How We Are Going to Fund the New Free Press

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The Big Picture –
By Glynn Wilson

Do you wake up in the morning, make the coffee, crank up your computer and look at your Facebook news feed and ever feel confused about what’s really going on in the world? Don’t feel bad. You are not alone.

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New American Journal graphic by Evan Riddle

Rapid changes in technology over the past few years, coupled with the fast pace of important news about public affairs and a proliferation of “fake news” or “alt-facts” in the Trump era have a lot of people confused, including it seems even those whose job it is to write the editorials for the biggest and most important newspapers in the country.

Take this recent example from the Washington Post, now owned by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, no longer the Graham family: The most suspicious part of Trump’s presidency.

Let me summarize the key points and point out the problems.

Mr. Trump is still dismissing the Russia investigation as “a witch hunt” that Democrats are using to excuse their “big election loss.” He may be right that there was no active collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin; two former senior intelligence officials with no sympathy for the president have said publicly that they were aware of no evidence of collaboration. Democrats who speak as if such links have been proved are risking their own credibility.

The writers are talking about elected Democrats, not people who tend to vote for Democrats and follow the news on Facebook. But perhaps they should be included too. It is obvious from watching the posts of liberals and Democrats on Facebook — especially from women who voted for Hillary Clinton — that there is a consensus that Russian meddling in the election cost Clinton the election.

Just a few months back, before The Post set off the “fake news” craze with the story from November 24, 2016, that Russian propaganda effort helped spread ‘fake news’ during election, many people were criticizing the mainstream media for its role in handing the election to Trump with all the free publicity it gave him during the campaign.

Other critics were talking about Clinton’s lackluster campaign and Trump’s appeal with working class voters. The role of the Democratic National Committee in discriminating against Bernie Sanders in the primary were also discussed.

I ran a big column about all of this on December 12, 2016, under the headline: America Has Fallen and Can’t Get Up.

But in recent months, since Trump took office, the Russian hacking narrative has taken over, mainly because the story has been chased relentlessly by mainstream, elite newspapers and network and cable news outlets, who have used the story to regain their place on the Facebook news feed. They are not going to blame themselves, the media, for Trump. Nor are they going to blame the candidate they all endorsed. It serves their purpose to blame Russia and fake news.

Look at this paragraph from the same Washington Post editorial linked above.

It nevertheless should be undeniable, by now, that the regime of Vladi­mir Putin brazenly intervened in U.S. politics, including by hacking the Democratic National Committee and releasing stolen material through the WikiLeaks site; that it is still trying to disrupt the political system, including by sowing fake news and faux controversies on social media; and that it is attempting to disrupt elections in other Western democracies, including France and Germany. The top priority of the president and Congress should be to fully expose this hostile assault and develop means to counter it.

Instead, Mr. Trump appears to be doing his best to confuse the public about the facts and to prevent the truth from coming out. That, of course, is Russia’s agenda — and it is the strangest and most suspicious aspect of his presidency.

Trump deserves all the criticism he gets. But there is one fact amiss in this reporting that totally confuses the issues. Wikileaks has strenuously denied its source for the leaked emails was in any way connected to Russia, and provided proof that the source was a Clinton campaign insider in Washington, D.C. If the mainstream press in the U.S. is going to continue to get this story wrong, of course people watching Facebook are going to remain confused.

The New York Times acknowledges this confusion in a Sunday story under the headline: Confused by the Trump Surveillance Drama? Here’s a Timeline.

This is a useful bit of summarizing, but it ignores several key factors at work. The day before Trump’s diversionary tweet claiming former President Obama had him bugged in Trump Tower, we were all focused on another story, which has now all but disappeared as a direct result of that diversion: The fact that Trump’s pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions of Mobile, Alabama, had lied to Congress about his own communications with the Russians.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions Recuses Himself on Russian Investigations

Did the Times or the Post or MSNBC or anyone else point out the nature of this diversionary tactic? Or were we at the New American Journal the only news outfit to report on it?

This story should still be in play: Attorney General Jeff Sessions Exposed as a Partisan Hatchet Man.

But it’s not, because the MSM took the diversionary bait like a big catfish about to engulf a small shrimp only to see a juicy minnow swim by.

President Donald Trump may well be dangerous, but this guy may be even more dangerous as the top law enforcement officer in the land: Legal Complaint Filed Accusing Attorney General Jeff Sessions of Lying to Congress and Engaging in a Cover Up.

The State of American Journalism

There are lots of reports out showing the dramatic decline in print readership habits, the drop in advertising revenue for newspapers, the impact of social media on the economy for the traditional media and even a new scandal that threatens one big newspaper that was showing some signs of growth.

While Trump likes to accuse news outlets themselves of putting out “fake news,” including the New York Times which he likes to say is “failing,” the Times is now bragging on a bump in online subscriptions. But it is not clear from other reports that this will last for long.

According to this report from the Financial Times, the NYTimes added 276,000 net digital-only subscriptions in the final three months of 2016, “the best showing since it implemented its paywall in 2011.” In the weeks immediately following Mr Trump’s election in November, subscriptions increased tenfold compared with the previous year.

I would argue that the fake news story also drove many Facebook news junkies back to traditional news outlets like the Times and CBS News, which must account for some of this bump. But how did it affect the news economy and will it last?

“Digital success is not yet offsetting an industry-wide slump in print advertising, however,” according to the Financial Times, “and the company’s revenues and profit both declined in the quarter and for the full year.”

The Times, just like most brick and mortar legacy news companies, recorded a 9 per cent drop in advertising revenues over the year, driven by a 16 percent decrease in print.

“That offset growth in digital, which included a 6 percent rise in online ad sales and a 17 percent increase in digital subscription revenues,” the Financial Times reports. “The newspaper is still largely dependent on its high-margin print business, despite the strides it has made in digital.”

