Once the artists of their day painted on the walls of caves, and art was worth nothing.
This is the problem journalism faces in the Age of the Internet. Most journalism is scrawled on the massive public wall of our times, and most of it is worth nothing or, if not nothing, almost nothing.
And unless journalism can somehow achieve value, it will cease to exist as most of us have known it.
This particular problem was not always the case, and for a time it was almost the opposite. There was a period when newspapers were little more than licenses to print money, but more on that later.
First a little history.
The newspapering business started in the Americas as a simple vehicle for spreading government edicts – think of the “public notices” that still exist in the classified sections of many newspapers – only to become an interest-group-financed carrier for what might best be described as political propaganda.
“Patriot leaders from the mid-1760s through the Treaty of Paris spent a great deal of time and, more illuminating, money supporting all kinds of print: subsidizing printers, aiding in paper supplies, contributing private correspondence to newspapers, ordering the publication of certain documents, treating printing presses as military contraband, sending pamphlets in diplomatic packets, arranging for illustrations for a child’s book of British atrocities,” writes historian Robert G. Parkinson in his short summary of “Print, the Press, and the American Revolution.“
This was not a one-way street, Parkinson notes. English loyalists had their “news” organs, too, though they weren’t always popular.
When the Boston Chronicle in 1769 tried to “embarrass the Sons of Liberty ” by publishing 55 shipping manifests revealing the names of merchants who’d sidestepped a non-importation boycott aimed at resisting British duties, he writes, “many upset Bostonians…embraced vigilantism this time. (John) Mein and (John) Fleeming had published the lists to suggest the boycott was really an effort to eliminate business competition on the part of merchants sympathetic to the Sons. Now they had to stuff pistols in their pockets to walk the streets of Boston.
“In October the Boston town meeting condemned Mein as an enemy of his country, and a few days later a large crowd confronted the offending printers on King Street, producing a scuffle that left Mein bruised, Fleeming’s pistol empty, and a few dozen angry Bostonians facing British bayonets.”
And Americans think news and politics in this country is partisan today….
Back to the future
Against this backdrop of the past comes the return of partisanship as a funding source for journalism is an entirely different time because politics is still with us as it has always been and always will be.
Suzanne Downing at MustReadAlaska insists she isn’t a journalist, but what she’s doing looks a lot like journalism. Matt Buxton is a journalist, but what he does for liberal lobbyist and campaign financier Jim Lottsfeldt at The Midnight Sun looks to be the yin to Downing’s yang, or vice-versa.
Both MustRead and the Sun sometimes have more interesting news than Alaska mainstream media websites heavy on government handouts, or should we call that government propaganda?
And then there is the “news” directly funded by government itself in a world where it can be difficult to figure out just what journalism even is anymore. Is this police Nixle report on crime written by a journalist and published online some form of journalism? What about this caribou story written by a journalist and published in the Alaska & Fish and Wildlife News, an online magazine from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Some of the colleagues of the authors of the above posts would describe the writers as “former journalists,” but are they really when they are still doing what looks a lot like what they did as reporters?
And what about the news here: Daily Dispatches – Public Information Office?
Alaska State Troopers do not publicly document all of their actions. They publicize only what someone decides might have “news” value. Some police departments provide similar “police blotter” information, and some Alaska newspapers print it all verbatim as “news.”
Others news entities (this website included) regularly mine the Trooper dispatches for what might be most newsworthy, however one defines that. Some of the resulting news stories spark further investigation, but most are just rewritten in a different form in the belief that if the government reported the information it must be accurate.
Writing of Washington, D.C. in Vanity Fair magazine, the late Christopher Hitchens observed “that the government has a lock on the press. (One survey, which took 2,850 news stories from The Washington Post and The New York Times found that 78 percent of the stories were attributed to government sources either on or off the record. Talk about ventriloquism. The state uses the media as a megaphone.)”
If you doubt that observation, take some time to peruse any major Alaska news site and see how much of what you read is government generated.
Using the news as a puppet isn’t limited to the nation’s capital or wholly to government. Some interest groups, primarily environmental and social, also have a an amazing ability to use the media, which might have something to do with those same interests funding journalists; follow the money.
As climate-change photojournalist Katie Orlinsky told The Photo Brigade at a conference in New York, “there’s corporations that want to do good, and they have these sort of social advocacy campaigns. And for photojournalists like us, there’s a lot of us in the room, I think that’s a good outlet to try to make some money. (laughs) And use your skills and not really feel like you’re selling out because you’re working for this big company branch where they’re trying to do good.”
Orlinksy is the new Snedden Endowed Chair of Journalism at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Maybe her first lecture could focus on the question of where “social advocacy” in the name of “trying to do good” ends and trying to do journalism starts given that social issues are almost never black and white.
