As The US Press Withers, Glorified Marketing Aims To Take Its Place
from the not-helping dept
More than 16,000 journalists and editors were laid off last year, a tally that excludes broader media jobs and freelancers. While COVID certainly played a role (read: advertisers not wanting the brands to appear in ads next to stories telling people the truth about a pandemic), the layoffs were part of a broader trend in which the unprofitable business of delivering the factual reality (usually) continues to wither on the vine.
Mindless media consolidation has created vast news deserts where local news of any quality literally no longer exist. Incompetent but wealthy new media CEOs, free from anything vaguely resembling accountability, fire their entire newsrooms on a dime at the slightest hint of unionization, a threat that wouldn’t be so pronounced if we’d managed to pay reporters a living wage. The US press feels broken, a consensus on how to fix it remains elusive, and bad ideas seem to outnumber good ones by a wide margin.
Into that vacuum has stumbled all manner of terrible beasts, ranging from phony “pink slime” local news, a steady parade of foreign and domestic propaganda artists, and consolidated broadcasters for which truth is a distant afterthought. Just this week, OAN, a “news” channel found on most mainstream cable lineups and pumped into millions of American homes, not only trumpeted the bogus election “audit” in Arizona, it was happily fundraising off of it with zero repercussions whatsoever:
“What?s more, one of those reporters, Christina Bobb, is the network?s most visible correspondent covering the very ?audit? that she is helping scare up money for on OAN?s airwaves, while she and the network enjoy unique access to the process where private contractors and volunteers are searching for fraud and have examined ballots for nonexistent watermarks and ?bamboo fibers.? OAN has a deal as the exclusive livestream partner for the audit.”
At the same time, wealthy individuals and organizations also have an eye on using their vast fortunes to reshape the news industry in their interests. Silicon Valley venture capital giants like a16z have begun building their own news empires to counter what they believe are overly critical media narratives (aka the truth about things like environmental harms, unfair labor practices, and anti-competitive shenanigans). And this week, cryptocurrency giant Coinbase announced it too would be building a new media arm. With a notable caveat:
“Unlike a typical newsroom, that person would report into Coinbase’s marketing team.”
Granted it’s not entirely impossible Coinbase could build a quality news operation, though past efforts like this traditionally haven’t gone that well. Without an adequate firewall between marketing and news, you wind up with bungled experiments like Verizon’s short-lived Sugarstring news venture, which quickly collapsed after the journalists they hired were banned from writing about issues Verizon clearly had a stake in (most notably, surveillance and net neutrality).
Not too surprisingly, Coinbase’s jump into news was met with the sort of skepticism you’d expect:
"Unlike a typical newsroom, that person would report into Coinbase's marketing team."
Ok. So not a media arm, a corporate propaganda arm. https://t.co/hPoxB5YOqi
— Aram Zucker-Scharff (@Chronotope) May 19, 2021
No offense to anyone but this is just content marketing https://t.co/Vpz48FjQaT
— Taylor Lorenz (@TaylorLorenz) May 19, 2021
I spent much of February talking to as many media scholars as I could for a piece on how we fix the country’s news and disinformation crisis, and found there’s still nothing even close to a consensus on how to proceed. There’s not even a real sense among many academics that there’s a serious problem taking root. Policy and legislative solutions, many admittedly terrible (fairness doctrine 2.0!), will never survive free speech concerns or a rightward-lurching court system. There’s some scattered suggestions (forcing a la carte cable to reduce revenue to dodgy channels like OAN, require more transparency in ads), but nothing that comes close to comprehensive.
That leaves finding ways to creatively-fund and amplify trustworthy news outlets, something that’s not really happening at any scale either. Often, it feels like we’ve found creative ways to fund everything but journalism. White supremacist chat rooms? Check. Hot tub influencers? Sure! Meme-based joke cryptocurrencies? Why not! Gamers watching gamers watching gamers? Of course! Ridiculously speculative blockchain-based art? Yep! Journalism, a purported cornerstone of democracy? Meh. Education? Whatevs.
Instead, the journalism industry seems content to pat itself on the back for reinventing the newsletter for the umpteenth time, as genuine journalism and expertise slowly gets swallowed in a sea of COVID-denying influencers, bullshit-artists, billionaire ego projects, trolling Substack opinion writers, timid “view from nowhere” journalism, and just rank political and corporate disinformation. There’s surely a path out from the current US information apocalypse, but it’s anything but obvious what it looks like at the moment.