How will traditional media outlets that hold on to ideal of “objective” reporting adapt to ever-changing digital world?

Kyle Gunnels writes for Medium:

Many industries have faced challenges due to the effects of the internet and social media. However, a new survey of 169 journalists at 25 prominent US media outlets indicates this digital environment has had an outsized impact on the traditional business model of the news industry.

Conversations about current and continued threats to journalism center on a decline in public trust of news and repeated attacks on media credibility. But, when asked what they believed to be the biggest immediate threat facing journalism today, about 40% of journalists cited financial issues brought on by the industry’s ad-driven business model, with one pointedly responding, “The failing business model of news”.

An advertising-dependent funding model worked for decades as Americans relied on a limited number of outlets to obtain a common diet of news — a time when national outlets were for the most part respected and local outlets flourished. But as the adoption of new technologies spawned different ways to consume and share news, most traditional outlets did not adequately recognize the threat of this new media ecosystem. In the early days of expanded access to the internet many offered all content online for free, which ultimately undermined attempts to monetize access to content well after the realities of this digital shift occurred.

Newspapers especially have been hit hard — in 2015 alone, overall newspaper ad revenue fell 8% from the previous year. To cope with these large reductions in traditional revenue, media outlets have experimented with new revenue streams, shifted to online-only formats, laid off large numbers of journalists, and, in some instances, gone out of business completely.

On the whole, industry attempts to make up revenue losses by turning to online advertising have not brought success, as advertisers show a preference to spend budgets on non-news websites. Online giants such as Facebook and Google overwhelmingly dominate the US digital ad market, which just surpassed $100 billion in 2018.

One journalist highlighted this new reality of competing with other entities for limited online advertising budgets, calling out “Facebook, but in a business sense” as the biggest threat to journalism. With fewer journalists employed, one respondent observed, “The print journalism financial crisis [has left] most outlets relying on too few reporters and editors to get the full story.”

Chasing Clicks

This new digital environment where traditional outlets compete with non-news sites for dollars has led to a “pressing financial need to get clicks”, as one journalist called it. Outlets seem to at times prioritize sensationalized stories, elevate bombastic voices, or rush to cover non-newsworthy issues that drive increased traffic. The critical journalist continued, “digital outlets are fighting for money — and part of the approach is quantity of material over quality in order to maximize reach”.

Journalists are well aware of this growing emphasis on content that attracts clicks, with one saying:

I believe it is lack of funding, which leads to an obsession with driving traffic for ad revenue, that drives editors to guide their reporters into writing articles that are more sensational than they need to be.

More than 57% percent of journalists strongly agreed or agreed that mainstream media today places too high of a value on stories that receive clicks and drive traffic rather than focusing on more important issues.

This reliance on web traffic and clicks was lamented by several journalists, with one saying the current economy of the news business has led to “perceived incentives to tell readers what they want, rather than entice them with news or views that they find surprising or new, because journalism remains click and advertising driven.” One journalist mentioned the “near-immediate deadlines of online journalism — the need to produce a story extremely quickly — is the reason why many articles provide little to no substantive thought to most issues;” and another still noted a “need for immediacy, to break the news, versus doing the same in a timely manner while maintaining journalistic standards.”

Journalists struck a critical and solemn tone when sharing their concerns related to challenges already facing the industry, and attitudes about the industry’s future are even more pessimistic. As seen in the figure below, 74.8 percent of survey respondents strongly agreed or agreed that they are worried about the future of objective, unbiased journalism in the United States.

A handful of survey respondents attempted to identify ways to address the financial issues that have beleaguered the industry, all noting that online ads will never match traditional advertising from years ago. “The long story short is that the days of ad-supported media are waning. Media companies will need to find another way [to be profitable], because no matter how much clickbait they put on their site, it isn’t going to be like the old days,” said one.

Another suggested the solution to funding woes might be external parties investing in individual media outlets, stating, “I think the most likely salvation is very rich people who take an interest in journalism and find it a very satisfying way to spend their money. My paper, The Washington Post, is a prime example — Jeff Bezos is now our owner. There are other papers [that] have been similarly adopted by public-spirited folk who know there are not going to be big profits but want to help.”

However, these alternative funding sources are not without their own concerns — as the political beliefs and personal lives of wealthy owners and donors can be used as fuel for attacks against newsroom decisions, irrespective of their involvement in the editorial process.

Combined with targeted attacks from political elites to delegitimize traditional outlets as “fake news” or the “enemy of the people” and near-constant announcements of newsroom layoffs, the results of this survey cast a bleak outlook on the future of journalism in the United States. There is a near zero chance the public returns to a curated source of news centered on more mainstream outlets. Online partisan outlets will flourish, and traditional media outlets will continue to compete for clicks with sites such as Facebook that employ algorithms emphasizing clickbait.

The question, then, is how will traditional outlets that hold on to the ideal of “objective” reporting adapt to the ever-changing digital world? Some of this survey’s results might indicate the industry has already failed. But for the majority of journalists — and for those of us who believe in the importance of journalism based on truth and not clicks — it’s the only question that matters moving forward.

The journalists interviewed are from ABC News, The Associated Press, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, Bloomberg, The Boston Globe, CBS News, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Tribune, CNN, The Dallas Morning News, Forbes, Houston Chronicle, Los Angeles Times, The Mercury News, NBC News, Newsweek, National Public Radio, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Reuters, TIME, USA Today, US News & World Report, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post.