The roots of today
The beginnings of journalism as Americans know it today, or as Americans profess they would like to know it in some Walter-Cronkitesque vision of absolute integrity, go back to Walter Lippmann and his idea of objective journalism. Lippmann’s concept, to be clear, was never about journalism actually being objective; it was about objectivity in the approach to journalism.
Lippmann lobbied for something akin to the scientific method for news gathering. He was not opposed to conclusions. But he wanted any conclusions based upon a whole lot of facts.
Enough facts, one might argue, that someone reading a news story could sometimes come to a conclusion different from that the author might suggest or imply.
“Everywhere today men are conscious that somehow they must deal with questions more intricate than any that church or school had prepared them to understand,” he wrote in “Liberty and the News,” a book that was to change a business. “Increasingly they know that they cannot understand them if the facts are not quickly and steadily available. Increasingly they are baffled because the facts are not available.”
It is this quest for facts that separated the propagandist from the journalist. The propagandist revealed only the facts buttressing the cause and sometimes, if the supporting facts did not exist, created supporting “facts.” The journalist presented all and only the data complete with conflicting, opposing and dissenting views.
Simply put, propaganda was and is black and white always while journalism, as Lippmann advocated it, tends toward a lot of grey.
Sam Shaw, writing in PR Week earlier this year, treated this as something new that the mavens of manipulation might need to take into consideration:
“….A number of high-profile publications are emphasising the importance of nuance, balance and detailed context. The FT (Financial Times) is now encouraging readers to see the world in ‘shades of grey’ and promises to contrast the ‘black and white’ perspective given by others.
“Going ‘grey’ may reflect an ongoing shift in what people want from their news.”
Grey might be something of a shift these days, but it’s certainly not new. Grey was the color suggested by Lippmann who saw news, like science, as part of an ever-changing world of conclusions based on constant discoveries of new information.
Journalism is like science in that regard, and one of the concrete facts of science is that a good bit of what scientists know today is likely to be proven in some way wrong tomorrow. This phenomenon is now studied in the field of scientometrics or what is sometimes called bibliometrics.
“Half of the Facts You Know Are Probably Wrong,” headlined Reason magazine above Ronald Bailey’s review of Samuel Arbesman’s book about “The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date.”
“Since scientific knowledge is still growing by a factor of ten every 50 years, it should not be surprising that lots of facts people learned in school and universities have been overturned and are now out of date,” Bailey wrote below.
Lippmann advocated for a media that recognized this reality. His goal was noble. He never could have guessed it would lead journalism into a world where journalism held little value.
Before Lippmann and a handful of others came along around the time of World War I and after, American journalism was driven by partisan interests and had been for a long time.
Journalism had value then because its backers had ideas they wanted to sell. Lippmann pretty much took it all for propaganda or worse.
“The work of reporters has thus become confused with the work of preachers, revivalists, prophets and agitators,” he wrote. “The current theory of American newspaperdom is that an abstraction like the truth and a grace like fairness must be sacrificed whenever anyone thinks the necessities of civilization require the sacrifice.”
Over the years that followed the 1920 publication of Lippmann’s ideas, as journalism ever so slowly became more a profession and less of a trade, his concept of objectivity spread in large part because it was co-opted by business interests that saw the marketing potential in what Fox News would one day take to the extreme with the slogan “fair and balanced.”
Objectivity, or the claim to it, was good business. What better way to secure customers than to convince them they could save money by buying one newspaper guaranteed to provide a fair account of what is going on in the community instead of as being forced to buy two or three competing newspapers and compare their stories to get an accurate picture?
As the combined interests of journalists and publishers moved newspapers away from their partisan roots, newspapers also began to disappear. If publications could be counted on to provide the facts – and just the facts – nobody needed more than one.
The results were predictable. More and more cities became one newspaper towns. The trend was troubling enough that Congress approved “The Newspaper Preservation Act of 1970,” which waived anti-trust laws to allow newspapers to form joint-operating agreements to share printing, advertising and other business costs.
The act was good, at least temporarily, for a handful of major media companies.
“Today, many of the 12 existing JOAs involve Fortune 500 companies such as Gannett and Knight Ridder,” Daniel Gross wrote in Slate way back in 2003 before Knight Ridder was sold to The McClatchy Company. “In essence, these giant corporations are permitted to fix advertising and subscription rates in a way that two competing plumbers, or restaurants, or magazines never could. The theory is that it’s so important to have competing newspapers that it’s worth junking the free market to do it.”
In reality, all the JOAs were doing was mimicking what all the monopoly operations then established in one newspaper towns were already doing.
