“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.” –Thomas Jefferson, 1787
You don’t have to be a critic of the news media to bemoan the decline in breadth and quality of news reporting in recent years. But unless you understand how and why the news business got to this point you’re mainly just bitching. Sure, news organizations have to figure out their challenges. But each of us has a role to play as well. That begins with understanding how we – you, us, the news media – got here in the first place. That can help us figure out we can get where we need and want to be.
You probably have heard the basics before – declining ad revenues, social media, shifting demographics, etc., etc. But it began before Facebook and other social media even started.
Flip It Upside Down
We all know that the internet fundamentally changed how information is distributed and shared. But it also profoundly changed how we thought about and consumed information, including the news.
The internet was “democratizing” information bringing news and factual content to many more people far more rapidly than the old circulation methods. It would be also be free or cheap so the public could be more readily and better informed. That was the idea anyway.
But a few people, including Kate Watts1 at Chime Communications (my former employer) in London, saw something bigger happening. In 2003 Watts published a paper1 that foresaw nothing short of a complete flipping of how everyone receives and processes information.
Deference vs. Reference
Watts wrote that through most of modern history, information flowed from authoritative sources to the man on the street, as from the top of a pyramid to its base. In this “Age of Deference,” the public trusted distant government and other authoritative sources more than say, their next-door neighbors, co-workers or strangers. National mass market broadcast networks and publications also were a credible unifying force that created shared experiences and a baseline of facts. Forces including the Vietnam War, the social unrest of the 60s and the Watergate scandal started the shift, but the internet really propelled it.
Now in the “Age of Reference” the pyramid is flipped. In a form of information populism, we’re far more likely to seek out and believe people closer and similar to ourselves. We downplay or discredit information that challenges what we believe we know. With less trust in traditional news sources the unifying force of national media declines as we create or find many more sources to replace them. Our measure of quality and credibility tends to have more to do with what supports our worldviews vs. how the world may actually be.
Facebook was founded in 2004 and rapidly became a driver of this change. Blogs, podcast and the social media also joined this vicious circle. Not only did media outlets experience a drop in ad revenues, the “free” internet model increasingly eroded news media revenue. News organizations were very slow to adapt and had to cut staff and distribution. The quality, depth and reach of the product suffered. Readers continued to bail. And yes, the media, like the rest of us, make mistakes.
OK, So Now What?
New organizations are still adapting. So are we as news users. If we can better understand how all of us got to this point we can start to make some informed choices. That includes recognizing how our use of social media affects us – if we allow it too. It means being willing to deliberately break out of our news bubbles and to seek out more and different reliable news sources that may or may not agree with our views. It means stepping away the facile partisan labels of “conservative” or “liberal” and trying to obtain as much factual information as possible. Finally, it means supporting the news sources we use through subscriptions, direct access to their sites to bypass the social media siphoning of ad revenue and direct, constructive questions and feedback.
There are no simple solutions. But each of us can go well beyond bitching and engaging with information beyond “likes” or “shares.”
Our democracy depends on it.
Kate Watts, Admap, September 2003, Issue 442, pp. 31-34