In Macalester’s media and cultural studies program, Michael Griffin teaches courses on?the history and analysis of film and photography, media representation, media and culture/society, media institutions, journalism, and community media. We asked him?about the past, present, and future of news in the United States—and what that means for media consumers today.
What should we know about media history?
Many current concerns about the news can be traced back to long-term changes that began as early as the 1960s and accelerated in the 1980s, when media companies were bought by large conglomerates and chains, and increasing media concentration became a progressively larger problem.
In the middle of the 20th century, television network leadership believed that providing news was a public service. News wasn’t expected to make money for national broadcasters. During that time CBS, for example, built up a high-quality news division, with distinguished journalists such as Edward R. Murrow opposing McCarthyism and Walter Cronkite, who became “the most trusted man in America,” anchoring a highly respected nightly news broadcast watched by tens of millions. CBS also created foreign news bureaus around the world to inform the American public about international issues. It was referred to as the “Tiffany Network,” alluding to the perceived high quality of CBS programming during the tenure of CEO William S. Paley. Network news was something that great numbers of Americans relied upon and could share; it gave them a common set of facts upon which they could have discussions and debates.
In 1986 CBS was bought by Loews Corp., then mainly a hotel and movie theater company headed by Larry Tisch. By the 1980s and 1990s these types of acquisitions were happening across the media industry, CBS and Tisch being just one example. Whenever a big entertainment company or conglomerate came in, the news divisions had to answer to shareholders and improve the bottom line. For the first time, there was an expectation that the news divisions had to make money, just like the entertainment divisions. And a major way to improve the profitability of the news was to cut costs. At CBS, cuts included the foreign bureaus, documentary division, and enormous numbers of people in the newsroom. This was an erosion of the concept and standards of quality news, and it happened precipitously in the 1980s and 1990s.
Then what happened?
At the same time, market segmentation was increasing. As advertisers began to analyze large amounts of demographic data, they were able to target their products and advertising more precisely than ever before. Everything shifted to target marketing, and that means the national audience got sliced and diced. That happened first with magazines: the demise of the national general interest magazines—Collier’s, Life, Saturday Evening Post—and the proliferation of thousands of little special interest magazines hyper-targeted to specific audiences.
Right after that came cable television. Instead of three channels (ABC, CBS, and NBC) dividing up a big, diversified national audience, cable TV came along and targeted narrow niche audiences. Instead of spending big money to reach a mass audience, advertisers could spend less money and reach the narrow demographics they were really seeking. The ad money moved away from the big networks, and the emphasis for news companies changed. News became just another commodity.
How did cable TV change news?
Cable television’s new 24-hour news cycle brought major changes. It meant newsrooms didn’t have longer periods of time to prepare content, check it, edit it, vet it, and then present it to audiences. Reporters were pressured to go straight to air with current events and any new information that was presented to them. That began to result in rushed and incomplete reports, inaccuracy, distortion, and misleading material.
If you believe the polls, there’s now a real lack of trust in the media among the public. Some polls show that more than half of Americans don’t trust the media to tell them the truth. But this distrust isn’t something that only began in the last election cycle. This trust has been eroding slowly and steadily for 30 or 40 years. And it is going to take a long time to build up again.
How does target marketing change what we see online?
As a product of these targeted audiences, silos emerged. Silos create echo chambers, which characterized developments on television even before the web began to have a big impact. As the web opened access to the internet for a large number of people beginning in the late 1990s, it accelerated these echo chambers.
Everything about the way the web works—and the algorithms that track the patterns of your internet activity—reinforces the idea that there’s a feedback loop that constantly redirects us toward what we’re already interested in. It’s a natural human quality to want your already-held opinions and perceptions about the world reinforced. The web specifically caters to that tendency. It creates patterns in which we only tend to look at—or even get access to—information that confirms our already-held positions.
And all of that matches up beautifully with the niche marketing and target marketing that’s been going on for 50 years. What better information could advertisers get about your tendencies, tastes, interests, hobbies, and consumption patterns than what you’re doing on the web? This tells advertisers almost perfectly what they want to know about you, and it solidifies the silos that are already in place. This has gotten worse as more and more people are on the web, more and more of the time. And it means that the traditional media continue to lose ad dollars. (Now we see that legislation has just passed the House of Representatives to allow internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon to sell records of our internet activities to businesses and advertisers.)
What has that meant for newspapers?
In the early 2000s, newspapers weren’t experiencing a significant readership dropoff yet, but they were starting to lose advertising money. Before the rise of the Web, if you lived in Minneapolis and you were looking for a used car, you’d go to the Star Tribune classifieds section, the paper’s single biggest revenue source prior to the 2000s. When the web became more accessible, sites like Craigslist or Cars.com were more efficient resources. Who would still pore over the classifieds when you could just do a quick search online?
That was the first really serious blow to the traditional news media. When their ad and classified revenues dropped, the only recourse in their view at the time was to cut costs. By 2005–06, this was leading to massive layoffs in the newsroom. The newspapers became smaller, with fewer printed pages and less content. And then, not surprisingly, people weren’t as interested in subscribing. A death spiral for newspapers began to develop.
Did moving news online work?
When people tried to move newspapers to the web, they found out immediately that the print advertising mostly did not follow them online. As the newspapers were spiraling down, there simply was not the same number of reporters and editors doing serious journalism. There were blogs on the web, where lots of people were writing opinionated commentary, and aggregation sites that were recycling existing stories from other publications. But the amount of original reporting nationwide just began to diminish tremendously. Reliable quality news reporting, as opposed to content re-purposing and commentary, was no longer being supported in the same way by commercial, ad-supported news media institutions.