Advertising and subscription rates unrestrained by competition made newspapers hugely profitable businesses for a time. In 1985, profit margins for papers with publicly traded stock averaged 20.2 percent, and some privately owned newspaper companies were thought to be making up to 30 percent per year profits.
Almost none of that money stemmed from the journalism. Newspapers got rich by becoming a cheap way for businesses to reach potential customers even as advertising rates went up. Despite the higher rates, there remained no more economical way for advertisers to put their sales pitch in front of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people in major U.S. cities.
Journalism became the filler around the ads. Journalists, who have a bad tendency to stuff themselves with self-importance, did continue to try to do “important” stories, and there were still things written that led politicians or others to lament that “you only wrote that story to sell newspapers.”
But, by and large, most people weren’t buying newspapers for the journalism. Yes, there were exceptions. A good story could sometimes increase so-called “street sales” from sidewalk newspaper boxes or stores, but by and large the business model was built on delivering papers to people in hopes they would look at the ads and buy things.
And because people weren’t specifically buying newspapers for the writing, as most had in the early days of the country’s cantankerous press, journalism ceased to have much in the way of value. The problem was only compounded by the growth of radio and then TV – both of which gave away their news with no sort of charge whatsoever.
And that’s where we are today.
You’re reading this for free because if it weren’t free you probably wouldn’t be reading it. Why would you? There is a ton of information available here on the internet and the vast majority of it is free.
It’s easy to move on if you hit a pay wall, or you can manuever around many of them by simply using a private browser.
And when it comes to breaking news, the news most often read, you can always find someone covering it for free. Always. The CNN coverage might not be as quite good as that of the New York Times (then again it might), but it doesn’t matter all that much.
On breaking news, FOX, CNN, NYT, CBS, ABC, ETC., all pretty much look the same. One might be faster than the other. One might find better sources. But, at the end of the day, they’re all pretty much the same.
Analysis, commentary, and interpretative news, is a different matter. But who in these times really wants to pay for a reasonable, unbiased look at Medicaid in the U.S. or state taxes in Alaska – subjects smothered in various shades of gray?
We’re in a new age of partisanship where many, maybe most, would prefer to read commentary from someone they agree with or someone they think they agree with. Some are even willing pay for that sort of thing.
As Richard Kim, executive editor of The Nation magazine told Columbia Journalism Review, the Nation’s readers are “not just trying to get access to content. They want us to exist. They see themselves as contributing to a cause.”
““We’re a niche publication,” Kim said. “We do this high-level political analysis. We don’t write movie reviews or anything,”
The magazine/website also has 30,000 “Nation Associates” who make donations over and above the cost of an annual subscription. The Nation is among the growing number of news entities in some ways throwbacks to the days before Lippmann helped begin a revolution in journalism that might now be on its death-bed.
There are good reasons to believe the past with its partisan journalism might be the American future.
Wash, rinse, spin
“The standards of objective journalism Lippmann painstakingly advocated in the early 20th century, and which were adopted as ideal goals by major news organisations in mid-century, have long since been traduced, trampled, and trashed,” writes Sidney Blumenthal at Open Democracy.
“The journalistic world before the Vietnam war was, to be sure, hardly a golden age. The pliability of much of the national press in the face of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting smear campaigns occurred in the middle of those happy days. Golden ages glitter only in retrospect as viewed from the junkyard of the present. Nonetheless, there has been a steady degeneration of the press over the past few decades, involving both the wilful self-destruction of hard-won credibility and the rationalisation of dull incomprehension as invulnerable self-importance. The gap between Lippmann’s ideals and present realities is one of the major reasons why Liberty and the News remains so pertinent – and so troubling – nearly ninety years after its publication.”
Blumenthal, a former aide to President Bill Clinton and a long time confidant of Hillary Clinton, is no saint. He tried to help the Clintons smear young Monica Lewinsky as a “stalker,” something Blumenthal’s one-time friend, Hitchens, pointed out in Vanity Fair.
But Blumenthal is in many ways right about today’s media, as Hitchens only underlined in that article calling Blumenthal out for his attack on Lewinsky. Journalism, whether journalists want to admit it or not, has engaged in the “wilful destruction of hard-won credibility.”
Or at least that is the view of American news consumers, which is all that really matters. They don’t trust journalism anymore. And who is going to spend money on a product she or he doesn’t trust? Would you buy a new car that might or might not start in the morning?
What has happened to journalistic credibility is clear in the polling by the Pew Research Center for Journalism & Media. Less than 27 percent of Americans now say they have a “lot of trust” in their local media, and the number falls to 20 percent for national news organizations.
Most troubling is that the numbers are generally lowest for voters who identify as independents, although only 11 percent of Republicans these days report “a lot of trust” in national news organizations. Trust among Democrats, meanwhile, has grown from 27 to 34 percent on the national front as organizations such as the Washington Post pound away at the idea that a Russian conspiracy put President Donald Trump in office.
