No News Would Be Bad News

Thinking about the latest State of the News Media report. 

June 28, 2016

There’s a new State of the News Media report out (finally!) and, while I’m used to celebrating its arrival in March, it’s always worth waiting for – not because the news is good, it’s not. But it’s a way of checking up on an industry that matters. I know that trashing the media is all the rage, but I am an incurable romantic when it comes to the value of good reporting and the values that underlie it.

The recession isn’t over for newspapers, my news source of choice. Though newsrooms aren’t hemorrhaging jobs quite as drastically as past years, things aren’t good. There are 33,000 reporters and editors at work now – 20,000 fewer than there were merely two decades ago. Cable and network news is doing  better financially, though (I would argue) not in terms of actual news value. Wall-to-wall hyperactive election coverage for months and months, particularly when one candidate is a professional television personality, brings in advertising and viewers, though it makes me want to finally cut the cord, just as nuisance campaign calls led to us ditching our landline years ago. I’m not alone. The report suggests that cords are being cut more frequently, particularly by young viewers, so television news is soon going to be facing the very challenges that newspapers have been wrestling with for years. How do you pay for news gathering  when the way you paid the bills and delivered the goods no longer works? And why, when the industry is so troubled, do we keep seeing so much consolidation? Newspapers must be worth something if speculators keep buying them – or is it just the kind of peculiar speculation that made so many folks rich through bundling and reselling the debt on desperate people’s homes?  

The Sunday New York Times comes to my door the old-fashioned way, with a thump, and the digital version comes to my phone, but it’s far from my main news source. A huge percentage of the news stories I read – even those published by the Times – come to me through my Twitter connections. (I don’t use Facebook, but it’s another major site for people’s news habits, and so important to news organizations that they have cut deals to publish inside Facebook, even though they cede some control and have to share ad revenue.) It’s a little mysterious to me why I prefer the folks who I follow to be my news editors, but my habits suggest that I do. It’s partly professional connections – a story that a fellow librarian or academic finds interesting may also fall into my range of interests – but I’ve also chosen certain reporters to follow because they cover beats I care about. Since I follow folks in a number of countries, I get more world coverage than I can get from the Times (though, admittedly, my Twitter feed is biased toward English-speaking nations, so Britain, Canada, and Australia loom disproportionately large). An even stronger motivation to read while on Twitter: when I see a story that I think is important, I want to share it. It’s one of the small frustrations that mars the pleasure of lazily reading the Sunday paper: the frequent urge to share a story when tapping the paper doesn’t make it happen.

I also find some non-traditional news sites are reliably worth reading, even though nothing they write arrives at anyone’s doorstep with a thump. ProPublica (which often collaborates with news organizations that thump, but was born online), The Intercept, even BuzzFeed and Vice which have a lot of silly clickbait but also some excellent reporters – does anyone cover tech law better than Sarah Jeong? And then there’s – ahem – an upstart higher ed publication that gives the venerable Chronicle a run for its money without charging subscriptions or producing a thumping big paper edition.

There’s a real challenge in paying for reporting, especially when you have a past to live up to. Print advertising still pays the bills for many newspapers but the number of print readers is declining, and digital advertising requires sharing smaller profits with ad auctioneers, Facebook, Google, and other intermediaries. Those not-very-profitable online ads are also driving the audience increasingly toward ad blockers to safeguard their privacy and their computer’s security because ads are not only annoying, they gather personal information and sometimes inject dangerous malicious code. We’re increasingly seeing news platforms demand either you disable your ad blocker or pay for access to get around the problem, but it’s not a long-term solution.

There are some parallels with scholarly and scientific publishing. Legacy practices ran on a revenue model that is no longer working, and finding one that works is proving tricky. Readers are getting increasingly used to finding articles online, but prestige still comes attached to publications that at least look as if they were printed. Discovery is harder in a crowded marketplace, which is increasingly crowded because people are publishing more. We’re all terribly reliant on third parties whose business model depends on the misuse of personal data, a model that could implode with serious implications. Both readers and authors expect the freedom to share – it’s a critical part of the discovery process today as well as a means of measuring impact - and that can be made difficult with subscription barriers, required sign-ups, or intrusive ads – especially as increasingly, we’re reading articles on our phones. And then there’s that puzzling tendency for media consolidation, with a few companies more interested in profitability than product getting bigger and more powerful, though probably not too big to fail.    

Is there any good news? Sometimes I wonder if anyone cares. Watching the contempt for factuality that led Boris Johnson to lie in very large letters on a big red bus and then try to remove the lie from the web once the Brexit referendum went his way, listening to adults suggest that fact-checking is an elitist practice, knowing that the public’s favorability rating for the press is only slightly higher than for our two leading but widely unpopular presidential candidates, all of them facing historically low levels of trust, not to mention little understanding of the value of academic research and widespread belief that scientific findings have a liberal bias – I wonder if seeking the truth and publishing it matters. But I have to believe it does. We need to figure out new ways to fund it since our publishing opportunities, discovery practices, and reading preferences have changed.

Hey, if Pew Research can conduct and publish the research that underlies the annual State of the New Media report (and so much more – my Twitter stream and my newspaper often tell me about new research they have released), what can I be but hopeful?   

And by the way, speaking of news challenges – Knight has just funded some interesting ones being worked on in libraries. Check it out.  


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