There has been plenty of talk lately about Silicon Valley abandoning the news business.
That’s largely true, but it doesn’t get to an even deeper problem: the utter erosion of public confidence in the media, which stems from a long history of self-inflicted wounds, high-profile errors and unmistakable bias.
What’s more, there have been so many missed opportunities. When the Internet became a thing, newspapers put up bland versions of their print products. When social media became dominant, media outlets essentially gave away their content for the sugar high of increased traffic instead of creating their own interactive networks.
The newer iterations – TikTok and YouTube influencers – are now stealing some of their market share, so this blame game isn’t convincing. The mainstream media, which once monopolized the industry, have blown it.
As Charlie Warzel put in the Atlantic: “Readers are breaking up with traditional news.”
The song says breaking up is hard to do, but not so much for millions who are fed up with the press.
“Consuming news might always have exacted an emotional toll, but by 2020, the experience of picking through the wreckage of social media to find out about the world was particularly awful,” Warzel wrote. “It’s telling that during the darkest days of the coronavirus pandemic, the very act of reading the news was rebranded as ‘doomscrolling,’ and people have long called Twitter a ‘hellsite.’ It is no wonder, then, that people — and platforms — started opting out of news. The experience was miserable.”
’Tis true, and the news lately – in this time of brutal war and antisemitism – has been especially depressing.
Though I think a key missing factor here is Donald Trump. During his tumultuous presidency, circulation, clicks and ratings shot up for all news outlets. People who didn’t usually follow politics were riveted by the controversy and chaos.
It was inevitable, and Trump used to predict this, that these numbers would plunge once he gave way to the low-key presidency of Joe Biden.
Warzel does touch on this in terms of social media, writing that Trump’s “every utterance conjured up the kind of divisive engagement perfectly tailored to trend across platforms.” Fair enough, but even if you strip away social media, it’s news companies themselves that enjoyed a boom during the Trump years, whether they were playing to a pro-Trump or anti-Trump audience.
That brings me to a second, equally important point about the former president.
Republicans have long had less faith in the press than Democrats, but that exploded from 2017 through 2020. From the media’s hostility toward Trump during his first campaign to acting like the opposition party when he was in the White House, and intensifying after Jan. 6 and his subsequent indictments, the blatant bias against Trump was overwhelming.
Of course, he deserved some of the negative press, but most of the media began a virtual crusade against him.
And third, Trump’s “enemy of the people” attacks on the media, and individual journalists, helped cement the narrative that the press was part of the deep state, constantly trying to undermine him.
His supporters, who generally despise the media, relished these attacks as reinforcing their world view.
None of this lets the news business itself off the hook, though. Beyond its other problems, the industry is still viewed by many people as stuffy and formal despite the loosening of its tone, and often consumed with inside baseball.
That’s why the legacy media are being outflanked by younger and hipper talents. We first saw this with Joe Rogan’s enormous popularity. China-owned Tik Tok, with its killer algorithms, is a prime source of news for many younger folks.
The so-called influencers are opinionated, unpredictable and funny – and drawing sizable audiences. If they turn news “coverage” into entertainment, so be it.
Now I could get on my high horse and proclaim that many of these sources get their facts wrong. That virtually all original reporting comes from the likes of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, with their vast newsrooms, and the networks, and what these others do isn’t journalism at all.
Doesn’t matter. They’re putting up the numbers. People like what they’re selling.
And that is reducing the once-mighty clout of mainstream media.
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