Because of this, there’s no longer a model that most citizens in our country share for standards that news should meet. We’re getting more and more of our news online, and more and more of that news—in Facebook feeds and web browsing—is suspect in terms of its status as news. When someone on Facebook sends me a story, the first thing I do is see where it’s from. If it’s from someplace I’ve never heard of, then red flags go up for me right away, and I check to see what that organization is. But most people do not have a working frame of reference for distinguishing different types of news sources.
How is online news different from traditional news?
There’s not very much new original reporting on the web anymore, unless you go to the traditional news sites that are still run by traditional, respectable newspapers. We have fewer paid reporters than we did 15 years ago, and you’re not going to get the same kind of coverage if you have vastly fewer people doing the work. But websites still have to fill up their spaces with content—so what do they fill it up with if they don’t have verifiable original reporting? You see a decrease in actual news and an increase in opinion, commentary, and blogging, not to mention the vast quantities of frivolous entertainment-oriented content and click-bait.
In the online environment where information comes as a steady linear stream, where it’s not divided up with a front page, an opinion page, and different specialized news sections (that prioritize news information according to prominence, urgency, civic importance, or local, national, and international orientation), it’s all just mixed together. It’s a relatively undifferentiated wash of stories and information. As a result, more and more young people don’t have a clear notion of the distinction between something that’s a news article and something that’s just an opinion piece. It’s all just “the next thing on the page” because they’ve grown up being online.
What does that mean for a news consumer?
We don’t just sit back and watch the evening news and believe Walter Cronkite when he says, “And that’s the way it is,” or pick up a daily newspaper feeling as though its editors will sort and summarize for us the important news we need to know about that day. We can’t, or don’t, do that anymore—and that’s the challenge. Most people are so busy, with so many demands on them, that they don’t have the time to carefully evaluate news sources. Most citizens today don’t make carefully considered judgments about the sources they will routinely rely upon for sound information. They are more or less at the mercy of floods of content directed at them through algorithmic marketing mechanisms. Just look at the home page of any internet log-on page.
What about paying for news online?
The biggest crisis for journalism right now is this financial model for paying reporters to do serious reporting. Who’s going to pay for the news? People are increasingly unwilling to pay subscription fees because they think they can go online and get everything for free. The news organizations that have managed to weather these changes are places like The New York Times, which took a stand and created a paywall to require subscriptions. At first, that seemed very risky. But it ended up working out okay for them, because they provide the kind of quality and in-depth news reporting that New York Times readers want and are willing to pay for. And now they’ve got a revenue stream of subscription money—and that means they don’t depend entirely on advertising money.
What can a news consumer do to support journalism?
Identify reliable, respectable sources—and then support those organizations as your primary sources of news and information. Subscribe or donate money if you can. If you don’t have resources to donate, just go back to that source as a primary information source to support them with your readership, viewing, listening or online clicks. It doesn’t mean those organizations are always correct and never biased—but they should conform to a set of stated standards. You know what their mission and motivations are, how they do their work, and you can hold them accountable.
That’s what we have to look for as consumers. If you think the Financial Times of London is an honest, respectable source that isn’t trying to fool you, read the Financial Times every day. If you find National Public Radio to be a good anchor that’s doing its newswork in an honest way, then listen to NPR every day and send in a check for 20 bucks. Help support them, so they can keep doing what they’re doing.
Can news organizations thrive in this climate?
The Washington Post, another good information source, used to suffer from the same diminished ad revenues and bleak financial models that have plagued so many other newspapers. Any news organization that’s owned by publicly owned companies (those that trade on Wall Street) is always trying to satisfying shareholders. They always have to think about short-term profits: how are we doing this quarter? At The Washington Post, Amazon owner Jeff Bezos swooped in to buy the paper a couple of years ago and has stabilized its finances. Bezos basically said, “I think newspapers are really important, and I think The Washington Post is one of the jewels of our journalism system, so I’m going to buy it and run it as a private company that’s no longer at the mercy of Wall Street. I’ll keep the same editorial staff and the same reporters in place, and I’m going to let them do their job.”
Since Bezos purchased them, we’ve seen The Washington Post become a much more aggressive news organization, because they’re independently owned and they have a new kind of freedom. Note: they’re not owned by Amazon—they’re owned by Jeff Bezos, a private citizen and businessperson interested in supporting independent news sources. I’m all in favor of these kinds of purchases.
How are news organizations responding to recent attacks on the media?
Just as some have said that Donald Trump’s election has inspired people to get out and be more active politically, the attacks on the press’s credibility are awakening activism in support of good sources of news—and awakening a resolve in news organizations themselves to try to uphold the ideals on which they were founded. When The Washington Post puts on its masthead “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” they’re stiffening their resolve against the attacks and saying they’re going to stand up for honest, accurate, and transparent journalism. The New York Times, with its traditional slogan, “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” has shown a similar resolve. The attacks could have an inadvertently positive impact over the long term. But it’s up to people to support these organizations.
We’re at a real turning point in media history. We’re going to find out in the next 10 years whether viable, respectable, and honest news sources are going to survive. There’s reason for hope in what’s happening out there. But there are lots of uphill battles to be fought, and we’re fighting against the trend of history. It’s not going to be easy.