Is the Media Doomed? – POLITICO

Is the Media Doomed? - POLITICO

News Descends Further into Entertainment

Colbert I. King

Colbert I. King is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with the Washington Post.

It’s hard enough figuring out with any certainty just how the media landscape will look a few months from now, let alone 15 years down the road. But if the current trajectory is any indication, we, the news media, are on the way to becoming a mainstay in the entertainment industry. As with showbiz, Hollywood and purveyors of theatrical entertainment, the news media has slipped into overdrive to come up with ways in which to make ourselves more interesting to read and watch. And we are doing it because we confront the same fate as Broadway, the circus and the concert stage: without public engagement, we, like them, are nothing.

Meeting that challenge to grow readership and viewership, to draw more and more visits to our news websites, to engage and retain traffic, in order to keep the lights on and pay the bills is causing us, and here is where it hurts, to become less conveyors of the news — presenting to the maximum extent possible, unbiased and reliable reports — and more hucksters and peddlers who are selling and promoting selective products to draw the consuming public to our side.

For more than 30 years, I have been engaged in advocacy journalism as an editorial writer, and as a columnist. I have spent these years working for the Washington Post, an independent, commercial publication that aims to produce objective journalism. I am not a disinterested observer. I am paid to say what I think. I promote ideas and causes, and criticize those I dislike, hopefully with compelling arguments for and against both.

But some time ago, the wall in journalism separating advocacy from objectivity was breached. Today, as we speak, the “who, what, where and when” of storytelling with an added mixture of “how and why,” has given way to outright selling of carefully tailored tales designed to appeal to targeted audiences, told by opinionated reporters untethered to facts.

Over the next 15 years, this transforming media with new pleasurable bells and whistles, is likely to experience commercial success in the world of entertainment — but, I fear, with truth and trust as collateral damages.

Coming Out of the Dark Ages

Eli Pariser

Eli Pariser is the author of “The Filter Bubble” and co-directs New_ Public, an incubator for public digital spaces.

We are well into an age of media fracture, and in the coming years that trend will only accelerate. The information-rich will get information-richer, but those without the appetite or funds to access gated digital communities will inhabit a vast wasteland of viral lies, propaganda and conflict. Our attention will be pulled magnetically toward nationalized conflict and viral upheavals that most people can’t influence, furthering a sense of powerlessness and alienation.

But by 2037, thanks to a new generation of visionary public entrepreneurs, we will have emerged from this dark media age into a more integrated and human-scale media landscape.

Today, we’re seeing the first sprouts of this growing movement. Local, nonprofit journalism is beginning its post-crash renaissance: Report for America, which places journalists in local papers around the country, is growing enormously, as is LION, a kind of guild for small local news startups. Social science research demonstrates how critical local media is to the health of democracies, not just because it keeps people informed, but because it provides a domain of influence most people can access and successfully engage in — which in turn strengthens trust and faith in democracy itself.

Alongside this local journalistic renaissance, a new group of digital community entrepreneurs, including my team at New_ Public, are beginning to ask how to do for community building what these groups are doing for content: How might we make public digital spaces that serve people, pluralism, democracy and social cohesion, rather than advertisers and venture capitalists?

The idea that we can scale new kinds of public-service social institutions in a mere 15 years may seem fanciful, but it’s a move Americans have made again and again throughout our history during periods of social stress and fracture. When industrialization came, we invented public parks. When a new middle class was born, we invented libraries and public high schools and colleges. Now, as public conversation moves to the digital age, we can invent the public institutions that will make it constructive.

We already know how to make context-full, flourishing public spaces, because we’ve done it before in the physical world. Our media need not be dystopian if we start building a better digital future now.

Local News Thrives or Dies

Kristen Hare

Kristen Hare works for the Poynter Institute, where she covers local news and teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to adapt to the changing media landscape.

Here’s the best-case scenario: By 2037, we won’t just have a renaissance of local news, we’ll have a reformation. The coronavirus pandemic accelerated layoffs and closures. And it will help inspire a new generation of local news entrepreneurs who stop trying to make the newspaper a product of the internet and start serving communities and audiences wherever they are. Locally-owned newsrooms will open around the country in Black, Latino, Indigenous and immigrant communities that rarely get covered or considered. There will be a vibrant network of local newsrooms covering climate change and rural communities. And the legacy newsrooms that survived it all, including corporate ownership, will finally stop chasing clicks, scale and Facebook and put their energy into helping people understand where they live.

Here’s the worst-case scenario: By 2037, the only newspapers still in production will be national. The space locally owned newsrooms occupied will be mostly taken over by national networks of partisan sites that make it hard for people to know where their news is coming from and easy to get riled up about the “others.” National newsrooms will set up bureaus in cities around the country, but that work won’t connect locally.

In the first, the effect on our public life isn’t just renewed watchdog reporting of local institutions, but community journalism that reminds people what we have in common. In the second, we’re more divided than ever. Both predictions are me at my optimistic and pessimistic best, and we’re already seeing signs that both are possible — look at the 70-plus newsrooms that launched during the pandemic. And look at the spread of pink slime news sites.

Whether we get to the first or the second scenario depends on how a lot of people and institutions value local news and who makes it, from citizens to philanthropies to local institutions to the federal government to national news itself.

A Journalism for Citizenship

David Folkenflik

David Folkenflik is the media correspondent for NPR News and the author of “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires.”

It’s a fool’s game to predict anything with any confidence.

So let’s look at what seems likely, and what’s possible.

By 2037, the media landscape will no doubt accelerate trends we’ve already witnessed: strong national brands triumph by catering to elite, monied and older Americans. Private investors have picked apart local papers and sold them for scrap. Local TV stations are nationalized, offering centralized coverage with local segments focusing on dystopian weather events and hyped criminal incidents.

News otherwise splits into ever-more granular appeals, serving business interests and niche obsessions. Social media news feeds give way to news snacks, hot takes to nuclear waste. Ideology smothers news coverage. Public officials seek to hold the press at a distance when they’re not actively discrediting it.

Someone reading a legacy magazine in print effectively attends an event, planned, prepared, ticketed, as rare as a night at the opera.

All this sharpens divisions even more fiercely. Sinkholes in coverage become yawning canyons, while well-heeled communities draw plentiful local news; for-profits chase global cosmopolitan readers on a national and global scale, while not-for-profits scour desperately for enough to scrape by until the next economic crisis.

And yet.

Nothing is foreordained. And languid resignation just feels tiresome. A generation of journalists and news entrepreneurs have surfaced who do not recall a time in which local news outlets ensured vast wealth. Many approach the industry with creativity and zeal.

A look back at the early 2020s reminds us of determined innovators: Insightful owners emerged in Boston, Charleston, S.C., Los Angeles, Minneapolis and elsewhere to reshape local news outlets, establishing them as both viable and vital.

Civic leaders in Baltimore, Chicago, Memphis, Oakland and Long Beach, among other cities, made big bets of equity or sweat equity — or both — to cover the texture of local life in ways that were recognized by the people who lived there.

Authoritative new sites surfaced with rigorous reporting on specific fields, such as education, criminal justice, public health and other subjects that do not typically pump up clicks or subscriptions.

Relying on a crazy quilt of disparate financial models, more sites must arise to cover topics of climate, democracy, alienation, addiction, you name it — together offering a patchwork system of news.

Taken together these news sources would knit people together as part of larger communities, not just as interest groups or psychographics to be pitched. They would build a journalism that treats people as citizens and neighbors, not just consumers. They would journalism worth sustaining for another 15 years — and beyond.

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