American journalism is a business in crisis.
In Alaska, the state’s largest newspaper and by far largest news organization is teetering on the edge of financial disaster with losses reportedly running to several million dollars per year and owner Alice Rogoff now reported to have tried to shop the publication to at least four different corporations. As of yet, there have been no takers.
Nationally, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll out today shows distrust in the media at a stunningly high level. Almost three-fourths of Americans said they generally distrust the media, and more than a third reported trusting it “not at all.”
Only 8 percent reported “a great deal” of trust.
The media’s numbers were actually worse than those for the administration of combative and bombastic President Donald Trump, who is engaged in a Twitter war with some journos.
Thirty-seven percent of Americans said they had “a good amount” or “a great deal” of trust in the Trump administration. The media total in that category was 30 percent.
What do people want
Left unanswered by this poll, or any of the others that have in recent years found trust in the media at all time lows, is the critical question vital to the success of any business:
What do the customers want?
There was a time, of course, when this didn’t matter to journalism. Journalists, as opposed to the businessmen who actually ran newspapers, used to joke that “we just provide the filler to go around the advertising.”
Only newspaper readers labored under the mistaken belief newspapers published stories to sell papers, a practice that largely ended before the first World War. By 1909, 64 percent of newspaper revenue was coming from ad sales, Michael Schudson noted in the 1981 book “Discovering the News,” and that percentage was only destined to increase.
Newspapers functioned from the early 1900s on as delivery vehicles for advertising. The news they contained was secondary. Despite the self-inflated views of journalists, who had visions of themselves daily heading into battle as the frontline protectors of a free and democratic society, advertising was both what sold and what supported news organizations.
All of them – print, TV and radio.
Newspaper advertising revenue in the U.S. peaked at $67 billion (inflation corrected) in 2000, according to newspaper analyst Mark J. Perry. The very same year, Craig Newmark – who in 1995 had started an e-mail ad-service in the San Francisco Bay area that eventually became a web service – went national with what he called “craigslist.”
It was a direct competitor to the hugely profitable classified ad sections in newspapers across the country, but unlike newspaper classified ads, craigslist ads were free, and bigger, and eventually able to include photos.
After craigslist, the media world would never be the same. Craigslist started newspaper revenue crashing and that would only get worse as all kinds of other advertising moved off the printed page into the online world.
As ad revenues fell, newspapers were forced to rapidly start downsizing and cutting wages. A lot of the best and brightest of reporters and editors saw the handwriting on the wall and got out of the journalism business when that happened.
By 2014, newspaper revenues were down to a quarter of what they were only 14 years earlier, and newspapers were still struggling to adapt to an internet-based world. Despite a lot of talk about moving online, newspapers continued to generate more than 80 percent of their revenue ($16.4 billion of $19.9 billion) from print products.
“The dramatic decline in newspaper ad revenues since 2000 has to be one of the most significant and profound Schumpeterian gales of creative destruction in the last decade, maybe in a generation,” Perry wrote. “And it’s not even close to being over. A 2011 IBIS World report on “Dying Industries” identified newspaper publishing as one of ten industries that may be on the verge of extinction in the United States.”
As go organisms, so go organizations. Faced with major environmental changes, they have only two options: Adapt or die.
When the exodus from print first began, one could drive around some Anchorage neighborhoods and find driveways littered with a week’s worth of Anchorage Daily Newses still in their orange, plastic wrappers. For a newspaperman, it was depressing.
People were buying, but not reading. It’s only more depressing now. They’ve stopped buying. Today you can drive around the same neighborhoods and never see a newspaper.
Attempts at Anchorage online news, meanwhile, continue to struggle. The Alaska Commons came and went, and an Anchorage television turned its online news gathering partly over to amateurs. The Anchorage Daily Planet plugs along with some aggregate, a lot of commentary, and not much reporting. MustReadAlaska and the Midnight Sun battle to gain traction. Nobody appears to be making much money covering anything.
Which brings this back to the earlier question of what readers want. Journalists, pseudo journalists and quasi journalists and even journo-fakers are no longer in the advertising delivery business. They are now trying to sell what readers want, but what readers want is a long way from clear.
If you’d asked journalists what readers wanted a couple of decades ago, the answer would have been simple: “fair and balanced news,” a tag Fox News scooped up and ran with in 1996. Fox wasn’t any more fair and balanced than the other television networks of the day, but its product sold better.
By 2002, it had surpassed CNN, the one-time star of cable TV news, as a market leader. And it remains today one of the nation’s dominate news sources both on cable and online, although it appears to be slipping a little.
MSNBC climbed past Fox with 2.44 million viewers to 2.41 million for the week of May 15-21, according to the Associated Press; “it was only the second time in MSNBC’s history that it beat both of its news rivals (Fox and CNN) in a week; the only other time was during the 2012 Democratic national convention.”
MSNBC is as fair and balanced to the left as Fox is fair and balanced to the right. CNN has tried to stay more toward the middle, though it often perceived as leaning left and Trump has pounded away at that in recent weeks. Whether that hurts or helps CNN in the market of the moment remains to be seen.
In the partisan U.S. of today, consumers of political news seem to want it delivered with a bit of a slant. Or maybe they just want news from a source with an admitted bias in one direction or the other so they know where to look for the slant.
And outside of politics?
There it gets harder to tell what people want to read, and even harder to tell what they might be willing to pay to read.
