“I’m here to preach the gospel of quality news, and to talk about how combating fake news and hate news can not only be good journalism, but… good business.”
Thus, Daily Beast editor-in-chief and managing director John Avlon opened MediaPost's Publishing Insider Summit, with a keynote addressing the hot-button issue that has come to symbolize America’s dysfunction and threaten its democracy — while mapping a way forward.
Avlon began by acknowledging the decline of trust in media, pointing to a number of trends, including the rise of partisan media, which was an “attempt to balance implicit bias on the part of mainstream media with explicit bias,” as well as the fragmentation of the broader media environment.
Over time, partisan media increasingly “focused on appealing to a narrow but intense niche audience, and the only way to keep… them engaged was to keep them addicted to a diet of anger and anxiety… and that’s where the hate news starts to seep in.”
But it’s not just partisanship and hatred. Avlon was careful to note that wider trends in the digital media landscape are culpable as well, including the rise of “clickbait” and programmatic media buys, which “allowed these viruses to proliferate because they feed off what people seem to want in the short run – confirmation bias, clickbait. There’s a profit motive as well as a propagandistic end.”
To combat this threat, news organizations must first reconnect with their original purpose, Avlon argued. "We need to call bullshit, and we need to make important stories interesting... One of the things we need to do as journalists is insist on a fact-based debate.”
However, this is just a starting point, he added, as business – i.e., advertisers – also have a “very real responsibility, in changing the economic dynamics of our industry right now, in a form of almost patriotic capitalism, driven by enlightened self-interest…
"There’ is a major argument to be made that businesses need to invest directly in quality news producers, that that’s a way to actually protect their brands, but that it’s also a way to do well by doing good.”
This will require more scrutiny and vigilance regarding automated ad buying systems, according to Avlon, as these often entail “a sense of diffusion of responsibility. You’re looking at the bottom line, it’s the cheapest cost-per-click, everybody gets that. But the irony is that you’re creating real risk for your brand… but you’re also feeding the trolls unintentionally. That approach to advertising is what has made fake news and hate news profitable," he insisted.
He says this is where corporate responsibility needs to start kicking in. “It’s actually safer and more civically responsible for brands to either blacklist sites that are a real problem, or more preferably white-list sites that are doing it right," he argues. "Take an additional step to develop direct advertising relationships with news sites that are doing it right, because they need to be sustained.”
Avlon concluded with a stirring call: “This is an amazing opportunity, as well as a responsibility for our generation. And all the moment asks, all the moment demands, is that we straighten our civic backbone and take responsibility. We put forward quality content. We respect readers’ intelligence. Webuild a differentiated brand because we know that’s what creates real value.
"And we start communicating to advertisers they have an enlightened self-interest in supporting quality content, for our society and our industry.”