Discover more from THE FIREBREAK
A Mass Media Memorial
The long, slow death of mainstream media
When I studied journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada in the early 1980s, our faculty was slow to adapt. The second class I attended that first week was the compulsory course on shorthand writing. I trusted my tape recorder more and PCs were just coming onto the market, but journalists then were proud of their traditions, so I learnt just enough to get my course credit.
I was disheartened to see an activism emerging in the journalism faculty then that went beyond the remit of training the next generation on how to report, question and inform. At that time, the J&J Tylenol poisoning crisis was dominating the news. I felt that journalists needed to report responsibly, not terrify the public (and definitely not amplify it to the point that any malcontents were given license to try to extort from their local supermarkets … which happened in Ottawa). The narrative in the journalism school was that it was up to the media and these little Jimmy Olsens to catch the killer and save the world.
I decided then that a career in the media was not in my future, a decision I am grateful to have made. Since the early 80s, the mainstream media has seen a steady decline from being the “fourth estate” to something akin to an activist NGO paid to push ink.
Fast-forward to the late-2000s, when, as a communications professor, I was teaching a course on social media to a visiting journalism faculty. Given the challenges facing the mainstream media, my main lesson to them was that they would have to become entrepreneurs to survive.
Now we no longer seriously train press journalists. It is a dead profession. … But who killed it?
The easy answer (excuse) is that the Internet killed the mainstream media, but I think the publishers did most of the heavy lifting on its own demise.
The Internet did indeed challenge the economic model of most media organizations. In the early 80s, news organizations from small-town newspapers to large, national groups had relied on three income strands: subscriptions, advertising, and want-ads. From the early 2000s, Internet sites started providing quality news reporting for free, ad-spend slowly moved online and want-ads migrated to sites like Craigslist and eHarmony. The TV news media revenue model is also downshifting as streaming and post-baby-boomer viewing habits take over.
Quality and content suffered as staff reductions led to more generalists and fewer specialists (with most newsgroups no longer having dedicated experts on their science and health desks). Meanwhile the Internet provided specialized websites with immediate access to information and open dialogue. Social media created communities where consumers could share and comment on the news.
But the news organizations’ editors destroyed the trust these groups needed to survive the transitions. While seeking to be objective, newspapers have always had their editorial slant and political views. But what the Internet (and later, social media) did was isolate their consumers into echo-chambers and with a narrow, focused readership, that editorial slant became a clear (alienating) bias. As demographics shifted, and millennials and GenZ were no longer consuming mainstream news, budgets shrank even more, and the quality of the reporters diminished further.
Not every media suffered the same fate. Business News is still thriving (relying on the Boomer demographic) as is Sports News. But every year, more journalistic icons leave the scene or scale back to a shadow of their former selves. Even among the demographics still consuming news, the attempts at new business models have failed. Subscriber-based online access has not been successful. Online ads don’t generate sufficient revenue and often alienate readers. Relying on billionaires, from Bloomberg to Bezos, can provide some security but these business leaders can only consider such charitable contributions for so long. Another model is needed.
As news organizations were serving a narrowing audience of likeminded readership, they started to use their followers to run campaigns that were politically appreciated by their base. In other words, many mainstream media outlets were taking a page from activist NGOs with their news (and journalists) becoming agenda-driven. So their business model shifted to accepting campaign donations and large grants from foundations with special interests.
Cameron English wrote a piece on how the Associated Press has been receiving millions from groups like the Walton Foundation to write articles on climate change. He cited how The Guardian takes money from animal rights advocates to attack agriculture. Foundations now donate to large news groups the same as they do to activist NGOs.
So mainstream media is in a bind. They cannot survive on the old economic model. Very few are subscribing or advertising online. They are forced to become pay-to-play campaign sites built on the NGO funding model. Meanwhile, public trust continues to dissipate. Perhaps their last option for survival is for media groups to receive government funding.
A curious lexicon twist happens here though. When we disagree with the politics of a certain regime, we demean it as “state-funded” media (in other words, a propaganda source like Russia Today). When it is our own government, the media in question refer to it as “publicly-funded”. Those in the BBC or CBC think there is a difference here and argue that they can therefore be trusted. But the Twitter spat raised the point: there must be a reason why governments continue to pay the rent.
The future of an independent, objective, trusted mainstream media is looking grim. At a time when information is everywhere, filtered by our algorithms, I wonder what could possibly replace it.