It's an annual event, staged in association with the Wharton Future of Advertising program, in search of ethical, sustainable business models -- or at least revenue streams -- for magazines, newspapers, TV, audio, movies, music, and above all, newspapers. Because…well, duh. Democracy needs them to properly function and the industry is circling the drain.
You haven't heard of MFS most likely for two reasons: 1) It's all off the record, to encourage candor among owners and top executives unaccustomed to voicing reality beyond their own four walls, and 2) You weren't invited. It's for big shots. And they pay a small fortune to be locked in a room to hear the latest news from the front, to wring their hands, to argue, to learn.
Also, it's kind of my baby. The third MFS is being held on November 16, and I've worked on pulling it together every day since the last Summit back on October 27. For me it's something like a labor of love, something like a crusade, something like a chronic condition. But this is an existential crisis and solutions must be found -- solutions that don't, for example, barter off a publication's credibility to the highest bidder.
So, yes, it's a quixotic tilt. I personally have been in the searching-for-solutions racket for 10 years, and so far: zilch. The collapse of the high-CPM ad economy -- not to mention ad avoidance and fragmentation into smithereens -- has been ruinous. Truth be told, though I've labored tirelessly and canvassed the world for the magic beans, I've despaired of finding a path out of doom.
And then came Trump.
And with it the Trump Bump -- a sudden reawakening in the cynical and complacent electorate to the crucial fact that news matters. Note this headline from our very own Media Daily News:
Americans Watched 44 Billion TV News Hours During First 99 Days
It wasn't for the climate coverage. Trump is so awful, so dishonest, so vulgar, so destructive and so dangerous, the public is fixated on his every move. He is the proverbial flaming car wreck, and we are a nation of rubberneckers. Because how can you not look?
Then there's the third of the audience that actually likes him, and they are tuned in as well, like baseball fans keeping score at home as he blows up every norm of politics and governance -- and decades of progress on civil rights, human rights, the environment, consumer protection, financial regulation and the whole deplorable list of right-wing targets in the so-called “administrative state.”
All in all, quite the spectacle. As CBS boss Les Moonves notoriously observed: “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.”
Also 21st-Century Fox and Time-Warner, as it turns out. I don't know why anybody would watch Wolf Blitzer on purpose, but viewers are doing it en masse. TV news is expected to be up 21% in 2017. Newspaper subscriptions are up, too. The New York Times has pulled in hundreds of thousands of new digital customers, and page views are off the charts. Even at low digital CPMS, more eyeballs means more money.
The paradox is almost dizzying: we need a healthy press as a watchdog of democracy, and that press is being revived by interest in a regime doing everything in its power to dismantle democracy. I'm not sure whether that is an irony, or just exactly what the authors of the First Amendment had in mind.
None of this necessarily translates to public interest in the less pyrotechnical corners of our democracy: state houses, school boards, sewage treatment authorities, courthouses and the rest of the mundane apparatus of government that affect our lives every single day -- now often without any journalistic scrutiny whatsoever. But, let's face it, that expensive coverage has always been subsidized by the sports pages and the comics.
Which is exactly what's happening now. The only question is whether Trump is more Dennis Rodman or Beetle Bailey.