Robert G. Kaiser has some excellent, well-informed and insightful views about the status of American media. I appreciate his history of the news media over the past fifty years and I agree that the media has shifted from a more moderate presentation of facts to a more fragmented, biased presentation of facts and I think that is a problem. But because his mentality is still stuck in the old models of news media of the twentieth century, I think he fails to see the possibilities of the future of news media.
Kaiser writes of how the loss of advertising dollars substantially changed the budgets of newspapers around the country. He writes of how traditional news organizations financial well-being “depended” on advertisements because before the internet, news advertisements was an effective medium. The internet changed advertisement in a substantial way: instead of broad advertisements printed to a mass audience, internet companies now collect information on users and cater advertisement to users’ individual tastes. Essentially, companies like Facebook and Google have better advertising models than newspapers and the “classifieds” section, a place for substantial revenue for newspapers, was replaced by Craigslist. Newspapers around the US have taken a tremendous financial hit from this, most reducing their payrolls and some shutting their doors. For the newspapers that are still around, Kaiser writes, that the “…print media today are getting billions more than they probably deserve from advertisers who, governed by the inertia so common in human affairs, continue to buy space in publications that are steadily losing audience, especially among the young.” If they have not shut their doors yet, they will eventually.
Throughout the article, Kaiser bemoans the loss of news media as America once knew it: the large moderate news sources whose reporters presented the news as moderately as possible. Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather have been replaced by Bill O’ Reily and John Stewart, which Kaiser points out is a poor substitute because these modern news networks cater to their audiences with commentary on the news rather than original reporting. The result is an inaccurate and unfair portrayal of news rather than actual reporting of a news story. Kaiser describes the media as fragmenting by class, region, religious inclination, generation, ethnic identity, and political ideology. The implicit implication here is that Americans no longer listen to both sides and think deeply about issues: they just listen to echo chambers of their particular viewpoints.
Kaiser is correct that the loss of advertising dollars has resulted in the discontinuation of news media as we know it, and the result has been a huge deficit in news reporting. We cannot go back to the old ways and we cannot smash the internet like luddites to try and revert back to the old ways. Instead, we need to learn from these facts that we now have about news media and the changing nature about the way in which Americans consume their news. Perhaps Americans prefer the highly polemic echo chambers of Fox News and MSNBC (not to mention the infinite number of blogs out there), but like it or not: that is how the market has changed. But just as there are Americans who prefer to listen that drivel, there are others, like myself, who like a truly fair and balanced presentation of facts to form their own opinions.
I think the internet has made is possible for many of these organizations to thrive, particularly the small ones because their overhead can be small and their audience can be large. Hosting a website is a much different distribution model than newsprint, and its cost is much less. Journalists can now work from their homes and submit news articles remotely and news organizations do not have to pay for the upkeep of news buildings. In my home state, there are a few good local news sources that are online only including “CT Mirror” which Kaiser mentions in the article. They are good quality news sources without all the advertisements, and they do moderately well because their overheads are low.
Kaiser argues that we only get quality news media when there is a profit, “And if it doesn’t pay someone a profit, it’s not likely to be produced.” This can easily be disproven by the websites that he mentions in his article such as ProPublica and Scotusblog. Yes they are funded by wealthy donors at the moment, but there are many others out there like CT Mirror who do not have patrons. There are other larger organizations out there such as NPR that have figured out a hybridization of their old funding model with something news and have still made themselves appealing to younger audiences. Their financial models are crowd-funded and they will never be as large as The Washington Post in its hey-day, but it still provides excellent news.
We are already seeing a vast change in the way news media is presented to the public. It is vastly different than newspaper, which is quite a change because it dominated news media for over one hundred years! Now we are forced to change our news reporting model. We have a more fragmented news audience, yes, but we also have the opportunity to get reporting from any part of the world as quickly as possible. I think the first-hand accounts during the Arab Spring posted on Twitter are glimpses at a future of a more decentralized, instantaneous, and varied news media to come which has the potential to give us more facts to help inform us even more than news media has been able to in the past.