Arthur in Maine attempts to diagnose what happened to the news media, and where they turned off the road of ethical journalism, never, apparently, to return.
His ethics verdict is, essentially, incompetence, though he frames it as “a self-inflicted wound.” Of course, self-inflicted wounds are the essence of incompetence. You can’t get much more inept than shooting yourself in the head.
My own theory is that, whatever the immediate cause—AIM identifies the internet—this fate was always in the cards because of a structural problem in the institution of journalism, similar to what we are now seeing in government and politics. The institution is critical to democracy, and thus demands intellectual rigor and outstanding character among its guardians. However, nothing about the business of journalism nor its craft is constructed to attract the best and the brightest, or even the better than dull. As with our political class, the profession of journalism has always lacked the necessary talent and integrity to discharge the vital function the Founders intended it to fulfill.
Here is Arthur in Maine’s Comment of the Day on the post, “The Horror. The Horror.’ How U.S. Journalism Descended To These Unethical Depths Is A Mystery, But It’s There.”
Actually, how the media descended to these unethical depths is no mystery at all.
In the early- to mid-90s, the news media was at an all-time high. Newspapers were welling for fabulous multiples; there was really only one cable news network (the acronym that must not be named) and the alphabet channels still dominated broadcast news.
The press caught wind of this newfangled Internet thingie. They started covering it, even to the point of hyping it. People became interested. As did much of the country, the news media became besotted by the potential of this new medium. Remember how many so-called “dot com” companies sprang up? The news media, too, drank the kool-aid, figuring that online production would be cheap and they could move the display ad concept that had kept them beautifully profitable for centuries over to the Web.
And they made their content available for free.
That was the biggest mistake. Only one major American news outlet – the Wall Street Journal – decided from the outset that its content had tangible value and that it would charge for access. They made some content available gratis, but if you really wanted the valuable information the WSJ published you had to pay for it.
At this point, all the other newspapers (and the TV outlets) continued offering content gratis. And here comes the next blow: display advertising online DOES NOT WORK. It didn’t take marketers long to realize that web ads, unlike display ads, were directly trackable (in fact, that was one of the premises advertisers were sold by the media outlets: you can close the loop on spend vs. sales).
So an increasing number of people STOPPED buying the papers, preferring their content online. The online advertising of the time didn’t work, because it was old-style thinking in presenting ads; it wasn’t yet based on the idea that you build massive databases and target ads directly to the people most likely to buy that product. And with fewer dead tree editions going out, the rate bases for the conventional model had to be cut – and cut again.
Ah, but there’s more. The barriers to entry to set up a newspaper or TV outlet is a massive chunk of change. But an online news source? Those are CHEAP to launch. So facing declining rate bases, an audience who had been thoroughly trained to believe that news content is free and increasing competition, the news outlets started seeing serious erosion of customer base.
What to do? Start charging for content? We can’t do THAT! So we’ll cut staff. The grizzled veteran reporters and editors – those who at least employed some modicum of self-restraint when it came to inserting opinion into reportage, and who by tenure had the biggest paychecks – were the first to go, usually via buyouts. They were the lucky ones; they got out when the getting was good. Who replaced them? Younger staff. Staff without the experience, staff who didn’t have a steely-eyed editor in chief screaming at them to get their $#!+ together. And much of this staff came in via a university system that was already indoctrinating, rather than educating, students.
All types of media took it in the shorts with this, but it was especially the smaller-community outlets that suffered the most. This put more of the market (what was left of it, anyway) into the hands of the larger-city newsrooms – and guess what? Most large cities are LIBERAL!
We cannot forget that news outlets are not their to provide us with news – they’re there (mostly) to turn a profit. They do so by giving their audiences what their audiences want. It’s a lot cheaper to cover and package media to a metro area of a million people than it is to do the same for a STATE with a million people – and even in THOSE states, the cities (and the bulk of the audience) tends to be… well, you know.
Without going into too much detail, the media outlets miscalculated on social media just as badly as they did with the Web at the start. Like the Internet and how people would actually use it, the news media made a lot of noise about this additional Next Big Thing but really didn’t understand it – or how to use it.
They finally figured it out, but the damage was done. Today, media outlets COUNT on people sharing their stories, because when they do, that generates page views and a chance to show some advertising. Each click might generate a tiny fraction of a cent, but when the business is already struggling, you’ll take those pennies.
So: that’s how we got here. MASSIVE miscalculation about the Web. MASSIVE miscalculation about how to provide content. MASSIVE miscalculation about how to cover costs. Failure to foresee proliferation of more competition – and either start that highly-targeted competition themselves, or buy them out (like Facebook and Google do any time someone comes up with a new approach that threatens their bases).
The appalling coverage these days traces back to one and only one thing: a self-inflicted wound.