“Partisan gap in trust of national media widens” is how Pew summarized the situation with three times as many Democrats as Republicans expressing a lot of trust in national news organization.
Financially, what Republicans see as partisanship and Democrats as truth-telling (see the journalism of Revolutionary America) has been a boon for some.
Both the Post and the New York Times have seen what Bloomberg and others have called a “Trump Bump” in online subscriptions, although smaller newspapers have missed out. It appears Trump stories have value at a national level to publications with generally liberal audiences, but the value doesn’t trickle down.
“The rest of the U.S. newspaper industry, reeling for two decades, is still searching for a sustainable business model,” wrote Bloomberg’s Gerry Smith. “Newspapers are on pace to lose about 15 percent of their print advertising revenue this year, a similar number to last year, according to Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute.”
These losses should come as no surprise to anyone. Journalism, even journalism done badly, is a labor-intensive business. And labor, even cheap labor, is expensive. Attempts to turn journalism over to robots have run into myriad problems. A news robot at the Los Angeles Times this summer mistakenly reported a 1925 earthquake as news.
Good journalism depends a lot on that interaction of knowledge and experience former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (a one-time sports reporter) likes to call “common sense,” even though it’s not common as the robots well illustrate. As robots move into the world of artificial intelligence (AI), programmers are finding common sense, this seemingly simple human characteristic, a very difficult thing to define.
Publishers might dream of a newsroom full of easily managed robots that never whine, complain or, God forbid, worry about ethics and morality, but that world appears a long way off.
So instead, Smith reported, “publishers large and small are banding together to seek a greater share of the ad dollars flowing to Google and Facebook Inc. The News Media Alliance, which represents 2,000 news organizations in the U.S. and Canada, is proposing a law that would allow publishers to coordinate their negotiating efforts with the pair without violating antitrust restrictions.”
Whether the publishers can sell Congress on that idea remains to be seen. There are now an estimated 30 million bloggers in the U.S. How many of them enable Google AdSense, as this page does, is unknown. But back in 2013 Google trumpeted how “Over 2 Million Publishers Earned More Than $7 Billion Last Year.”
How many of those folks Google could or would mobilize to oppose the News Media Alliance plan is anyone’s guess. Most websites, this one included, barely make enough for beer money off Google ads, and financially successfully bloggers say the ads are actually counter productive.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Google AdSense users won’t rise up to oppose a greater share of dollars flowing to mainstream new organizations, or that Google won’t try to mobilize such an uprising.
And it’s the same for Facebook, where some have created sites they are trying to turn into the citizen newspapers of the future. Journalism might appear to be struggling along in intensive care these days, but there are an ever-increasing number of people who seem to want to be citizen journalists.
What this means for the future is unclear. The rules under which citizen journalists operate are undefined. The credibility of many is yet to be determined. The product they create trends more toward commentary which is easy, than reporting, which is time-consuming and sometimes difficult.
But forget all those things because the real problem comes back simply to value, and whether credibility is worthing anyting.
Credibility is not something achieved overnight; it is the product of years in the market place. That’s what makes it a shame mainstream media haven’t done more to vigilantly protect theirs. Publications like the Alaska Dispatch News/Anchorage Daily News spent decades building credibility only to let it wither when it could be the most valuable product going forward.
There are no givens in this brave new world. Talk to the people in radio, television or newspapers Outside Alaska and you quickly discover everyone is worried about younger readers abandoning traditional news altogether in favor of social media, and taking the advertisers who want their spending along with them.
Maybe that is the future of news. Maybe it is destined to become a bunch of volunteers talking at each other online without anyone really fact-checking anything in the hopes that out of the cloud of discussion the facts will somehow emerge eventually.
They might. Then again, they probably won’t. It’s hard to say for sure.
But one thing is clear, unless someone finds a way to soon give that old, Lippmannesque journalism some value – or journalists change the way they operate to bring costs down to what online advertising can support – many of those following the Lippmann model of trying to make facts “quickly and steadily available” are doomed to go the way of the cave painters.
News consumers are seeing this in Alaska where the Alaska Dispatch News/ADN.com just shed about a third of its newsroom as the newspaper’s new owners try to get costs in line with revenues. This is not unique.
Newspaper jobs have decreased 60 percent since 1990, falling from nearly 458,000 to a mere 183,000 in March 2016, according to Roy Greenslade of the The Guardian.
“Other traditional publishing industries, such as books and magazines, have also shed jobs, but only gradually and far less dramatically than in newspapers,” he added. There is a reason. Books and magazine still have value, but it is fading as the internet encroaches everywhere.
And it is hard to create value in words on the internet.