Fourth Estate is on the ropes. Can it be saved?


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President Donald Trump is at war with the media. And the media is at war with him. It’s a daily barrage of back and forths, with accusations of lies and fake news.

Has the Fourth Estate lost its focus? Has it become personal? Has the media abandoned its role as the Fourth Estate, the unofficial fourth branch of government empowered to hold officials and institutions accountable for their actions?

Following the inauguration, while the topics have changed, the war between the media and Trump continues to escalate. And the public’s trust in the mainstream media remains at historic lows.

But it’s bigger than that. The media, especially print, has been on a downward spiral for a decade with no end in sight.

And it got worse when the ongoing decline accelerated last fall. Print-advertising revenues, still newspapers’ main income source, sunk to levels not seen since the economy’s Panic of ’08.

The print ad drops ranged between 14 percent and 18 percent for News Corp., The New York Times, Gannett Co., Inc., and other major companies. And that necessitated immediate cuts at The Times, News Corp.’s Wall Street Journal and Gannett newspapers nationwide. 

They didn’t only cut jobs; they cut or consolidated full sections of newspapers to save costs. And with less staff to cover news, newspapers are being filled with huge and multiple photographs, and long puff pieces.

In fact, the New York Times this month announced an aggressive push toward “visual journalism.” And by using more and bigger “visuals,” editor Dean Baquet said: “Let’s not be coy… The changes will lead to fewer editors at The Times.”

Fewer editors because there are fewer stories to edit.

But this trend is bigger than the major national newspapers. In just the first few days of 2017, from Seattle to Albany, NY, daily newspapers are announcing they’re cutting news staff even more and reducing space for news.

While they are cutting news and charging more for their product, you get canned, homogenized news coverage.

In the weeks and months ahead, more newspaper companies will not only announce further staff cuts, many daily newspapers will reduce publication frequency. And alternative digital-news operations will continue to grow.

But will they have enough reporters to uphold the Fourth Estate?

TRENDPOST: One significant aspect of the Fourth Estate’s demise is that on local and regional levels, there are virtually no reporters left. The traditional role of local newspapers – which were connected to their communities and knew their priorities – was to report on the local impact of important actions. As big policy decisions are made by heads of state and industry, that reporting won’t take place. It will be sorely missed. No one’s left to mind the store.

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