Digital subscription sales of $232.8 million in 2016 accounted for just over a quarter of total circulation revenues. Online ad revenues of $208.8 million accounted for 36 per cent of overall advertising sales.

As matter of disclosure here, I used to work for the New York Times, but have concluded that the Washington Post was doing a better job in many ways, until recently, when it has seemed to run off the rails with the unsubstantiated PropOrNot story.

Encouraged by some reports from The Guardian US, however, I thought perhaps there was a chance for another print newspaper to really help us out thanks to the web product. Not many people would ever have a chance to read The Guardian UK in print. But with the internet and Facebook it was possible to get this story out there: ’Gun for hire’: how Jeff Sessions used his prosecuting power to target Democrats.

Unfortunately, right after that story came out, the Guardian was weakened by a scandal which has still not fully been explained. A few news sites that keep up with media news reported on a scrapped plan to move into office space in Brooklyn managed by Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a move that lost the news organization $250,000 somehow and led to an announcement that it would result in a 20-30 percent reduction in staff in the U.S. It is still not clear what the owners were thinking by considering doing business with Kushner in the first place. To me it represents just another bad business decision by these news corporations, like Newhouse in Alabama and elsewhere.

Guardian Announces Cuts After $250,000 Kushner Lease Debacle

Is there any doubt that other scandals and a continuation in the decline of print readership and print advertising will continue to plague traditional publishers?

Remember, I am the former journalism professor who in the year 2000 predicted that the daily newspapers would mostly be gone by 2020. Studies since have backed up that timeline, but the crisis now is what to do about much of the readership coming from social media platforms, which are also sucking up much of the advertising revenue.

The Platform Press: How Silicon Valley reengineered journalism

Excerpts:

The influence of social media platforms and technology companies is having a greater effect on American journalism than even the shift from print to digital. There is a rapid takeover of traditional publishers’ roles by companies including Facebook, Snapchat, Google, and Twitter that shows no sign of slowing, and which raises serious questions over how the costs of journalism will be supported. These companies have evolved beyond their role as distribution channels, and now control what audiences see and who gets paid for their attention, and even what format and type of journalism flourishes.

The “fake news” revelations of the 2016 election have forced social platforms to take greater responsibility for publishing decisions. However, this is a distraction from the larger issue that the structure and the economics of social platforms incentivize the spread of low-quality content over high-quality material. Journalism with high civic value—journalism that investigates power, or reaches underserved and local communities—is discriminated against by a system that favors scale and shareability.

If news organizations are to remain autonomous entities in the future, there will have to be a reversal in information consumption trends and advertising expenditure or a significant transfer of wealth from technology companies and advertisers. Some publishers are seeing a “Trump Bump” with subscriptions and donations rising post-election, and there is evidence of renewed efforts of both large and niche publishers to build audiences and revenue streams away from the intermediary platform businesses. However, it is too soon to tell if this represents a systemic change rather than a cyclical ripple.

Conclusion:

Fake news, filter bubbles, the “post-truth society,” and the decline of trust in the media are dominating the public debate. All of those issues are proxies for the fundamental question of how our world of news and information has been upended by technological change.

There are other reports out there, if anyone is interested in all the numbers and details, such as: The State of the News Media 2016 from the Pew Research Center.

How Mercer Funded Brietbart News

But there is one other story out there we should be considering, and I say this is the most critical one. Perhaps the answer does not lie in web advertising or pay walls. If there is a real story out there now about “fake news” it is certainly about how Steve Bannon of Brietbart News received $11 million from conservative tech guru Robert Mercer and used that money and that outfit to drive fake news against Hillary Clinton and positive news about Trump not just on the web and social networking sites, but also on talk radio and cable news.

MEET ROBERT MERCER, THE MYSTERIOUS BILLIONAIRE BENEFACTOR OF BREITBART

Clearly this is a bad thing. But perhaps it teaches us something and we could use it to turn things back around toward real facts, not alt-facts.

I don’t think the mainstream print or broadcast media can do it. Like the editorial I cited in the beginning, newspapers are still so wrapped up in reporting “both sides” of issues “fairly” that they will continue to muddy the waters and create confusion.

One-sided partisan editorial blogs are also not the answer, even though they have had the attention of readers too in recent years as people gravitate to news and information and entertainment sources they agree with. You know all about the partisan divide.

It is going to take something else, which will mean a paradigm shift in how we think about news “objectivity.” I have been working this very thing for many years, and wrote about it my recent book: Jump On The Bus.

But it is this revelation that is new. Bannon did not get Trump elected by funding Breitbart News with web advertising from clicks or from a subscription paywall. He did it with one giant donation from a very wealthy individual who wanted to change the world, the political debate, to favor his conservative side of the argument.

How can we fund the mechanism to change the debate back — not just to the left, but to the facts? Surely there are concerned citizens out there with similar amounts of money to Mercer who might be persuaded to fund this new press. Historically, liberal or progressive publications have not done that well in the marketplace anyway. Many survive by being non-profit organizations and taking foundation money, such as Harper’s magazine.

What we need is not another so-called “liberal” or “progressive” blog or magazine. We need a news website committed to chasing the facts to the logical truth, no matter where that leads politically. This will require a fair amount of boring straight news reporting on a daily basis that is not going to go viral on social media. But the basic reporting has to be laid down before the commentary makes sense. This requires more resources than traditional subscriptions and advertising on the web are going to provide in the foreseeable future.

This is going to take the resources of people with hordes of money who are finally willing to fund a real free press in this country. If the fatal results of the Trump presidency do not convince people of this, I don’t know what will. The newspapers are cranking it out right now, thinking they are more important than ever, and maybe they are. But they will be gone soon. What will we do then?


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© 2017, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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