprises to report news, break substantial stories and make money in the same way well oiled, wealthy mainstream organizations do. We’re not there yet, but we will be soon enough.
In the information industry, it takes money to make money. There’s no way around that fact, but there are ways to financially sustain a network of independent fact-finders. The old model sent aspiring young journalists to university, where along with basic reporting skills they learned the basics of mainstream, liberal bias. Depending how well they learned both, they could hope for a nice, long, lucrative career in industrial-scale journalism. But journalism, at its best, has always been more of a trade. It’s an elitist conceit to portray a job that involves wheedling information out of people and organizations that don’t want to part with it as a profession. And as newspapers and networks cull their staff, going to school to acquire an expensive degree is less likely to be a ticket to a career. More and more certified journalists will find themselves unemployed, broke and struggling to pay back their student loans in the coming years. And they’ll be competing with a rising army of citizen journalists, social media savvy multi-taskers armed with curiosity, passion and creativity. Already, YouTube and other platforms are increasingly populated by citizen journalists and commentators who are successfully monetizing their material.
It takes effort and resources to investigate, travel and break a news story that matters. As PostMedia and most mainstream news networks continue to lose audiences and revenue, they will invest less and less in reporting. Their staff will have to do more with less, and readers and viewers will see a decline in the value of their news products. The spiral of cutbacks and downsizing seems unstoppable. Pay walls have proven unpopular, making ad revenue from link clicks and views the most feasible alternative. YouTube advertising is currently the most effective way to make money in digital media, but the platform takes a big cut of the revenue. Charging membership fees for exclusive content will become less commercially viable as the digital world fills up with more competition. So, crowd funding and philanthropy will grow, mostly to the benefit of small news producers. The near future holds an intensely competitive market with countless independent news gatherers providing content from a wide range of perspectives, and it is likely to be a long time before market consolidation and monopolization takes hold in the digital news sector.
News media is becoming a market of niches. People won’t easily change their habit of rejecting information that doesn’t fit their worldviews, so media will be forced to adapt. Many will pander. The commercialization of click-bait and fake news will probably increase, but there is a far bigger and more dependable market for truth. And in it’s immediacy and universality, the digital news environment is conducive to the discovery and propagation of truth. If one organization attempts to ignore facts and truth, it will be shamed by another that doesn’t. If a liberal network refuses to report something substantial based on their political views, conservatives will fill in the gaps. This will produce an unprecedented level of truth-seeking. To survive, the dying mainstream networks will need to downsize and rely more on independent, localized citizen journalists. Unionized newsrooms will disappear, along with journalists’ pensions and job security.
End of the media-industrial complex
We’ve seen this movie before. In the early days of print journalism, and later radio and television, media ownership was diverse and fluid, and journalists mostly learned how to report and write by the seat of their pants. Now the industry has consolidated into media conglomerates that won’t hire anybody without a degree in journalism, preferably including a minor in women’s studies or deconstructionist theory. While it’s true the Internet has moved with disconcerting speed to produce a handful of domineering global information distribution platforms including YouTube, Facebook and Google, the content they disseminate is coming from a rapidly expanding cornucopia of content producers. In the 1930s, radio emerged as a major competitor to news print, but unlike the Internet, radio required expensive licensing and physical infrastructure. In 2017, anyone can purchase server space and a domain name for less than $200 a year. Breaking news stories to attract an audience is not just a corporate objective, it’s a Darwinian struggle for survival.
The days of large corporations controlling the flow of information in an non-competitive marketplace are ending. The end won’t come quickly and it won’t be pretty. Media magnates and their bought politicians and bureaucrats will try to regulate the Internet news market, but they’ll fail because the web is notoriously difficult to control, as authoritarian governments in countries like China are discovering. With millions of servers around the world, it’s impossible to filter and monopolize all of the world’s information. Countries that over-regulate will operate at a competitive disadvantage to those that allow the information free market to flourish. This kind of international autonomy is already on display, enabling countries like Iceland to host and protect Wikileaks while Julian Assange publishes new leaks from his hideout in London. No doubt monopolists and their defenders will invent regulatory rationalizations in the name of international security, social harmony and maybe even journalistic ethics, but they won’t be able to enforce them.
As for state run news empires like the CBC and BBC, they’ll dry up like the rest of the mainstream media. As their viewership shrinks, so will their sponsorship and ad revenue. Taxpayers will eventually find fewer reasons to justify their existence and their public funding will go next. It will be a slow process, but movements to privatize or abolish public broadcasters have already started to grow in Canada and the UK. If such public broadcasters downsize to the level of most alternative media organizations, taxpayers would see smaller price tags and maybe consider keeping their funding intact. However, the inevitable transition to full digital Internet media is nigh. The inevitable paycuts for journalists and news anchors are waiting on the doorstep. Citizen journalists in hundreds of countries, looking to make a few bucks off videos and ad revenue, are waiting to become the new mainstream Muckrakers and commentators are waiting to break the next story on their own blogs and networks before their rivals. Canadians are eagerly waiting to read their stories and watch their videos while Peter Mansbridge’s voice fades to silence.