Media Needs An Honest Reckoning: Part 1

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, March 29, 2022
The news industry is reeling after a parade of errors over two decades -- and this is a disaster, because the rough draft of history cannot be produced by algorithms or the wisdom of the crowd.

Open societies and free markets need dedicated and knowledgeable journalists holding power to account and connecting the dots. Voters and investors will make terrible mistakes if information comes only from partisans, and social media.

Where Americans increasingly get their information is a zone of hysteria, extremism, and nonsense.

Industries in meltdown don't tend to soberly reflect. But this one is so important that we should fervently hope for an exception.

To begin with, we confront a basic paradox: If revenue doesn't cover costs, news must be subsidized and thus cannot be truly independent, rendering its reporting and analysis suspect.



If independent of outside parties, the industry needs revenue that is also problematic: advertising colored journalism one way, and paying readers color it another in that the content must be sufficiently interesting.

That last bit -- the need to be interesting -- is perhaps the most acute, since advertising has mostly migrated to search and social, yielding a mad scramble to charge for content.

Giving the audience what it wants sounds democratic and non-elitist. But what if much of the public prefers nonsense and scandal?

The paradox is that many news consumers distrust the news for a variety of reasons -- say, bias or clickbait -- without which they also would not find it interesting enough to pay for.

When there is a clash between what audiences find interesting and what journalists find important, some of the pros think they know better, and there is a good argument in protecting the integrity of the brand for the long game.

And yet, each decision by journalists to preferring what they deem to be important (say, a war in central Africa) to what audiences find interesting (Kardashian once more broke the internet!), publishers leave money on the table. They are less amenable to that (as we see in cutbacks at BuzzFeed News, which tried to drag a clickbait platform in a more serious direction).

Yes, highbrow media still exists -- and even thrives.

Investigative and explanatory publications are gaining a paying audience. They are even modernizing usefully -- in some cases, by embracing submissions (a model enriching the ranks in thrifty fashion). Such publications address national and global issues rather well.

But the setup is exacerbating a toxic inequality.

The already educated and generally comfortable will read The New York Times, Die Welt, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, Haaretz and The Economist, gaining yet more information and with it more advantage.

Wealthier people will better understand geopolitics, technology and the economy, while the others enjoy reality TV and real-estate pornography. Societal gaps will become more toxic and the elites will despair of democracy,  as is happening.

The challenge is expanding the paying audience beyond the highly educated -- and educating more people, which is a political affair.

While this plays out, some societies may begin to consider ways to move journalism away from being a business.

Two main alternatives emerge: local news as a public trust -- paid for with taxes, not unlike the BBC, which works somewhat well -- and local news as a charitable trust, philanthropic at the core, and the more likely model in the state-skeptical United States.

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