Who do you trust for news?
If we accept that the old model of journalism is dead – one where advertising funded the most-respected news outlets supplemented by low-cost subscriptions – we can begin to rebuild what is needed to sustain a modern free press.
In the past few years, we have seen a wave of high-net-worth individuals step in to buy cash-strapped, venerable news brands (The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Time Magazine.) Add to this that the entire industry has transformed to digital, which means print is competing for eyeballs alongside CNN, Facebook, and Fox. Noting that these giants are publicly-traded-multi-nationals mandated by shareholders to maximize profit. On the same landscape, politically funded propaganda platforms have emerged. We can look to right–wing businessman Bob Mercer’s funding of Breitbart and the Sinclair family’s roll-up of local TV stations that now fall under Sinclair Broadcasting who demands their stations tilt right. The result is a deluge of content snarled together on small devices.
Society is left sifting through infotainment, marketing, and propaganda for actual news. As of late, these venerable print brands have been working hard to hold firm as stalwarts in journalism. Now owned by incredibly wealthy individuals who also own major commercial consumer brands such as The Red Sox, Amazon, and Apple - does this matter? As print brands take a sigh of relief for a savior in these flush patrons, some are working hard to build up their digital subscription base after the decimation in print. Time will tell if these private-owners value journalism over their commercial interests. The hope is that somehow they have been schooled in the value of a free press and that their business acumen will turn around a troubled industry without compromising truth. In desperation, we assume a benevolent dictator. However, if the owner has a mission that usurps society's well being this will have been a terrible experiment.
We must also accept that in this new reality – with Square Space, Constant Contact, MailChimp, and Facebook – anyone can publish and disseminate information and stories to shape a conversation, and connect a society. With a front row seat to this phenomenon, bootstrapping TheEditorial as both publisher and journalist, I have been privy to both innovation and responsibility of a news property. Many times during our now 125 interviews I have had to push back to the interviewee's desire to edit their content, relentlessly explaining that what's recorded is what's printed and move on. On the record is on the record. I have learned the value of standing up to power and distinctly remember how I felt the time I folded. And if that is true on a small scale, we must ask how we protect the tenets of journalism in this new landscape, where philanthropists and wealth are crafting both old media and new media? These tenets include: offering a wide range of information sourced for people to digest and decipher, independently, rather than presented by the news outlet as opinion. They include a pursuit of truth, a pursuit of holding those in power accountable, and recognizing and addressing bias.
With constant digital amusements, the new luxury product is the truth. Who can we trust most to bring this to us? And when you trust these journalists and brands, it would ensure independence if you pay for it.
Readers are beginning to pay for facts funding both investigative news as well as stories of progress through paid subscription. Most Americans do not pay for news and, instead, consume the deluge of random content available to them. For me, this is problematic, and some leading news veterans are focused on finding a solution. The New York Times now offers free subscriptions to over 1.3 million high school students thanks to donations, and I recently began working with DailyChatter, an international daily newsletter focusing exclusively on important global issues. While they use a paid subscription model, they are also focused on bringing college students high-quality international news as a public service. This distinction for our youth, between news and infotainment, is imperative.
We are making progress. In 2017, we saw a meteoric rise of digital subscriptions for more significant players. The New York Times now has 2.5 million digital-only subscriptions bringing in revenue of $86 million, and The Washington Post doubled its digital-only subscribers in the past year now surpassing the one million mark. Local brands like The Boston Globe reported 90,000 digital subscribers and The LA Times at 105,000 digital-only – a 100% increase from 2015.
This is good news for journalism. Americans voted with their wallets. With that momentum, we have seen an increasing focus on big investigative reporting with journalists like NYT Jodi Kantor breaking the Harvey Weinstein story and opening the floodgates for the #Metoo movement and niche beats like The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold who consistently explores President Trump’s businesses and conflicts of interests. That is literally his beat. These illustrate the power of investigative reporting, and in this, we see how journalism impacts our society. I would argue The Washington Post has risen as the most unbiased, respected digital print daily this year with Marty Baron at its helm. And yet, if you add up the subscribers of The New York Times and The Washington Post you are still only at 3.5 million readers in a nation of 322 million. Hello? That’s one percent of our country. With local papers dying, that is a lot of Americans that we must hope are listening to NPR or reading The Atlantic and The National Review. We are at a crisis point for quality news consumption in this country, and I would argue it deeply affects our social well-being and progress.
So here is my question for 2018:
How do we as a society elevate both emerging and old news brands we have come to trust? How do we encourage more Americans to desire them and pay for journalism?
*It requires both the reader and the media-owner take responsibility for this shift.
The reader must ask: How do we elevate news brands, large and small, that we trust and how much should we pay for those properties, which deliver truth regardless of their audience? How do we reward owners of large news organizations and small newsletters alike, who are growing unbiased news outlets that serve society for public good? How do we value good journalism?
And we must ask the media-owner: How do they ensure they are willing to allow their newsrooms to cover their own corporate interests and people critically? If simultaneously we have billionaires funding politically motivated news, how do these owners who believe in a free press show a clear distinction from the self-interest owners who have a mission? Ethical owners who believe in journalism and its vitality for a robust, intelligent and competitive society must work hard to show this distinction and illustrate their removal of influence from the newsroom.
The entire situation is a clear argument for publicly funded media such as NPR and PBS, but let’s be honest; this is America where we are steeped in capitalism. Commercial media will always be possible and exist. This can fund new technologies, push progress and keep an industry vibrant.
I urge you in 2018 to stay in conversation with your community, family, and friends in other parts of the country and ask them: Where do you get your news? Do you know who owns the site, newsletter or YouTube channel? Do you trust the owner? Do you trust the journalist covering the story? Do you trust the person sending you this news? The trusted voice can come in the shape of a tiny newsletter much like your friend who makes craft beer, or it can come from a venerable brand like The Atlantic long covering stories of national significance. Demand Trust. Demand it from the owner to the reporter, who in these digital startup times may be one in the same as they grow. Be critical in both your thinking and feedback to these newsmakers. Get involved to protect what you value.
I wouldn’t buy chicken from someone I don’t trust. Yet, I would buy chicken from the small craft farmer I’ve come to know who follows the tenets of poultry farming and who has earned my respect, and I would continue to buy from a national grocery store who has long held high standards and who has a venerable reputation to lose.
In 2018, I encourage you to demand journalism. It is you, the consumer, who will shift the tide. At this moment, content is no longer king – It is the paying reader, who rules. For a society without a free press is a lost society. Protect it, help fund it, become an investor and demand you get your money’s worth of trust.
Happy New Year! May 2018 bring us all peace, hope, and progress,