Clearly they want the news of the moment in terms of “big stories,” stories that attract almost everyone’s attention – terrorist attacks anywhere, serial killers or bear attacks or any sort of strange death or disappearance, particularly outdoor deaths regionally; weather phenomenon and the Permanent Fund Dividend in Alaska especially.
News sites can see the internet traffic these days and tell what people read. There is no need to guess anymore.
Stories on Alaska oil taxes, an important issue, seldom get read. It is the same for a variety of other stories on “important” issues such as the state budget. Gossip, celebrity, celebrities in trouble, celebrities spouting off, all attract more attention.
The big picture makes it hard to tell whether people want news, entertainment or reinforcement. Fake news scored big on the latter during the last election cycle; the whole scam was about making up the news people wanted to hear.
Trump has made a big issue of fake news, but what he seems most concerned with is anti-Trump news – some of which has been so badly reported it borders on fake. But so much is so badly reported these days.
A fish tale
“Lots of fish, no crowds: Why dipnetting in the Copper River is better than the Kenai,” the website for the state’s largest newspaper recently headlined.
Some of that is at least semi-true. There are generally fewer people at Chitina, and they are allowed to disperse over a much broader area than along the Kenai River, so the fishery is generally less crowded.
But in terms of presenting a realistic and accurate portrayal of the differences between dipnetting for salmon on the two distinctly different Alaska rivers, the reporting – a video report – was as bad as the video itself was good.
“We come here mostly to get away from the crowds of the Kenai,” one of the dipnetters in the video said. “The fish taste better.”
There is no evidence to support the claim Copper River fish taste any better than Kenai fish. Most people couldn’t tell the difference between Copper River red salmon and Kenai River red salmon if their lives depended on it, and the objective evidence leans in favor of a quality edge for the Kenai.
The fish there are ocean fresh. The Cooper River fish at Chitina have spent a couple of weeks fighting their way up one of the naturally muddiest rivers in the world. It is also a place where people can fairly easily fall in the water and die, and they have done so.
“It’s a place where people can come and enjoy some of the prettiest scenery in the world,” someone else says in the video. “People go out of their way to come to Chitina because of the quality of the fish.”
Again, despite some marketing hype, the Copper River salmon are no better than any other Alaska salmon, and in taste all have, God forbid, come in second to farmed fish.
Chitina does have pretty scenery. The Kenai’s isn’t bad, however, and it’s safer and cleaner because there’s a lot less grit blowing in the wind.
Chitina’s air is often heavy with glacial dust. The one thing a Chitina dipnetter is guaranteed to get is dirty. Even when you think you’re not dirty, if you get in the shower after a trip to Chitina, the water will run off your body brown.
This is not to badmouth Chitina. The author has dipnetted there since the 1970s and always enjoyed it. But the video report on dipnetting Chitina (and it was a damn good video) wasn’t what news organizations do, or at least it wasn’t what news organizations used to do.
It was what Chambers of Commerce used to do and still do. It didn’t provide an accurate picture of the tradeoffs between dipnetting Chitina and dipnetting the Kenai. It was a Chitina dipnetting promotion.
Anyone watching it could fairly wonder if it was what news organizations now call “paid content,” ie. advertising written so as to look like news. And therein might rest the biggest problem facing the media today.
One of the selling points of the media of old was in the value gained by integrity – be that value small, big or somewhere between.
Whichever the case, the media was generally more reliable than Bob on his bar stool at your neighborhood drinking establishment. You knew Bob never checked anything out. He might be right about something now and then, but it wasn’t because he put any effort into fact checking.
The media was different. The media at least tried to fact check a little. Reporters and editors still made errors, sometimes stupid errors. But you didn’t see errors almost every time you read or viewed a story.
The quality of news has slipped. A reporter and two editors recently parted ways with CNN after a poorly sourced online story alleged an ally of Trump’s had connections to Russian investment fund.CNN retracted the story and apologized to it main character.
Former Gov. Sarah Palin is suing the New York Times over an editorial that suggested she inspired the gunman who shot Rep. Gabbie Giffords by circulating a map that “put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.” The map did not do that, and it had previously been shown Giffords’s shooter was not inspired by Palin.
Big, seemingly partisan mistakes by major news organizations have damaged the integrity of all reporters and editors.
And if all of this isn’t enough of problem, some news organizations, having lost out on print advertising revenue, want people to pay to read what they put online when sometimes people can find the same stories covered better for free on social media, or condensed and summarized on free news sites run by television station still able to make money on the advertising model even if it doesn’t pump out enough money to support quality news gathering.
Good reporting is, sadly, time-consuming and because of that far more costly than most people realize. The reality TV version of news is cheaper and easier and might sell just as well right up to the points readers and viewers catch on to the fact it isn’t really real.
The path forward for the news business – a business that played a vital role in the birth of the American nation – appears fraught with problems. No matter how you feel about journalism, it sobering on the celebration of the nation’s birthday to ponder where we might be without it.
“No experiment can be more interesting than that we are now trying, and which we trust will end in establishing the fact, that man may be governed by reason and truth. Our first object should therefore be, to leave open to him all the avenues to truth. The most effectual hitherto found, is the freedom of the press.”
One can only wonder what Jefferson would think if he were to return today to discover the many forms into which the press has morphed. You can usually find some truth if you dig hard enough, but sometimes you have work your way through a lot of bull to get to it.