It’s prediction season, as indicated in one of this month’s other posts. Surveys, predictions, prognostications are all churned out, for better or worse, factual or fantastic.
But we all can see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears the major challenges for the world of media. Moving into 2023, there are at least three existential issues:
- The media’s role in democracy.
- The issue of sustainability.
- Where the media might fit in still-emerging technologies like AI
An annual report published in December by the NiemanLab, a unit of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, touches on these three topics and much more. The 85-year-old foundation administers the oldest fellowship program for journalists. More than 1,300 journalists from 88 countries have received Nieman Fellowships and spent a year of study Harvard University.
One overarching theme in the report: News outlets will need to adapt on nearly a constant basis if the intend to survive, much less thrive.
Over the last several decades, and probably much longer, media has had a trust problem. It’s just that today, technology has amplified the issue and distributed it literally to millions of people. In modern times, the right side of the political spectrum has long suspected that the mainstream media was biased in favor of policies, positions and programs favored by the left side of that same spectrum. This has little actual basis in fact—bias notably varies by brand and by journalist.
As difficult as that suspicion has been, it’s been supercharged in the last three decades with the rise of 24-hour cable TV, in the last 18 years with the emergence of social media, and in the last seven years, it’s reached a fever pitch. During that time, there’s been a virtual flood of disinformation, misinformation, fake news and unreliable news outlets.
The elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 was a milestone. That doctrine held that broadcasters had to devote time to issues of public interest, and to cover them in a way that presented both sides. A decade after the FCC’s elimination of the doctrine, Fox News pioneered a politics-as-ratings-entertainment approach, with an exaggerated skew to the right. Later, MSNBC emerged as a counterpart for the left.
Then websites that masqueraded as news organizations but actually were disinformation purveyors emerged for segments of the political spectrum. The 2016 election, and the flood of fake news stories on social media, particularly Facebook, saw the extent to which new technologies can pollute the public discourse.
Regrettably, social media remains completely unregulated today, with the platforms having no responsibility for what is posted on their networks—dreck, lies, threats and otherwise.
The effect has been extreme polarization of the society.
The challenge is that a democracy needs a free and reliable media ecosystem. It probably couldn’t survive without a press holding politicians to account, without an informed citizenry, without a basic consensus on what defines truth.
Somewhat related to the threat to democracy is the issue of sustainability. For newspapers, it’s nothing less than a collapse of the business model. All throughout the United States, newspapers are dying, starved of their advertising lifeblood as marketers move to social media channels and Google. Thousands of small papers have gone out of business in the last decade, creating vast “news deserts.” Those that survive are often reduced to shells of their former selves, “ghost papers,” unable to perform the basic functions of community media—City Hall coverage, state government coverage, police and other municipal agency coverage, not to mention enterprise work that informs and enlightens readers.
The social networks come up with programs they say are designed to support local news, but it’s almost certainly lip service, and in any case, ineffective. What’s needed is for social media to pay content producers—newspapers—for the stories that get posted to their platforms. It’s a concept just like royalties paid for music, publishing, and other forms of content.
This year may also be a media turning point, as technologies like AI slowly work their way into the mainstream. Some news organizations have experimented in recent years with using AI for low-level functions like copyediting and news briefs. But disruption may be here. Organizations, probably led by the major national and international brands, will need to understand how to employ technologies like AI for all kinds of purposes—story ideas, story research, curation and aggregation.