How capitalism undercuts American journalism

By Aristophanes

Is journalism a dying industry?

In one sense, journalism is eternal. As long as an intelligent society exists, it will crave information. Journalists, the class called upon to widely disseminate publicly-available knowledge, will always be around to fill this need.

But in another sense, journalism as it has existed for the last few generations is under increasing economic threat. The traditional model, where newspapers and legacy broadcast stations (think NBC, ABC and CBS) earned revenue sometimes partly through paid subscriptions but in most cases primarily through sponsored advertisements, is less viable in the digital age. Online search engines, social media websites and news aggregators now command the largest share of online traffic, with news producers’ control over the flow of information slipping further into obsolescence.

The result is a system where information has become cheap and easily accessible but, in many instances, severely diminished in quality. The outlets that continue to produce expensive, high-quality journalism are being undercut by others who can churn out click-bait and sensational headlines wholly free for users to consume. All the while, search engines and social media outlets have become the primary distributors of information, instituting a model where popular news is pushed ahead of less entertaining, but more important, civic features.

The commodification of journalism undercuts the industry’s primary role as a public service. The free market, profit-driven model performed well in an era where large-scale infrastructure, such as a newspaper delivery route or television broadcast network, was needed to reach a wide audience. But in the 21st century anyone can create a news blog, social media account or YouTube channel, even though most lack the skills and desire to maintain professional objectivity and institute robust fact-checking regimes.

What can be done about this crisis?

First, legacy news outlets can promote the unparalleled quality of their service and its importance to democratic rule. Following Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency, and his continued attacks on journalists and press freedoms, the United States’ largest newspapers saw a healthy increase in subscription revenue. Many Americans began to recognize the importance of institutions such as the New York Times and Washington Post. Once the vulnerability of these giants was made apparent, supporters rallied to their cause, thereby increasing their stature and economic viability. The outlets themselves have bolstered this effort through targeted advertising: the Times with its “truth” campaign and the Post by publicizing its once-internal mantra “Democracy dies in darkness.”

Second, these legacy outlets must pivot from advertising revenue. Though subscriptions, too, arise from high levels of traffic, consumers can also be persuaded to financially support their preferred outlets through trust in the veracity of their content. If a legacy outlet is to keep its journalistic professionalism intact, it’s easier to generate funding through building trust, and thus increasing subscription revenue, than through simply seeking to drive higher levels of traffic while competing with shallower producers, such as BuzzFeed, Mashable and UpWorthy.

Legacy outlets can also solicit donations and seek new platforms to drive revenue. Many producers have done this through video production, which is often more profitable than text-only content, and podcast creation, which is able to reach a new, younger audience in a very advertising-friendly field.

The future of American journalism is uncertain. Many city newspapers have had to close in recent years, decreasing productive reporting competition in urban centers and even creating some “news deserts.” Meanwhile, top-tier national outlets seem to be taking the changing landscape in stride, buoyed by high interest in the audacious political battles waging at the national level. And many new outlets are cropping up in the digital sphere, some of which have committed themselves to quite high journalistic standards, indeed; for example, I have grown quite fond of the uber-centrist, data-driven FiveThirtyEight and smart-but-increasingly-left-leaning Vox.

Journalism is at a crossroads, one made possible by the old capitalistic model’s careening with the new digital age. However, the profession now has a unique opportunity to reform itself into something much stronger. One can only hope that by the fires of these troubled times, something greater will be forged. ■

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